A strong component of academic writing that all writers must understand is the difference between subject, topic, and thesis. Knowing the difference between these three terms will help you create a strong argument for your paper. This handout is designed to help inform you about these three distinct introductory elements, and it will also help you transition from deciding on a subject you are writing about, to the essay’s topic, and finally to your overall thesis.
The subject of your paper is a broad idea that stands alone. At this point, there is no detailed information associated with it or any kind of argumentation. It serves, in essence, as a launching pad for you to form an idea, or argument, which will eventually become the purpose of your paper.
The topic of your paper is an evolved, narrower version of your subject. Here is where you add a detailed, more conclusive area of focus for your paper so that you can eradicate vagueness.
Example: Women in late 1990s television
The thesis acts as the final idea on which the entirety of your paper will focus. It is the central message that ties the whole paper together into one definitive purpose that prepares readers for what you are arguing.
Example: Although people may argue that television in the late 1990s helped portray women in a more honest and intrepid light, programs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Sex and the City failed to illustrate the depth and truth of womanhood, choosing to focus heavily on clichéd romantic entanglements, unbecoming pathetic quarrels, and thin temptresses adorned with fashionable costumes and bare midriffs.
Subject to Topic
The following are some suggestions to help you shift from a broad subject area to a narrow, focused topic.
Seek out narrow topics
Topic: Women in history
Note: In this case, the topic is too large to create a complex thesis statement worthy of a paper. The broader the topic, the more difficulty you will have narrowing your argument enough to affect readers.
Topic: Famous women aviators of WWII
Note: Here the topic as narrowed down the subject by focusing on women belonging to a specific profession in a particular historical period. It is thorough enough to discover a thesis statement.
Choose arguable topics
Subject: Toni Morrison
Note: This idea does not allow for speculation or disagreement, which gives it an underdeveloped quality.
Subject: Toni Morrison
Topic: Literary merits of the novel Tar Baby
Note: This idea allows for speculation or disagreement, which gives it a strong, developed quality.
Choose topics within your comfort zone
Topic: OE Northumbrian dialects
Note: Unless you have studied OE Northumbrian dialects at length, it perhaps poses too high of a research challenge to pursue.
Subject: College Freshmen
Topic: The Freshman Fifteen
Note: This topic is narrow enough and familiar enough to most college students to purse as a topic.
Rules for Thesis Statements
- Needs to correspond to the assignment’s expectations
- Usually, but not always, one sentence
- Typically appears that the end of the introduction
- More often than not, it is explicitly stated
- Establishes an argument
- Establishes the criteria for scrutiny of the topic (previews the structure of the paper)
- Write for an audience. Your paper should be catchy enough to retain readers’ attention.
Determine a "Research Question"
Determining a research question is a crucial aspect of your writing. In order to stay focused on the assignment, you must form a clear and concise argument. Choose one major idea you want to concentrate on, and expand from there.
When your instructor assigns a paper, try and find some angle that makes you inspired to fulfill the assignment to the best of your abilities. For example, if your history professor assigns you to write about a historical figure who changed the world for the better, write about an individual whose work you can relate to. If you are interested in the supernatural, you could write about Joan of Arc, who became a crusader because of the visions she claimed to have had from God.
Next, ask yourself a series of questions to help form your research question. Try to avoid questions you can answer with “yes” or “no” because these will not allow you to explore your topic as thoroughly or as easily as questions that begin with “who,” “what,” “why,” or “how.”
- When did Joan rise to prominence?
- Did she develop a strong following that her enemies felt threatened by?
- How did her gender play a part in her tragic demise?
- What does Joan’s execution say about female leaders of the 15th century?
Once you have developed a series of questions, consider which questions allow you to form an argument that is not too broad that you cannot write a sufficient paper, but not too narrow that it prevents you from crafting an interesting and compelling piece of writing. Decide which question represents this criteria, then you can start researching. In this case, from the above examples, you may select “How did Joan’s gender play a part in her tragic demise?” This question will allow you to develop a complex thesis with argumentative points to pose to readers. Below is a way to develop a thesis statement from the simply worded question that was just brainstormed.
The answer to your research question can become the core of your thesis statement.
How did Joan of Arc’s gender play a part in her tragic demise?
Joan of Arc’s gender played a significant role in her tragic demise because of the laws and social customs concerning women during France’s 15th century, which included social ideals that perceived women as secular citizens; political standards that favored men to hold positions of power over women; as well as religious ideals that perceived Joan’s alleged clairvoyant gifts as a natural trait of witchcraft, a crime of heresy also associated with women.
Note: Beginning writers are taught to write theses that list and outline the main points of the paper. As college students, professors might expect more descriptive theses. Doing this will illustrate two points:
1) Readers will be able to isolate your argument, which will keep them more inclined to focus on your points and whether or not they agree with you. They may find themselves questioning their own thoughts about your case.
2) A descriptive thesis serves as a way to show your understanding of the topic by providing a substantial claim.
Troubleshooting your Thesis Statement
The following are some suggestions to help you scrutinize your working draft of your thesis statement to develop it through further revisions.
Specify your details
Example: In today’s society, beauty advertisements are not mere pictures that promote vanity in the public, but instead, they inspire people to make changes so that they can lead better lifestyles.
- Uses cliché phrases like “In today’s society.”
- What kind of beauty advertisements are you referring to? All of them? Or specific kinds?
Note: Who is this targeting? Women? Men? Adolescents? Being more specific with the targeted audience is going to strengthen your paper.
Example: Makeup, clothing, and dieting advertisements endorse American ideals of female beauty and show the public that women should possess full ownership of their bodies and fight the stigma of physical and sexual repression which has been placed upon them.
- Identifies specific forms of beauty advertisements for the sake of clearly expressing a strong argument.
- Uses descriptive language.
Note: By signifying that women’s beauty is the main topic being argued in the paper, this author clearly identifies their main, targeted audience.
Make arguable claims
Example: Social media is not conducive to people’s personal growth because of the distractions, self-doubt, and social anxiety it can cause to its users.
- “Social media” and “personal growth” both encompass a large span of topics and so they leave the reader confused about the particular focus of this paper.
Note: The thesis is too broad to form a well-constructed argument. It lacks details and specificity about the paper’s points.
Example: Although Facebook allows people to network personally and professionally, the procrastination and distraction from one’s demanding responsibilities can lead people to invest more time in narcissistic trivialities, resulting in severe cases of anxiety and low self-esteem.
- It alludes to some kind of counterargument in the opening dependent clause.
- The thesis specifies several points that makes a thesis credible. The argument connects all the points (distractions, self-doubt, and social anxiety) together into one linear train of thought, relating the ideas to one another.
Note: The thesis is more focused. It concentrates on the idea that social media plays up on a person’s self-worth.
Preview the paper’s structure
Example: College is a crucial stage in one’s life that will help them become more sophisticated individuals upon entering the harsh world as an adult.
Note: Not only does this statement lack specificity and excitement, but it fails to present an idea of what the paper will look like, and how the argument is set up. As readers, we know this writer believes college is an imperative part of one’s life, but we have no idea how they are going to go about arguing that claim.
Example: College is a crucial stage in a young adult’s life because it is the time in which they begin to transition from childhood to adulthood, learn to live away from their parents, budget their own finances, and take responsibility for their successes and failures, which will force them to make more responsible decisions about their lives.
Note: The thesis points to different aspects of college life that help students ease into adulthood, which shows the reader the points the writer will explore throughout the body of the paper.
- transition from childhood to adulthood
- learn to live away from their parents
- budget their own finances
- take responsibility for their successes and failures
When you are asked to write a paper in college, there may not be as many detailed descriptions telling you what subject or argument to write about. Remember, the best way to pick your subject is to write about something that interests you. That way, the assignment will be more promising and passionate for you and may help you feel more in control of your writing.
As you venture closer to crafting your thesis, make sure your subject is narrowed down to a specific enough topic so that you can stay focused on the task. If your topic is specific enough, you will be able to create an argument that is concentrated enough for you to provide sufficient argumentative points and commentary.