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Why the Thesis Statement Is Backwards

Why the Thesis Statement is Backwards

by Natalya Zielnicki at

I used to hate the phrase, “thesis statement.” In English and writing classes, it was a vague, overly-emphasized concept that stuck out in my humanities education like a sore thumb. I loathed assignments bidding my classmates and me to, “write a thesis statement,” and answer “what’s your paper’s thesis?” before setting out to do any research on the topic!

And for whatever reason, in spite of all the weight placed on this holy grail entrusted to young writers, I simply did not understand its importance. I would try to find a thesis — set out to prove that “Wilbur was highly humble until Charlotte wrote on her web, ‘Some Pig’” before finishing Charlotte’s Web. After “finding” my thesis I would sit in front of my computer, straining from word constipation until last minute panic hit me and I would write some awful paragraphs “supporting” my statement at the end of the first paragraph in an essay. This method was great at scraping me A-s, with occasional As or B+s on most papers…but it left me resenting writing. Drained of any creativity in the confines of writing a “thesis statement” every few weeks, I tried to avoid as many humanities classes as I could by taking more math classes.

Then, a wonderful kick in the face occurred during a few upper level math classes, which invariably taught me to write. Once you hit a few upper level math classes such as Analysis, a student will be asked to write a math proof. Sometimes the question is not put in the easiest way; assignments usually read, “is this statement true or false? Either find a counterexample or give a proof of this statement.” Oh, how I loathed such questions, where there was no black-and-white way to solve something!

But then, after many hours and sleepless nights, proof-writing started clicking, and my mind was molded into way of thinking that started trickling into many applications. Proof-writing is a wonderfully fulfilling process; it involves the creative steps of exploring, questioning, and then — once all the steps are laid out nicely in front of you — you neatly summarize it in plain English.

Consider, for example, the following proof from an old Number Theory homework set. Notice how no sentence is wasted; each explored step takes me closer and closer to the conclusion we make in our “proof” statement:

Number Theory proof

And this is how I learned how to write. I learned that writing is a logical proof: you explore, experiment, and each sentence becomes one step closer to the insightful conclusion you are about to make. That conclusion is your thesis. Don’t set out to prove a thesis first; as you think, experiment until you prove your newfound thesis.

Similar to the above proof, the thesis statement isn’t meant to be some clean sentence at the end of the first paragraph of your five-paragraph paper. Instead, it is this polished result that you obtain by getting your hands dirty, and then unraveling it out until finally — you have it, in one beautiful statement or two. As you explore your topic, you venture into the unknown, and with each logical step and creative measure, you have pulled from the dredges of the unknown something that you and your readers will love and appreciate for all its glory. I guarantee it.

Sure, this method takes a little more research and thought than a nicely packaged handout that your teachers would like to show. But trust me, if you prod it, if you polish and polish some more, if you really put some thought into each paper and sentence you write, that thesis will shine. And you will soar in all your writing assignments from hereon out.

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