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, "Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale (1986) and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) both show how a totalitarian state oppresses women" 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 books show the power of unions we need to ask, "So what?" Do both stories show this oppression in exactly the same way? How do they differ? How are they similar? In each novel, how does the regime maintain its power over those it oppresses? In other words, does the novel show the mechanisms by which totalitarianism gains control and, in so doing, show how it might be resisted? In sum, what does focusing on this theme tells about what the books might mean? One possible thesis is:

Although both Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale (1986) and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) both show how a totalitarian state oppresses women, their different styles posit different means of resistance: A Handmaid's Tale resists the centralized, controlling power of the state by offering a "reconstructed," de-centralized narrative, where alternative visions are possible; Persepolis confronts power head-on, challenging the "righteousness" of the regime by dramatizing how it hurts the people who must live under it.

This thesis could, of course, be different. Indeed, one could construct a thesis that challenges the above thesis. And that's one of the reasons we know that the above thesis works: it's contestable!

        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 in fact the force of both novels resides in how they dramatize the deleterious effects of a totalitarian regime.)

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

(Key terms here seem to be: "totalitarian state," "styles," "resistance," "power," "de-centralized narrative," and "confronts head-on.")

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 both books show the how totalitarian states oppress women. 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?