Essay Writing Menu

Home
Research Room, image link with pencil/eraserpencil image links to Reference Deskpencil image, links to Tutor's Mailboxpencil image, links to Search Writer's Complexpencil image, links to index of Writer's Complexpencil image, links to Writer's Complex Home page

Shaping Information


Thesis Definition

The thesis is one of the most important concepts in college expository writing. A thesis sentence focuses your ideas for the paper; it's your argument or insight or viewpoint crystalized into a sentence or two that gives the reader your main idea. It's not only useful for the reading audience to understand the purpose of the essay, it's also useful for you as a writer, as it indicates the type of support that will follow in the paper and it may indicate a logical structure or order for that support. So...you need to have a good grasp of the concept of thesis in order to proceed.

The thesis identifies two basics:
  1. what your ideas are about, and
  2. what your ideas are.
There are two parts to a thesis sentence that reflect these basics.
  1. The topic in the thesis tells what you are writing about.
  2. The angle in the thesis tells what your ideas are about the topic.
For example: Do you understand the basic topic and angle concept? If so, then there are a few more things to consider about the thesis. (And if not, now's the time to start asking the tutor!) It's important to investigate additional thesis characteristics at this point to make sure that you'll be creating working thesis sentences that actually are workable and appropriate for college essays. So in addition to knowing what a thesis is, you need to know what a thesis is not.
A thesis sentence's angle should NOT be: Once you create a working thesis, you should assess it to make sure that it fulfills thesis characteristics. Make sure it has a clear topic (indication of what the thesis is about) and angle (what your own ideas are about the topic). Make sure that the angle is not too broad, too narrow a statement of fact, or an announcement. Work with the angle to make it indicate the order of your support, if you choose to do that for yourself or for your reading audience. And realize that the thesis is a working thesis until you finalize the essay (it's o.k. to revise the thesis as you go along just as long as you retain important thesis characteristics.)

Thesis Characteristics

Whenever you are writing to explain something to your reader or to persuade your reader to agree with your opinion, there should be one complete sentence that expresses the main idea of your paper. That sentence is often called the thesis, or thesis statement. (Some other names it goes by are "the main idea" and "the controlling idea.") Based on everything you've read, and thought, and brainstormed, the thesis is not just your topic, but what you're saying about your topic. Another way to look at it is, once you've come up with the central question, or organizing question, of your essay, the thesis is an answer to that question. Remember, though, while you are still writing your paper, to consider what you have to be a "working thesis," one that may still be "adjusted." As you continue to write, read, and think about your topic, see if your working thesis still represents your opinion.
Handy reminders about the thesis:
  1. Where to put it
  2. Put it as a statement
  3. Don't go overboard
  4. Focus further
  5. Choose the right shape
  6. Exercise: Thesis statement

Analyzing the Thesis to Gather and Shape Information

The thesis is a powerful sentence in an essay, and it's a powerful tool for writers. Once you have a thesis sentence, you can analyze it to help you determine:
  1. the type of information and evidence that you need to support the thesis, and
  2. the order of that support.
For example, what kind and order of information do you expect in the essay if you read the following thesis sentences?

Children enjoy professional wrestling for many reasons.
This thesis has a topic, "professional wrestling," and an angle, or an idea about the topic, that "children enjoy it for many reasons." You might logically expect support that provides the different reasons children enjoy professional wrestling: there's a lot of colorful spectacle involved, there are "good guys" and "bad guys," and children are allowed to make noise rooting for their preferred player. On the other hand, you probably would not expect information about the history of professional wrestling, the ways in which professionals become involved in the sport, or the pros and cons of allowing children to watch the simulated violence. You wouldn't expect this type of information because the thesis idea doesn't plan for it--it only indicates that the essay will explain the reasons why children enjoy professional wrestling.


Those reasons may be in any logical order, as this particular thesis doesn't indicate which reason comes first or second or third. The writer can rank the reasons as he/she sees fit, perhaps moving from the least to the most important reason to increase the reader's interest and involvement as the reader moves through the essay.

Although many people consider vocational education (such as computer training) more immediately beneficial than liberal education (such as a history course), liberal education benefits learners by teaching them to assess and evaluate information.
This thesis has a topic, "liberal education," and an angle, "liberal education benefits learners." You might logically expect the essay to include an explanation of the benefits of liberal education. But there's more going on in this thesis sentence; you might expect a bit more than just an explanation of benefits. The writer starts by setting up a contrast between vocational and liberal education, and the writer ends by actually listing three of the benefits of liberal education. So...you might expect some explanation of the benefits of vocational education first, as a means of getting into the main focus of the essay. And you'd expect the explanation of liberal education's benefits to move from "apply" to "analyze" to "evaluate," in that order. On the other hand, you probably would not expect an explanation of the U.S. system of higher education, an explanation of the various types of vocational education programs on the college level, or a comparison of liberal education in the U.S. with other countries--the thesis just doesn't indicate these ideas. What the thesis does indicate, in this case, is the content plus the order of that content.


Many communities have found other uses for shopping malls built during the merchandising expansion of the early 1980s and deserted during downsizing of the late 1990s. Malls have been turned into town offices, senior centers, multiplex movie theatres, and even rollerskating rinks. This experience points out, in miniature, two general characteristics of U.S. society, the quick embracing of something new and the ability to reinvent itself.
What's the topic of this thesis? Is it "shopping malls" or is it "characteristics of U.S. society?" And what's the angle, that "communities have found other uses for malls" or that "U.S. society embraces new things and can reinvent itself?" If you look at the thesis and take apart the ideas, you'll see that the focus is on "characteristics of U.S. society" and the main idea is that "U.S. society embraces new things and can reinvent itself." The language states that the example of shopping malls is just that--one example that shows, in miniature, how this reinvention has occurred. So, what would you expect in the body of the essay after reading this thesis? Perhaps there will be more information related to the shopping mall example. Perhaps there will be additional information that offers other examples of major trends in the U.S. that have been embraced and then reinvented. In either case, you know that the focus will be on "new" and "reinvented," the major concepts of the thesis. This thesis does not indicate the specific items that the writer intends to use as evidence, nor does it indicate any specific order for the support. Yet it still is a relatively sophisticated thesis sentence in the depth and quality of its ideas; you know, as a reader, that you're probably not going to get a surface treatment of an idea in this essay. So even though the thesis is relatively simple in form (it sticks to the basic topic/angle format), it's relatively sophisticated in idea.


As you can see, analyzing the thesis sentence can help you as a reader--it lets you know what to expect. Analyzing the thesis sentence also can help you as a writer. Once you write a thesis, set it aside and then come back to it and analyze it to help you determine the type and order of support that you need to provide.

More Information on Analyzing the Thesis

There are other ways to analyze the thesis to determine the type and/or order of the support needed in the essay:
  1. Find the general question that the thesis implies.
  2. Determine the specific type of thought in the thesis: process, division and classification, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, definition.
Finding the General Question that the Thesis Implies
Children enjoy professional wrestling for many reasons
implies a "why?" question: Why do they enjoy professional wrestling?

Although many people consider vocational education (such as computer training) more immediately beneficial than liberal education (such as a history course), liberal education benefits learners by teaching them to apply, analyze, and evaluate information.
This thesis implies a "what?" question: What are the ways in which liberal education teaches learners to apply, analyze, and evaluate information?


Many communities have found other uses for shopping malls built during the merchandising expansion of the early 1980s and deserted during downsizing of the late 1990s. Malls have been turned into town offices, senior centers, multiplex movie theatres, and even rollerskating rinks. This experience points out, in miniature, two general characteristics of U.S. society, the quick embracing of something new and the ability to reinvent itself.
This thesis implies a "what?" question: What things has U.S. society done to show that it embraces the new and reinvents itself?


Adult students returning to college will succeed at writing research papers if they follow a clear research writing process.
This thesis implies a "how?" question: How does this process or sequence proceed?

An implied "why?" question embedded in a thesis indicates that the support will explain different reasons why something happened. An implied "what?" question embedded in a thesis indicates that the support will explain the different characteristics of something. And an implied "how?" question embedded in a thesis indicates that the support will explain how something happened. It may be useful to you to find the implied question in the thesis as a means of checking and unifying the type of support that you need in the essay to logically support the thesis.

Determining the Specific Type of Thought in the Thesis Some thesis sentences use basic, specific thought types such as process, division and classification, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, or definition, and some thesis sentences combine two or more of these types. It may be beneficial to understand what each type of thoughtS implies in terms of type and order of information, so you'll have a "head start" on developing your support if your thesis reflects one of these categories of thought. Also see key words for an explanation of many of these thought types.

Process Thought
Process thought identifies steps in doing something; it's a more particular type of "how?" thought. For example, if you wanted to write about how a misunderstanding escalated into a fight, your thesis might reflect process thought:
Misunderstandings develop into fights according to their own special sequence of events. This thesis indicates that you have a special series of events in mind that occur again and again when misunderstandings develop into fights --a process. Key words that indicate process thought in a thesis are: process, sequence, phases, stages, series, steps, etc.

If you have a thesis with process thought, your audience will probably expect you to explain all of the major steps in the process in your support. A process is a series of steps that recur and lead to a certain result; the nature of a process explanation, then, requires you to explain the steps in chronological order. To generate support for a thesis with process thought, ask and answer these questions:

Division and Classification Thought
Division and classification thought identifies parts, types, kinds, or groups; it's a more specific type of "what?" thought. For example, if you wanted to write about different reactions to a particular situation, your thesis might reflect division and classification thought:
People react to standing in line differently according to their personalities, yet the vocal complainers, the impatient silent twitchers, and the weaslers all seem to overpower the normal, patient waiter. This thesis indicates that you have specific types of reactions in mind. Key words that indicate division and classification thought in a thesis are: parts, types, kinds, groups, etc.

If you have a thesis with division and classification thought, your audience will probably expect you to explain all of the major types or kinds in your support, as division and classification explains a whole by examining its parts--and the audience won't be able to understand the whole if some of the major parts are missing. (For example, if you were going to explain high school students' characteristics on the basis of their year in school, you would need to include freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior; you couldn't leave one out.)

To generate support for a thesis with division and classification thought, ask and answer these questions:

Comparison and Contrast Thought
Comparison (showing similarities) and contrast (showing differences) thought parallels two items, places, or ideas that you're measuring against one another; it's a more specific type of "what?" thought. For example, if you wanted to write about personality types, your thesis might reflect contrast thought: Type A and Type B personalities differ in personal beliefs, work habits, play habits, family involvement and, most of all, health. This thesis indicates that you have specific points of contrast in mind. Key words that indicate comparison and contrast thought in a thesis are: like, unlike, similar, different, compare, contrast, etc.

If you have a thesis with comparison and/or contrast thought, your audience will expect you to offer a very balanced explanation that presents each side in terms of the same points. You can offer that explanation by dealing with the same points in the same order for each side (e.g., Type A personal beliefs, work habits, play habits, family involvement, health; Type B personal beliefs, work habits, etc.). Or you can offer that explanation by dealing with each point in its turn (e.g., personal beliefs for Type A and Type B, work habits for Type A and Type B, etc.). The point here is that the comparison or contrast needs to be balanced and equal for each side.

To generate support for a thesis with comparison and/or contrast thought, ask and answer these questions:

Cause and Effect Thought
Cause and effect thought identifies reasons and results; it's a more specific type of "why?" (reasons) "what?" (results) thought. For example, if you wanted to write about the need for community planning, your thesis might reflect cause thought: Communities should institute planning committees because they need to correlate economic development with environmental carefulness. This thesis indicates that you have specific reasons or causes in mind. Key words that indicate cause and effect thought in a thesis are: reason, result, because, for, outcome, cause, effect, etc. If you have a thesis with cause and effect thought, your audience will probably expect you to explain all of the major reasons or results in your support, as cause and effect explains possible reasons why something happened and probable effects of occurrences. To generate support for a thesis with cause and effect thought, ask and answer these questions:

Definition Thought
Definition thought identifies what something is, what it is not, what something does, how something compares with other items, and/or what other things exist in its class. For example, if you wanted to write about what an eccentric was, your thesis might reflect definition thought: An eccentric is a nonconformist who will not even classify him- or herself in that group. Or, An eccentric is like a bottle of aged brandy: virtually rare, seemingly harmless, but actually intoxicating. These theses indicate that you will explain the concept of an "eccentric" in various ways. Key words that indicate definition thought in a thesis are: define, explain, illustrate, etc.

If you have a thesis with definition thought, your audience will probably expect you to explain the concept or term in many ways. To generate support for a thesis with definition thought, ask and answer these questions:
Topic Sentence Definition

Topic sentences are special sentences that serve as guideposts to the writer and reader; they help shape the essay and move it along from idea to idea.

If you have already gathered information and developed some support for a thesis, you may find that your support falls into groups or categories. A rule of thumb is that you can develop a topic sentence for each category to help shape that information and to cue your reading audience in to a change in supporting idea.

For example, let's say that the following sentence is your working thesis:
Adult students returning to college face time, study, emotional, and family problems.


You developed that thesis because you had groups of information on time, study, emotional, and family problems. As you're shaping the essay, then, you could develop these topic sentences to help shape information and direct your reading audience to a change in support: An important point: A topic sentence essentially extracts the various ideas embedded in the thesis and creates a "mini-thesis" for each of those ideas. Each of the sample topic sentences above has a topic (adult students returning to college--the same as the topic in the thesis) and an angle (which differs depending on the idea but which extracts one idea from the thesis). Topic sentences help you break down the ideas in the thesis and present them one by one, each in its turn, so that you create a logical shape (a conceptual structure) for the ideas in the essay.

One way to create topic sentences is to identify the implied question in the thesis; the topic sentences will have to answer that question directly.

For example:

Thesis:
Adult students should not fear returning to college. (a "why?" question is implied)

Topic sentence:
Adults shouldn't fear returning to college because they have organizational skills that help them in school.

Topic sentence:
Statistics show that adults generally are more successful than younger college students, despite the obstacles they face.

Topic sentence:
Adults are usually successful, and therefore shouldn't fear returning to college, because they generally value learning, which makes them work harder and become more successful learners.

Ordering Information in the Body of the Essay
Choosing a Logical Order for Ideas

Once you have your thesis and your groups of supporting information with topic sentence ideas, you can determine the best possible order in which to present them in the essay. To determine the most logical shape or order, ask and answer these questions:

Order of complexity, order of importance, and time order are three basic, logical ways of shaping ideas to help the reading audience follow the flow of thought.

For example, consider the sample topic sentence, Adults returning to college face time, study, emotional, and family problems. Assuming that the order of the topic sentences in the support follows the order of ideas in the thesis, are these ideas arranged in a logical order? There doesn't seem to be any idea that has to be explained first. Also, each of the topic sentences that could be developed from this thesis seems equally complex. And the ideas don't exist in any type of chronological order. So how do you determine a logical shape and order of ideas for this essay? One way is to move from the problems that affect just one person, the student, to the problems that affect the whole family (emotional problems-study skills-juggling work and family-changing family roles). Another way is to move from the problems that can be dealt with more directly to those that are more complex to deal with (study skills-juggling work and family-changing family roles-emotional problems). The point here is that there needs to be some rationale or logical connection for ordering the ideas in the essay so that the essay's shape makes sense to others. And, whatever way the writer chooses, he/she then needs to align the order of ideas in the thesis to reflect the actual order of ideas in the support in order to complete the essay's logical shape.

Emphasis as a Means of Ordering Information in an Essay

Emphasis, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is a "special importance or significance placed upon . . . something." You can choose to emphasize different things in an essay by choosing where to place the essay's main ideas (the thesis and topic sentence ideas).

You emphasize main ideas when you place them at the start of the essay or the unit of support. If you place the thesis toward the start of the essay and the topic sentences toward the start of each unit of support, you gear all of the support toward proving those main ideas. Emphasizing main ideas by placing them first is called deduction, which creates a general-to-specific structure in the essay by placing the major information first. Deduction helps you focus on an argument and create a case, as it requires you to develop support around a main point.

For example:
The Impatient Silent Twitchers form an interesting group of line-standers because of their variety. The Wristwatch Checkers are the mildest sub-group of this larger group. Their bodies remain quiet except for the one arm where that powerful necessity, the wristwatch, sits. Maybe that the electric battery in the watch emits tiny electrical impulses to the nerves...whatever it is, something creates a knee-jerk reaction in the arm to make the Wristwatch Checker's elbow defy gravity every minute and a half. Wristwatch Checkers are dangerous only in busy lines that wind back on themselves. As long as you're far enough away from them, though, they can make good line companions on warm, windless days.


You emphasize the method of reasoning and the particulars of the support as opposed to the main idea when you place the main ideas at the end of the essay or the unit of support. Main ideas still remain important when you place them at the end, but you offer them more as logical outcomes than as initial arguments (so the emphasis has changed). Putting the main idea at the end is called induction, which moves from specific information to general conclusions. Induction may help you present a controversial thesis to your reading audience. For example, if you were in favor of banning smoking in the doorways outside of buildings, you'd probably alienate many in your audience by placing that main idea first. But if you presented your support and lead into the main idea, your reading audience (smokers included!) might see the logic of your case (even if they didn't agree).

For example:
Some people stand on line quietly except for one arm which they constantly move up and down. These people check their wristwatches persistently, usually in regular short intervals which seem to become shorter as the line wait gets longer. Their arms jerk upward compulsively, elbows thrust out to the side, while their heads go down simultaneously. As the spasms subside, they usually accompany the arm's return to position by tapping their feet, exhaling loud breaths, or fidgeting in some other way. The Wristwatch Checkers are the subtlest and mildest members of the Impatient Silent Twitchers group of line-standers; they lend variety to a group whose movements usually are more pronounced.


You emphasize major ideas and method equally when you place main ideas in the middle of the essay or unit of support. In this case, the main idea exists neither as a generating point for the essay nor as a logical conclusion. Instead, it's a fulcrum which both grows out of and generates more particular support.

For example:
Imagine a sultry day. Imagine having to stand in a slow line to cash your paycheck afterhours at an ATM. Imagine, all of a sudden, feeling a slight but steady breeze. The trees are not affected; where is the breeze coming from? After a while you realize that you're getting fanned by the arm motions of the Wristwatch Checkers, the mildest group of the Impatient Silent Twitchers, an interesting group of line-standers. Their bodies remain quiet except for one arm where that powerful necessity, the wristwatch, sits. It may be the battery's impulses to the nerves that causes the twitch, but whatever it is, something creates that urge to make the arm defy gravity every minute and a half. On a hot day, though, you'll be grateful for whatever causes their compulsion to make the line move by checking the time.


Transitions
Transitions are words, phrases, or sentences that show the order of ideas in an essay. They often pair with topic sentences, as transitions come at turning points where one idea moves into the next. After you determine an appropriate order for your topic sentences and units of support, indicate that order by using appropriate transitions. For example, and and also signal that more of the same is coming. Although or on the other hand signals that the opposite is coming. The words first, second, third, then, next, or finally signal a time sequence, while the phrases most complex or next in importance signal order of complexity and importance.

Outlining
An outline is a way to show the shape of ideas in an essay. It's like a skeleton--the bones (the ideas) are all there, but it needs the flesh (the details of the support). Outlines are very useful tools in shaping information, as they allow you to see, immediately, whether the topic sentence information fits the thesis, where you need less or more information, and how the pieces of information relate to one another.

Here's a sample:

Thesis:
Different kinds of people react to standing in line differently according to their personalities, but the vocal complainers, the impatient silent twitchers, and the weaslers all seem to overpower the normal, patient waiter.

In an outline, the main idea lines (the Roman numeral lines) offer the ideas that will eventually turn into topic sentences in the essay. If you look at the sample, you can see right away that the idea of the history of waiting in line doesn't really relate to the ideas in the thesis (and thus should be edited out for unity's sake).

Also, if you look at the sample, you can immediately see that there are some units of support that are more developed (e.g., vocal complainers) than others (e.g., impatient silent twitchers), which need more details to round them out. An outline shows its idea development by the things that are indented underneath the main ideas.

And you can see as well that the order of the ideas in the support doesn't exactly correspond to the order listed in the thesis. Either the outline or the thesis ideas will need to be ordered slightly differently so that the two can correspond. An outline offers an easy way to see the essay's shape--its idea structure--at a glance.

You can ask the following types of questions in order to assess an outline, in preparation for writing an essay:


Empire State College Writer's Complex Home | Search | Index | The Write Way | Research Room | Essay Writing | Punctuation Points | Grammar Workout | Style Seminar | File Cabinet | Bulletin Board | Tutor's Mailbox | Reference Desk | Faculty Lounge | Seminar Rooms
MyESC