Philip Nel > Courses > English 440: Harry Potter's Library > 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, "J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass both feature young central characters on a quest" would be a weak thesis but a 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 characters are on quests, we need to figure out why quests might be significant. So, we might ask how do quests function in each novel? What sorts of quests are these characters on? Are they "traditional" quests, as for a grail? What do these characters seek? What do they find? Once we're able to answer these questions, we can probably answer just why quests seem so significant. One possible thesis is:

In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stoneand Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the young main characters embark upon a quest motivated by both self-discovery and selflessness; as they learn about themselves, they also learn to act for the greater good. In having Harry and Lyra embark upon journeys that lead them both inwards and outwards, their authors send their protagonists in pursuit of two central mysteries: Who am I? And what is my role in the world? The novels deploy the "quest" narrative in order to dramatize Harry's and Lyra's attempts to answer these questions.

(Here, the first sentence establishes the basis of the claim and offers a version of the thesis, the second sentence offers a more fully developed version of the thesis, and the third sentence offers a new version of the 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 quests work in a different way or that the character's journeys are not truly quests but are in pursuit of some other goal.)

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

(Key terms here seem to be: "quest," "mystery," and some version of the words "self-discovery" and "selflessness" -- that is, the notion that this quest is directed both into the self and out towards the world.)

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 nonsense can sound sensible; instead, the thesis takes a position on this issue, 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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