Home | Literary Movements | Timeline | American Authors | American Literature Sites | Bibliographies | Site Updates
Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences
A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:
1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]
2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.
3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]
Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]
4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.
Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:
1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.
3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.
4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.
5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."
Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.
1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.
2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.
Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]
3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis.
Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.
Return to WRITING HELP Table of Contents.
Return to POWERWRITE Home Page.
Help With Introductions
The Introduction to your paper is very important, it gets your reader's attention, convinces your reader that your paper is worth reading, sets the tone for the rest of the paper and adequately introduces your topic to your reader.
Although introductions can be written in many different ways, here are some guidelines to follow:
- The Structure of Your Introductory Paragraph
- Although an introduction is generally thought of as one paragraph, in longer papers it is sometimes necessary to use several introductory paragraphs to sufficiently introduce the contents of your paper.
- Your introductory paragraph should begin with a general statement about your topic that sets the context and subject for the rest of the paper. While this sentence should be a broad generalization, it should not be one that is so broad that you lose the specific topic that you are writing about.
- The next few sentences of your introduction should become increasingly more focused on your topic, thereby narrowing the scope of your subject with each sentence.
- Your Thesis statement usually comes last. Although the thesis is most commonly found at the end of your introduction, it can be anywhere within the introduction. Your thesis statement should summarize your entire paper in just one sentence and every point that you make in your paper should relate back to this statement in some way.
- Make sure the order in which you present material in your introduction is the order in which you address this material in the body of your paper. This will add to the clarity and coherence of your paper, and make it easier for your reader to follow your argument.
- Things to Remember When Writing Your Introductory Paragraph
- Your introductory paragraph should introduce the specific issue or the side of an argument that you are focusing on in your paper. By the end of the introduction, your reader should know exactly what they will find in your paper and the approach that you are taking in making your argument.
- A good rule to follow is to put the most time into your introduction after you have written your rough draft. You will then know exactly what you need to say in your introduction.
- You should not try to explain anything or make arguments in your introduction, that will be done in the body of your paper. In your introduction simply state what it is that you will be explaining or arguing later in the paper.
- If you are writing on a literary work, give a VERY BRIEF plot summary. You do not want to include so much that you will bore your reader, but just enough to ensure that someone who has not read the work can follow your argument.
Remember when writing an introductory paragraph that you must engage your reader's attention, set the tone for the paper, and provide a "map" for the rest of the paper. The introduction is very important because it gives the reader a first impression.
Help With Conclusions
The Conclusion to your paper is equally as important as your introduction because after your points have been introduced and explained, your conclusion ties all of the information together that you have presented to your reader. The conclusion provides the reader with insight into why you wrote about your subject and the larger implications that it has outside of your work.
Conclusions, like introductions can be written in many different ways, but here are some points to remember about conclusions:
- The Structure of Your Conclusion
- You should begin your conclusion with a summary of the information you have covered in your paper. You should not present the reader with any new information, but simply restate what you have already said. Make sure that you only recap the main points of your paper that will somehow prove to be relevant in your conclusion as you tie everything together.
- Your conclusion should then show the reader the significance of your thesis by relating it to larger issues, going one step beyond what you have said in your paper.
- Some Things to Remember About Conclusions
- A conclusion should restate, summarize and stress the relevance of the argument you are making to the reader.
- Your conclusion should provide the reader with a sense of closure. Through the body of the paper and the use of your conclusion you should have already thoroughly covered your topic, and explained your thesis so well that your reader should not be left with any more questions or concerns.
- Your conclusion should make it clear to the reader what you wanted them to learn by reading your paper.
Help With Titles
Titles can be hard to write because you want to find one that is 'just right' for your paper. It is the title of your paper that will first attract your reader's attention and therefore it must be catchy, and relevant to the topic of your paper.
Here are helpful tips to remember when writing your title:
- Write your title LAST. After you have your entire paper finished it will be easier to see what will be most appropriate as a title.
- Remember that you must interest your reader with your title so that your paper stands out and invites somebody to read it.
- Your title must be congruous with the tone, subject matter etc. of your paper. For example, if you have written a serious paper, choose a title that reflects that mood.