This is not an exhaustive list of bad thesis statements, but here're five kinds of problems I've seen most often. Notice that the last two, #4 and #5, are not necessarily incorrect or illegitimate thesis statements, but, rather, inappropriate for the purposes of this course. They may be useful forms for papers on different topics in other courses.
A thesis takes a position on an issue. It is different from a topic sentence in that a thesis statement is not neutral. It announces, in addition to the topic, the argument you want to make or the point you want to prove. This is your own opinion that you intend to back up. This is your reason and motivation for writing.
Bad Thesis 1
- : In his article Stanley Fish shows that we don't really have the right to free speech.
Bad Thesis 2: This paper will consider the advantages and disadvantages of certain restrictions on free speech.
Better Thesis 1: Stanley Fish's argument that free speech exists more as a political prize than as a legal reality ignores the fact that even as a political prize it still serves the social end of creating a general cultural atmosphere of tolerance that may ultimately promote free speech in our nation just as effectively as any binding law.
Better Thesis 2: Even though there may be considerable advantages to restricting hate speech, the possibility of chilling open dialogue on crucial racial issues is too great and too high a price to pay.
A thesis should be as specific as possible, and it should be tailored to reflect the scope of the paper. It is not possible, for instance, to write about the history of English literature in a 5 page paper. In addition to choosing simply a smaller topic, strategies to narrow a thesis include specifying a method or perspective or delineating certain limits.
Bad Thesis 1
- : There should be no restrictions on the 1st amendment.
Bad Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech.
Better Thesis 1: There should be no restrictions on the 1st amendment if those restrictions are intended merely to protect individuals from unspecified or otherwise unquantifiable or unverifiable "emotional distress."
Better Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech in cases of overtly racist or sexist language because our failure to address such abuses would effectively suggest that our society condones such ignorant and hateful views.
A thesis must be arguable. And in order for it to be arguable, it must present a view that someone might reasonably contest. Sometimes a thesis ultimately says, "we should be good," or "bad things are bad." Such thesis statements are tautological or so universally accepted that there is no need to prove the point.
Bad Thesis 1
- : Although we have the right to say what we want, we should avoid hurting other people's feelings.
Bad Thesis 2: There are always alternatives to using racist speech.
Better Thesis 1: If we can accept that emotional injuries can be just as painful as physical ones we should limit speech that may hurt people's feelings in ways similar to the way we limit speech that may lead directly to bodily harm.
Better Thesis 2: The "fighting words" exception to free speech is not legitimate because it wrongly considers speech as an action.
A good argumentative thesis provides not only a position on an issue, but also suggests the structure of the paper. The thesis should allow the reader to imagine and anticipate the flow of the paper, in which a sequence of points logically prove the essay's main assertion. A list essay provides no such structure, so that different points and paragraphs appear arbitrary with no logical connection to one another.
Bad Thesis 1
- : There are many reasons we need to limit hate speech.
Bad Thesis 2: None of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive.
Better Thesis 1: Among the many reasons we need to limit hate speech the most compelling ones all refer to our history of discrimination and prejudice, and it is, ultimately, for the purpose of trying to repair our troubled racial society that we need hate speech legislation.
Better Thesis 2: None of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive because they all base their points on the unverifiable and questionable assumption that the producers of pornography necessarily harbor ill will specifically to women.
In an other course this would not be at all unacceptable, and, in fact, possibly even desirable. But in this kind of course, a thesis statement that makes a factual claim that can be verified only with scientific, sociological, psychological or other kind of experimental evidence is not appropriate. You need to construct a thesis that you are prepared to prove using the tools you have available, without having to consult the world's leading expert on the issue to provide you with a definitive judgment.
Bad Thesis 1
- : Americans today are not prepared to give up on the concept of free speech.
Bad Thesis 2: Hate speech can cause emotional pain and suffering in victims just as intense as physical battery.
Better Thesis 1: Whether or not the cultural concept of free speech bears any relation to the reality of 1st amendment legislation and jurisprudence, its continuing social function as a promoter of tolerance and intellectual exchange trumps the call for politicization (according to Fish's agenda) of the term.
Better Thesis 2: The various arguments against the regulation of hate speech depend on the unspoken and unexamined assumption that emotional pain is either trivial.
The Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is that sentence or two in your text that contains the focus of your essay and tells your reader what the essay is going to be about. It provides a focus for your writing. Many writers think of a thesis statement as an umbrella: everything that you carry along in your essay has to fit under this umbrella, and if you try to take on packages that don’t fit, you will either have to get a bigger umbrella or something’s going to get wet.
The thesis statement is also a good test for the scope of your intent. The principle to remember is that when you try to do too much, you end up doing less or nothing at all. Can we write a good paper about problems in higher education in Canada? At best, such a paper would be vague and scattered in its approach. Can we write a good paper about problems in higher education in Ontario? Well, we’re getting there, but that’s still an awfully big topic, something we might be able to handle in a book or a Ph.D. dissertation, but certainly not in a paper meant for a Communication course. Can we write a paper about problems within the college system in Ontario? Now we’re narrowing down to something useful, but once we start writing such a paper, we would find that we’re leaving out so much information, so many ideas that even most casual brainstorming would produce, that we’re not accomplishing much. What if we wrote about the problem of colleges in Ontario being so close together geographically that they tend to duplicate programs unnecessarily and impinge on each other’s turf? Now we have a focus that we can probably write about in a few pages and it would have a good argumentative edge to it. To back up such a thesis statement would require a good deal of work, however, and we might be better off if we limited the discussion to an example of how two particular colleges tend to work in conflict with each other. It’s not a matter of being lazy; it’s a matter of limiting our discussion to the work that can be accomplished within a certain number of pages.
The thesis statement should remain flexible until the paper is actually finished. It ought to be one of the last things that we fuss with in the rewriting process. If we discover new information in the process of writing our paper that ought to be included in the thesis statement, then we’ll have to rewrite our thesis statement. On the other hand, if we discover that our paper has done adequate work but the thesis statement appears to include things that we haven’t actually addressed, then we need to limit that thesis statement. If the thesis statement is something that we needed prior approval for, changing it might require the permission of the instructor, but it is better to seek such permission than to write a paper that tries to do too much or claims to do less than it actually accomplishes.
The thesis statement usually appears near the beginning of a paper. It can be the first sentence of an essay, but that often feels like a simplistic, unexciting beginning. It more frequently appears at or near the end of the first paragraph. Here is the first paragraph of an essay on the reception of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Notice how everything drives the reader toward the thesis statement (bolded), and how the paragraph’s last sentence clearly signals what the rest of this essay is going to do.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in the mid-1980s to a strong but varied reception. Historically, the novel has been both phenomenally popular and phenomenally controversial: it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 23 weeks, and yet it also ranks on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s. This mixed reaction can be attributed, at least in part, to the relationship between the novel’s subject matter and the conservative political climate in which it was received. The Handmaid’s Tale chronicles a religious theocracy born of the radical right, and the novel functions as a caution against dangerous political trends and political apathy in contemporary society. Ironically, however, negative reception of The Handmaid’s Tale frequently does not undermine or disprove Atwood’s cautionary tale so much as reinforce it. This can be seen through an examination of three aspects of the book’s reception: first, an unenthusiastic response by male reviewers as compared to female reviewers, which resembles Atwood’s portrayal of a lack of male sympathy towards female plight; second, the objection by some critics that the book lacks credibility, which evokes the political apathy and passivity that allows the Republic of Gilead to flourish; and third, frequent censorship of the novel, which echoes the very measures taken by the Republic of Gilead to prevent a flow of knowledge and ideas.
The first paragraph serves as kind of a funnel opening to the essay which draws and invites readers into the discussion, which is then focused by the thesis statement before the work of the essay actually begins. You will discover that some writers will delay the articulation of the paper’s focus, its thesis, until the very end of the paper. That is possible if it is clear to thoughtful readers throughout the paper what the business of the essay truly is; frankly, it’s probably not a good idea for beginning writers.
When drafting a thesis statement, remember that it should:
- Be Clear: Avoid awkward or confusing words or structure so your reader knows precisely what you’re writing about
- Be Specific: Narrow your focus enough to fit the parameters of the assignment. Ask yourself whether you can realistically cover the topic in the number of pages you are tasked with writing.
- Be Parallel: Thesis statements typically put forth a series of points to be argued or supporting by the body of the essay. Make sure you present these points to the reader in parallel structure.
- Take a Stand: Most academic papers require you to argue a point or take a stand on a topic as opposed to simply reporting on it. Make sure your thesis statement clearly identifies your argument so the reader knows where you stand on the issue or topic.
BACK TO TOP
Things to Avoid
Avoid announcing the thesis statement as if it were a thesis statement. In other words, avoid using phrases such as “The purpose of this paper is . . . . ” or “In this paper, I will attempt to . . . .” Such phrases betray this paper to be the work of an amateur. If necessary, write the thesis statement that way the first time; it might help you determine, in fact, that this is your thesis statement. But when you rewrite your paper, eliminate the bald assertion that this is your thesis statement and write the statement itself without that annoying, unnecessary preface.
BACK TO TOP
BACK TO TOP