Friday, July 18, 2014

How to write almost anything Part 2: Getting to a thesis

        The key to any good paper is a good brainstorm.    I don't think most adults understand this.  I know that as a student, I rarely (okay-never) brainstormed my papers and generally I did just fine in high school.    Even in college, my brainstorms were really more like cursory outlines of a few sentences.  It worked fine on blue book exams, but for longer papers it wasn't that successful.   It wasn't until I was working on a museum exhibit after college that I learned the importance of brainstorming.  It was also here that I learned that I'd been thinking about  brainstorming all wrong.  And judging from the pre-made materials I've seen most people are making the same mistakes I did as a student.  So here is the secret to good brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a two-step process.

First you collect the information.  Then you organize it.  For years, I'd tried to collect and organize simultaneously.  That's hard and it doesn't work well.    So, break your brainstorming into two steps.

1.  Collect.  No piece of information is discarded at this point.  Write down everything you know, then go find more.  If it might be relevant put it down.  After you've exhausted all the possibilities, put the information away for a while.  Then come back to it and....

2.  Organize.  Generally you want to use categories of analysis to organize your information.  You can do this with a chart, a diagram, an idea map, a big piece of blank paper and colored markers, index cards, - really whatever you want that works.  Another important thing to remember here is that a piece of information can go into multiple places.  Let's say you are writing a paper on the origins of the US Civil War.  Something like the Bleeding Sumner episode might go under both differing ideas of masculinity in North and South" and the "failure of politics".  After you've organized into lots of categories pick your best four and see how they are related.  Is there one that seems to dominate the others, whose information keeps showing up everywhere?  Most of the time that's your thesis.  To see how this works, it's important to know what a good thesis.

A good thesis is:  Argumentative
                             Answers the question

Let's look at these individually.  A good thesis is:

Argumentative - as opposed to descriptive.  It takes a position that does more than tell the reader what happened, it seeks to prove something:  a cause, a relationship, significance, a role.

Clear - it's better to be smart than to sound smart.  Clear writing trumps convoluted writing any day.  Theses are no place for ten dollar words.

Overarching - This is a tough one for students.  (And we'll be talking about it more in later posts in the series).  Consider our question about "What caused the United States Civil War?"  Many students will default to "The Civil War was caused by economic, social, and political causes."  The problem is, that works for everything.  The past is complex and causation is always tied to multiple factors.  You could say the same thing about the American Revolution.  Or the New Deal.  You're hitting a checklist not making an argument.  And your essay will be a description of the causes not an argument about how they led to the Civil War.  Compare:  "The Civil War was caused by slavery."  It seems obvious, but that's actually pretty complex because you have to work through slavery in multiple categories of analysis.  For example:  "Slavery led to different economic ideologies in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about government in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about gender in the North and South."  "Slavery caused conflict over the role of expansion between North and South."  And so on.  Pick three.  They all tie back to slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

Doable -  There has to be evidence.  No faith based arguments about providence.  Faith is faith because you can't prove it.  That's what's beautiful about faith.  But Doable also means "doable in the space allowed."  You might have a great idea, that's truly original, but if you are doing a blue book exam, you only have an hour.  Save that original idea for a 30 page research paper.  Likewise, if you are writing a 5 paragraph essay and you only have one paragraph, you need to broaden that idea out.

Answers the question - This seems obvious but you'd be surprised how many folks mess this up.  Quick check.  If the question is a "why" question the answer has "because" in it.  If the question is a "How" question the answer has "by" in it.

Now that you've got your thesis and a brainstorm, the next step is the body paragraphs.  That will be our topic for the next post in the series.  

Part 2 of a series.

Part 1 is here 


  1. Hello David,

    I just found your blog through a posting by the Canvas Network. I love the name of the blog! I teach 8th grade U.S. History and found your posts on research and thesis statements helpful and informed. Students struggle mightily with research and consequently their papers suffer. In your post you make reference to an upcoming post on body [paragraphs. I have not been able to find it, if you have it can you point it out to me?

    I enjoyed the blog and plan to come back again.

    Thanks for your work

    Tom Ethier

  2. Hi Tom,
    Welcome to the blog! I promise that a blog post on paragraph writing is coming soon. I'm tweaking some things in the way I teach paragraph writing and want to see how they work out before I advocate for them. You can look for a paragraph post at the end of March.

    Can you tell me about the Canvas Network and how you found the blog? I sort of know that Canvas as an LMS. Did somebody share it on a teacher site? Blogger's analytics can be very imprecise for figuring out where my traffic comes from.

  3. Dave,

    It was an email from a course that canvas Network has called Helping History Teachers Teach Writing. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to go through the course but they had some helpful links including yours.