Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Where Should the Thesis Go in a College Essay?

Jonathan Rees

My 11th grade English teacher was named Joan Goodman, and she was very particular about how she wanted us to write our essays. The first sentence was where the thesis went. I’m sure she didn’t put it this way, but the second sentence
was where you would repeat the thesis in different words in case the person grading it was too stupid to get it the first time you wrote it. The rest of the first paragraph was for elaborating on your thesis as you began to foreshadow what would appear in the body of the essay.
Ms. Goodman told us that her method was the same method they used to teach writing to the cadets at West Point. I’ve never checked into that, but I believe it because she was equally regimented in the way she drilled her model into our heads. Ours was not to ask why. Ours was just to do or . . . Well, maybe not die, but at least get a grade too low for us to get into the Ivy League schools to which we all aspired. I internalized her methods well and it served me well for a very long time, especially in history classes by substituting facts for quotes from the novel at hand.

As I don’t write college essays anymore, this structure no longer has a great impact on my own writing. It takes pages not sentences for me to get most of my arguments out, and thankfully the blog posts that I write, which are the length of some college essays, usually have no theses in them. (Otherwise, I doubt that I’d enjoy writing them so much.)

I do, however, subject my own students to the Joan Goodman/West Point writing model even if I pride myself in being a little less martial about it than she was. If you’re writing a paper that’s longer than eight pages, there’s no reason you can’t have one of those flowery introductions that most English teachers seem to love. You’ve got a lot of space to fill. The same thing goes for people who like to put their thesis at the end of the first paragraph. If it’s going to be a long paper, there’s no reason that you can’t elaborate on what the thesis means as well as the rest of the paper in paragraph number two.

However, when it comes to the four to six page papers that are the bread and butter of the upper-level undergraduate history course, I might as well be a drill sergeant. Even though I don’t remember Ms. Goodman ever explaining it this way, I have come to see the first sentence as the prime real estate in any college essay. It is not just the only sentence where a student can be assured of their professor’s undivided attention, it is the perfect place to set up for an explanation of what the student is thinking (which has always been my main criterion for grading).

A few weeks ago in my labor history class, I got the worst pushback I’ve ever experienced on this from one of my students. “I’ll give you your first sentence thesis, but next semester I’m going back to writing it the way I like it,” she told me. While I wish I had the quick thinking skills to compliment her on her newfound flexibility, my response was slightly different. “I don’t want you to write this way because I tell you so,” I explained. “I want you to write this way because you think it’s the best way to write.”

It’s at that point when I started singing. I don’t sing well, so I don’t do it often, but I do think it illustrates my reasoning (not to mention Joan Goodman’s) here well. Imagine an opera singer doing scales. They begin low, gradually get higher and end with a note that catches your attention. The problem with that in a writing context is that every note in a first paragraph should catch your attention. That’s the only way that anyone can make a complex argument well. A good first paragraph, in other words, should be all high notes.

In my experience, students who put their thesis at the end of the first paragraph think their heavy lifting is then over. Without explanation and elaboration, the thesis falls to the wayside for the rest of the paper and I’m left reading mostly book summary. Using the end of the paragraph thesis model is too often an excuse to stop thinking. Putting the thesis at the beginning forces them to explain what they mean in some detail before they ever get to the details of the history at hand.

I teach writing not just because I have to, but because I get better papers that way. This, in turn, makes my job more fun. So thank you Joan Goodman (as well as a few other excellent English teachers from the Princeton, New Jersey public schools). You’re why I take my students’ complaints that I secretly wanted to be an English teacher as the highest form of compliment.


hcr said...

Thanks for this, Jonathan! A great read, and good advice, too.

I wonder if there's some way to gather all the writing stuff on this blog for students. Thoughts, Randall?

Randall said...

Heather: There's all the posts gathered under "How to Write," which pretty much covers it:


Steve said...

What if I think your thesis is boring? Since it is the first sentence I read, I am now no longer inclined to read the rest of the paper.

At least if the thesis is at the end of the first paragraph, the writer has the whole first paragraph to hook the reader why a particular topic is important. Then the writer can make a smart argument about the important topic in the last sentence.

LD said...

I don't think I'm violating FERPA to say that, despite my repeated warnings to the contrary, I still get one or two essays for every assignment which begin with some variant of "Throughout human history..." or "Since the dawn of civilization..."

So I am going to give this thesis-first rule a try.

Part of the problem is that many writing programs teach the idea of some sort of emergent or organic thesis which is just supposed to precipitate out of the fluid thought of the writer. That's pre-writing if you ask me, but what do I know.

(Interesting and totally unrelated factoid: my word verification for this comment is "easter". That's a first.)

Randall said...

"Over the ages, mankind has . . ." Always reminds me of an Epcot ride!

hcr said...

Gotta add my favorite: "The Civil War changed America."

Randall said...

hcr: That reminds of this standard line: "This era was a time of great change. . ." Brilliant.

Phil Wall said...

In teaching seniors and grad students to write 1-2 page policy memoranda (I'm a retired Foreign Service Officer), I stress the old journalism rule - "Don't bury the lead." (Surprisingly, few non-journalism students have ever heard that phrase.)

True, the memo, like a newspaper article, must get to the point quickly, but I find that once they've recognized the value of this approach, many students adopt it for other college writing.

By the way, here's my favorite: "It is in the interest of the United States to accept more and more new choreography, as that is the principle and foundation of the nation."

The subject was political refugees and asylum seekers, but perhaps modern dance is a foundational principle of this great nation...

hcr said...

So THAT'S the problem with the country! Not enough choreography!

This absolutely made my day. Thanks for sharing it.

Vanessa Vaile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vanessa Vaile said...

almost anyplace is better than a 'to their scattered bodies go' thesis - there but distributed in parts throughout the paper.

another useful tip is that the opening and closing sections together be shorter than the middle, aka 'where's the beef?'