I'm having such a hard time coming up with a thesis for my paper that is truly original and not just combining the theses of other reading we did in class. How can I get better at this kind of analytical and creative thinking?

Answers

Caitlin Holmes, College Professor, Writing Teacher, Digital Rhetoric

User avatar for Caitlin Holmes

Many of my students ask me about how to move from the synthesis stage of writing (bringing together the scholarship and works of others) to developing a legitimate point of engagement as a writer. I have a few tips and suggestions to help with this process:

  1. Find sources that are deeply in conversation with one another. Specifically, pay attention to where writers are talking about/to one another about their research. Read in the introduction or "literature review" section. They will find points of concern with one another and build off the previous scholar's research. It can give you a better idea of what's been done on a particular area of inquiry. Those readings from your class are a place to begin - they can provide great context for an introductory paragraph! Consider trying some outside research to supplement your thoughts.

  2. Try writing down each source's main point on a sticky note and grouping together sticky notes/writers according to similar ideas. Among those groups of writers, what hasn't been discussed? A point that hasn't been made?

  3. A great text to try out is They Say/I Say, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Their book provides some smart ways - especially in the "Yes/No/Okay, But" chapter - on how to begin engaging with writers and developing a clear position between them. Their templates are very useful for new writers to start practicing skills related to source use and developing a thesis. This text is frequently assigned in first-year composition courses, where students are practicing the skills you mention in your question.

Learning these skills takes time and practice. That you are concerned about just regurgitating the same arguments as other writers tells me a lot about your sophistication as a thinker!

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

User avatar for Amanda Morris

If you have some freedom with your thesis topic, I suggest finding a subject that you are truly passionate about and start there. You will be more invested and interested and will likely have an easier time constructing an effective and interesting thesis. However, many students are restricted to topics selected by the instructor; if this is the case, then consider the following:

  1. Take a stand. Do you agree or disagree with this issue? Which side of the issue are you on? A thesis statement takes a stand on a subject instead of just announcing it, as below:

Announcement: The thesis of this paper is the difficulty of solving our environmental problems. Thesis: Solving our environmental problems is more difficult than many environmentalists believe.

  1. Narrow your focus. A thesis statement is narrow, rather than broad. If the thesis statement is sufficiently narrow, it can be fully supported.

Broad: The American steel industry has many problems. Narrow: The primary problem if the American steel industry is the lack of funds to renovate outdated plants and equipment.

  1. Create a statement that someone could disagree with. Remember that a thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be an aspect of television or American Idol; a thesis must then offer a way to understand that aspect of TV or the show that others might dispute.

Talking with others is always a good idea, and using a textbook is also a viable option, but in the end, you should take a stand on whatever the subject is, narrow your focus, and create a statement that someone could disagree with. This will move you beyond the claims of the articles you read in class because the focus is on what YOU think about this issue or subject.

Joelle Renstrom, college writing professor

User avatar for Joelle Renstrom

I agree with the above answers, particularly Caitlin's about the "They Say/I Say" format and entering into dialogue with sources. So many students make the mistake of just repeating someone else's argument or making their "thesis" a factual summary of an argument. I find that it's much easier to come up with a good and original thesis when there's something to push back against.

Pushing back against something can mean addressing problems with the status quo. For example, if you're writing about gun laws, you can use the current situation around gun laws (or lack thereof) to argue that 1. there's a problem, 2. why that problem is important, and 3. what should be done about it.

Another way of pushing back is by entering a conversation. Let's use the gun control example again. You could quote someone who has an idea of what should be done (maybe it's a particular law that could be introduced, or maybe it's an idea like the NRA's suggestion to put armed guards in every school). Whatever it is, it should be something you don't 100% agree with (that way, you don't just echo it). Maybe you think the armed guards in every school idea is a terrible one--argue why that's true and what you'd suggest instead. Or maybe you think there's a law out there that's on the right track, but it's not quite as good as it could be. Argue what's effective and ineffective about it--use someone else's idea as a starting point, not an ending point, by adding onto it or modifying it into something that's yours.

Another fairly basic suggestion is to create an argument not about the "what," but about the "why." Instead of sticking with what a writer has said, push further--how does the writer say it? Why does the writer say it? Why does the writer use whatever approach /she does? "Why" arguments tend to be more original and avoid being factual, so they're often quite effective.

It's also helpful to go to office hours soon after getting an assignment for a brainstorming session with your professor. Early in the paper-writing process, talking ideas over with someone who knows the material is really helpful.

Brianne Keith, Senior Editor and Writer, WGBH Education

User avatar for Brianne Keith

Talk to a friend about your paper - verbalize your ideas and have him or her challenge you in discussion to think further about what you think. By forcing yourself into a dialogue with a peer, you'll be more comfortable and apt to be creative.

Elizabeth Mack, Writing tutor, English Instructor at community college and university.

User avatar for Elizabeth Mack

Improving your analytical and creative thinking skills is something that will improve over time the more you read. There really isn’t a magic bullet that works immediately. You can find analytical problem solving exercises online, though how effective these are is questionable.

Coming up with thesis for your paper, however, is simply a matter of trial and error, revision and re-envisioning. Start with a working thesis, and rework it, tweaking the language, as you move along with your paper. Unless you are in a Ph.D program and about to embark on you dissertation, most high school and college or university writing instructors aren’t expecting their students to re-invent the wheel. Instructors understand that students learn by modeling, and many instructors, including myself, encourage students to model their thesis statements from readings in their texts.

The great thing about writing is that the more you do it, the better you become, and you will naturally become a more creative and analytical thinker.

Your Answer