Philip Nel > Courses > English 680: Radical Children's Literature (Fall 2008) > Thesis vs. Topic
Philip Nel > Courses > English 680, Sec. B: Dr. Seuss (Spring 2007) > Thesis vs. Topic
Philip Nel > Courses > English 710: Dr. Seuss (Spring 2012) > 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, "Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand (1936) and Dr. Seuss's And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) both respond to the rise of fascism" 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 books show the power of unions we need to ask, "So what?" Do both stories make exactly the same argument in exactly the same way? How do they differ? How are they similar? In each tale, what are the workers' demands? With what degree of sympathy are those demands presented? In sum, what does focusing on this theme tells about what the books might mean? One possible thesis is:

If Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand (1936) and Dr. Seuss's And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) both respond to the rise of fascism, neither clearly articulates a political position on the subject: Although Leaf's book offers more allusions to European fascism than Seuss's does, both can be read as critical of fascism, indifferent to it, or proposing another political strategy entirely.

        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 for a greater difference between these two tales, or that one or both more clearly advances a particular political ideology.)

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

(Key terms here seem to be: "fascism," "articulates," "political position," and "critical.")

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 power of organizing. 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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