Philip Nel > Courses > English 545: Literature for Adolescents (Fall 2010) > Paper Assignment > Thesis vs. Topic

Thesis vs. Topic

As you begin to formulate a thesis for your essay, think about the following distinction between topic and thesis. A topic is a general area of inquiry; derived from the Greek topos (place), "topic" designates the general subject of your essay. For instance, "Rebel Without a Cause and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye both feature alienated, teen-aged male characters who reject the society in which they live" would be a weak thesis but a very good a topic for an essay. From a topic, many specific theses can be extracted and developed. A thesis is more specific and delimited; it exists "within" your topic. In your essay, you need to use an argumentative thesis.

        In argumentative writing, the writer takes a stance and offers reasons in support of it. Crucial to any piece of argumentative writing is its thesis. The thesis arises from the topic, or subject, on which the writing focuses, and may be defined as follows:

A thesis is an idea, stated as an assertion, which represents a reasoned response to a question at issue and which will serve as the central idea of a unified composition.

        If we've selected as a topic the notion that these novels featured alienated characters who reject their society, we need to ask, "So what?" Why do these characters reject their society? And what is the cause of their alienation? Do they succeed in rejecting it and/or in becoming less alienated? Why or why not? In short, what are the implications of their struggle against the worlds in which they live? What does focusing on this theme tells about what the novels might mean? One possible thesis is:

In both Rebel Without a Cause and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the alienated main characters both reject their society and secretly wish for a way to belong to it; in order to resolve this tension, Jim Stark and Holden Caulfield begin to explore ways that they can both resist and fit in, but on their own terms. Their experiments' varying degrees of success can be measured by each character's ability to compromise and to develop lasting friendships with others.

(Here, the first sentence establishes the basis of the claim, and the second sentence sharpens that claim into a thesis.)

        When you compose a thesis statement, think about how it satisfies the following tests:

1. Is it an idea? Does it state, in a complete sentence, an assertion?

2. Does it make a claim that is truly contestable and therefore engaging?

(Yes, because one could also argue that Jim and Holden seek only to resist, but not to fit in, and, furthermore, that each character fails because he underestimates the strong social and psychological forces opposing him.)

3. Are the terms you are using precise and clear?

(Key terms here seem to be: "alienated," "reject," "fit in," the "tension"between rejecting and fitting into society, and measuring the "success" of resolving such a tension.)

4. Has the thesis developed out of a process of reasoning?

        Once these questions have been satisfactorily answered, use the resulting thesis to organize your evidence and begin the actual writing. As you do so, bear in mind the following questions:

1. What is my purpose in writing? What do I want to prove?

(Notice the explicit purpose in the thesis statement: it does not merely point out that these two characters are alienated rebels; instead, the thesis takes a position on this topic, and then answers the question "So what?")

2. What question(s) does my writing answer?

3. Why do I think this question is important? Will other people think it equally important?

4. What are my specific reasons, my pieces of evidence? Does each piece of evidence support the claim I make in my thesis?

5. Where does my reasoning weaken or even stop? Am I merely offering opinions without reasoned evidence?

6. How can I best persuade my reader?


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