Writing Papers that Develop a Thesis

Here are two short pieces about writing papers that develop a thesis rather than simply summarize information. They were written individually by two faculty members, but both pieces reflect the basic approach of the religious studies faculty. Being able to write a paper that makes a point is a valuable skill.


Writing an Analytical Paper that Develops a Thesis

Judith C. Fagan

Selecting a Topic. The paper should show that you are able to synthesize material (able to bring different ideas and readings together) and that you are learning analytical skills from the field of the study of religion (able to make comparisons and critical distinctions). Focus attention on the readings and the class discussions. Look over the notes that you have taken. Reread any weekly assignment papers that you have already written. What are the main issues that are raised by the texts you have read? Is there one of these issues that you would like to think about further? Are there issues that are troubling, that is, not easily resolved? Do you see connections among the readings? At this point write down your ideas without worrying about style or conclusions. This is just to get the ideas and associations flowing, as you try to identify what it is you may wish to write.

Thesis. Formulate a thesis statement. A good essay will address one (and only one) precisely defined issue, main point, or question. What question will you address in your paper, or, what one main point would you like to make? You should link everything else in your paper to this one main issue. A way to identify your thesis is to complete the following sentence “In this essay I argue that….” You do not need to put this sentence exactly this way in your paper, but you do need to write your thesis or argument in such a way that the main point you are making is very clear to your reader. Your thesis/argument should show some specific insight and not be self-evident. Put another way, the thesis should not consist of something almost everyone knows. Beginning your first paragraph with a sentence like “Many people all over the world practice religion” or “Ritual is an important aspect of religion” is too broad and self-evident.

Note: A paper that just restates facts and statistics does not have a thesis. A paper that simply states that you feel this way or that way does not have a thesis.

To test the validity of your thesis, consider possible counter-evidence and objections to your thesis and respond to them in advance. Imagine what an intelligent and informed classmate might say to challenge your argument.

Express your argument or thesis right at the beginning of your paper in a powerful first paragraph. This grabs your reader’s attention, makes it immediately clear to your reader the main point you wish to communicate in your writing, and sets the tone for the rest of the paper. (As you write your paper, you may need to revise your first paragraph because the process of writing itself may bring new ideas to mind. So begin with a thesis, then write, then re-write your thesis after you have written a draft of your paper.)

What to Include and Not Include. A good way to begin to think about what to write about is to imagine that you are having a conversation with another member of this class or another student who has some superficial knowledge of the material, but who wants to know more and needs to have it further explained. Or, imagine that you are the teacher and your reader is the student.

Examples and Evidence. Back up any claims you make with concrete examples. A good paper moves between general claims and very specific information, concrete examples, and evidence for any general claim. Avoid unwarranted generalizations. You will not be able to supply evidence for an overly general statement such as “All Hindus practice puja.”

No Padding. Keep summaries and quotations to a minimum. (Since your readers know about the material, all you need to do is remind them of what is there). Your task is to analyze, not summarize. Convince your reader about something that you have noticed in the texts we’ve read.

Don’t include irrelevant material that does not support your argument or the main point of your paper (your thesis). Every single sentence in your paper should be in support of your thesis.

Note: Some students find it helpful to include more tangentially related material to their topic in a footnote. This is a good way to let the instructor know that you know more than you can include in the body of your paper, and it is an acceptable practice in the field of religious studies.

Critical Analysis. You may be critical of any given approach to the material that has been read or discussed, as long as you show that you have a good grasp of, and are being fair to, the argument that you are criticizing. A rule of thumb: when you criticize a viewpoint, give enough accurate information so the author of that viewpoint would agree that you have indeed presented what he or she said. Remember, you are writing as a scholar of religion, so keep in mind the comparative and theoretical frame of the field.

Title. Develop a title that provides a clue to your reader about the point you are trying to make.

Style. Make your writing “reader friendly.” Don’t try to sound like a textbook. Use action verbs, and avoid passive verbs and the verb “to be.”

Proofread. Re-read your paper looking for logical development. Does every sentence make sense? Did you jump from one topic to another without preparing your reader for the change? Are all your sentences complete sentences? Correct your typos and misspelled words.


A Brief Guide To Writing Papers

Joanne M. Robinson

Writing well is hard work. Written work has to be clearer and better organized than speech because nuances of tone and gesture are unavailable to the writer or reader. Your words are all you have. If your writing is not clear, your message will be lost.

Be aware of (and avoid) the three most common pitfalls:

  • Overlooking the importance of reading the sources closely and thoughtfully. The task of writing becomes easier when you have a grasp of what you are writing about.
  • Failing to develop a single, clear, coherent thesis that is supported by the source(s) you are considering.
  • Relying too much on summarizing the text(s) in question. Try to go beyond the evidence of the text to say something more. It may take some work to get to that stage: you may have to invent a problem or question to pursue by re-reading a passage or by bringing in a compelling comparison.

You can avoid these problems by spending more time reading and reflecting on what you want to say and how you want to say it. The very first step is reading, and reading well. Primary sources take more time and thought than newspaper articles or textbook chapters, which you read primarily for information or basic comprehension. A good strategy for reading more difficult material is to read a passage or full text through without notation, and then read with a pencil or pen in hand, marking the margins or making notes as you read. Your notes will guide you to evidence you’ll need when writing and will shorten the process considerably. In general, there are no “right” passages to mark when reading: the right marks for you are those that you need to prove your point.

Your thesis statement will set the tone for your entire paper, yet do not feel that you must have a fully formed thesis even before you begin to write. Students often write papers in order to find out what they’ve learned and then offer as a “conclusion” what actually should have been a thesis statement. This is an acceptable and often efficient method of drafting a paper, but it should be edited out of the final version. If you discover your thesis when you are “finished” writing, take the time to move the thesis to the beginning of the paper and revise accordingly. A paper can be a journey to understanding, and you want to make sure that your readers know precisely where the journey will end. The clear and fully developed thesis statement does that.

The body of your paper should demonstrate, through the analysis of specific bits of evidence, how your thesis defines an appropriate and productive analytical approach to the material under consideration. In other words, the body of the paper offers a detailed map of the material. Think of your paper as a guide for others; you want to show them the quickest, simplest, and most rewarding way to learn what you have learned. You will probably encounter detours, blind alleys, and attractive tangents in writing your paper, but do not reproduce that work in the paper. The most common and effective design for both paragraphs and entire papers is as follows: thesis statement, evidence, analysis of evidence, conclusion. As a rule of thumb, 1/6 of your paper should be devoted to the introduction and statement of thesis, 2/3 to the body, and 1/6 to the conclusion. In a shorter (1-2 page) paper, the thesis should be one sentence, the conclusion one to three, and the evidence and analysis the remainder.

The demonstration of the thesis in the body of the paper leads directly to your conclusions. Once the readers have reached their destination, you’ll need to remind them of what they have learned. Unfortunately, many student papers suddenly stop, some end less abruptly, but very few have conclusions. A conclusion is a summary of the major points that you have made in the body of the paper and an indication of how they lend persuasiveness to your thesis. It is not a word-for-word restatement of the thesis. A conclusion can also extend the reach of what you have demonstrated in the paper, seek out its further implications, and set it in more general contexts.

Pay careful attention to the following points while writing and editing your papers.

Relations of summary and analysis. The proportion of analysis to summary should be at least 50:50; that is, if you include a quotation that is four or five lines long, you will need to provide four or five lines of commentary and explanation. Never let the quotation alone carry your argument. Always show why you have included a bit of evidence and describe how it supports and advances your argument. Avoid the trap of assuming that the evidence you introduce is unambiguous in its meaning. Avoid beginning sentences with “clearly,” “undoubtedly,” and the like: assume nothing is clear until you’ve made it clear.

Evidence. Avoid making very broad generalizations that can’t be backed up with solid evidence. For instance, statement such as “All dog owners believe X” is absurd if it stands alone. Evidence gives your paper its force; remember, however, to interpret any evidence you choose (and, if you have space, to show how or why other interpretations are less persuasive).

Concise wording. The comment “wordy” from a professor means just that: your sentence or paragraph conveys too little information with too many words. Be as direct and succinct as possible. One simple step to avoiding wordiness is eliminating the phrase “there is”; for instance, the phrase “There is a statement in the book ‘Y’ by X that says that . . .” would be stronger as “In ‘Y’, X states that . . .”

Complete sentences. All sentences must have at least a subject and a verb. Avoid sentence fragments, even if they are frequently used in conversation and on the radio and TV.

Praise and condemnation. Avoid congratulating either the authors you cite or yourself. Avoid observing that someone makes a “very important” point: show it instead by using it. Finally, avoid putting yourself down: “A lowly freshman could never comprehend the thought of X . . .” Become an expert on your topic and stand by your (well-supported) assertions.