Arriving at a Working Thesis

Once you have chosen and refined a topic, you will need to form a set of research questions about that topic, and next form a working thesis to answer the research questions. But what exactly is a working thesis? It is a proposed answer to a focused research question, and it is the main point of your argument that you develop throughout your paper. A working thesis is "working" because it guides your research at the same time that your research tweaks it. A working thesis is far enough along to serve as a viable research question-and-answer-pair, but it is still pliable and open to being altered or refined further as your research progresses and as you discover other, related research questions and answers.

Read through the following sections on topic development, and follow the advice given to watch your topic grow and develop into a working thesis (like a research Chia Pet):

The Research Question
The Working Thesis
The "So What?" Test
Lather, Rinse, Repeat

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The research question

Your central research question is the driving force of your paper. You are not simply reporting on a topic, such as "treehouses." While such a report might be informative for you or a handful of treehouse novices, it would not produce anything new in the repertoire of treehouse literature, and therefore would simply be repeating information that has already been established.

Instead, you are trying to find out something new relating to that topic (e.g., how does a treehouse contribute to the emotional development of a child?) that will also make a contribution to the scholarly community. In other words, the answer (i.e., your paper) to your central research question needs to matter in your field and to contribute new knowledge to the existing pool. This last part is most important, and you should constantly keep it in the forefront of your mind.

Evaluating the Quality of Your Central Research Question

Your central research question not only needs to be interesting and relevant, but also practical in terms of time and resources available. Ask the following eight questions to evaluate the quality of your research question and the feasibility that you can answer it in the time that you have:

  1. Does the question deal with a topic or issue that interests me enough to spark my own thoughts and opinions?
  2. Is the question easily and fully researchable in the time I have to complete the paper?
  3. What type of information do I need to answer the research question? For example, the research question "What impact has deregulation had on commercial airline safety?" will obviously require certain types of information:
    + statistics on airline crashes before and after
    + statistics on other safety problems before and after
    + information about maintenance practices before and after
    + information about government safety requirements before and after
  4. Is the scope of this information reasonable? (e.g., can I really research 30 on-line writing programs developed over a span of 10 years?)
  5. Given the type and scope of the information that I need, is my question too broad, too narrow, or just right? If you have appropriately narrowed your topic before coming up with a research question, you shouldn't have too much trouble with this one.
  6. What sources will have the type of information that I need to answer the research question (journals, books, internet resources, government documents, people)?
  7. Can I access these sources? (e.g., if the bulk of your sources reside in an archive in Newfoundland, you may wish to rethink your question)
  8. Given my answers to the above questions, do I have a good quality research question that I actually will be able to answer by doing research?

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the working thesis - your stand on the research question

After you come up with a viable research question on your topic, it's time to formulate the working thesis. What does a working thesis say and do?

Defining Features of a Working Thesis

* for most student work, it's a one- or two- sentence statement that explicitly outlines the purpose or point of your paper. A thesis is to a paper what a topic sentence is to a paragraph
* it should point toward the development or course of argument the reader can expect your argument to take, but does not have to specifically include 'three supporting points' as you may have once learned
* because the rest of the paper will support or back up your thesis, a thesis is normally placed at or near the end of the introductory paragraph.
* it is an assertion that a reasonable person could disagree with if you only gave the thesis and no other evidence. It is not a fact or casual observation; it must beg to be proved. And someone should be able to theoretically argue against it (how successfully will depend, of course, on how persuasive you are)
* it takes a side on a topic rather than simply announcing that the paper is about a topic (the title should have already told your reader your topic). Don't tell a reader about something; tell them what about something. Answer the questions "how?" or "why?"
* it is sufficiently narrow and specific that your supporting points are necessary and sufficient, not arbitrary; paper length and number of supporting points are good guides here
* it argues one main point and doesn't squeeze three different theses for three different papers into one sentence

Most importantly, it passes the "So What?" Test...

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the "so what?" test

No one wants to write a paper that doesn't matter, much less read one. Choose a topic worth arguing about or exploring. This means to construct a thesis statement about a problem that is still debated, controversial, up in the air. So arguing that treehouses can be dangerous-- while you could find a ton of evidence to support your view --would be pretty worthless nowadays. Who would want to read something they already knew? You wouldn't be persuading them of anything and all your work would be pretty meaningless.

We like to refer to this as the "So what?" factor. Good research questions (and their corresponding working theses) pass the "so what?" test. This means that during the topic-formulating stage and again now, always keep asking "SO WHAT?", "WHO CARES?" or, to paraphrase the famous Canadian journalist Barbara Frum, "Tell me something new about something I care about." That will automatically make your paper significant and interesting both for you to write and the reader to study.

Now let's apply this test to a sample thesis about the relationship between treehouses and child development:

Sample Thesis: "Having a treehouse is beneficial to a child's self-confidence because it allows a child to have a place of her own."

Now we ask, who cares? So what if treehouses are beneficial to a child's self-confidence - so are lots of things? Why treehouses? Oh! Because they allow a child to have a place of her own! Well, what do you mean by "a place of her own"? That's pretty vague. A place to do what? Hmmmm...

Maybe we need to clarify our thesis a bit. First, let's think about what we mean by "a place of one's own." Do we mean a place owned by an individual? Not exactly. I think that we mean a place in which a person is not under the direct supervision and authority of another person, or a place in which a person can be in charge of herself and act as she wishes, like a domain. So, how might you reword this phrase to clarify this meaning to yourself and the reader? Let's try this revision:

"Having a treehouse is beneficial to a child's self-confidence because a treehouse provides a place of one's own - a place to be independent and feel 'in charge.' "

Okay. That's a little better. Our readers will now know that we are arguing that a place of one's own provides independence and a sense of power (and maybe even responsibility), and that such places benefit a child's self-confidence.

But wait......What's so special about a treehouse? Plenty of places offer a "place of one's own."

Good question. Your paper should explain what is unique about treehouses if you wish to make a strong argument. Otherwise, you might as well just argue that any old "place of your own" benefits self-confidence. How can our thesis statement communicate to our readers that treehouses are significant places?

Once again, let's reword our thesis statement for enhanced clarity and strength:

"A treehouse is beneficial to a child's self-confidence because it provides a child with a place to be independent and 'in charge,' and a treehouse fosters imagination and appreciation for nature that other play spaces cannot duplicate."

Congratulations! You've asked and answered So What? and Who Cares? It's a thesis that looks at what treehouses could be doing, and people would certainly be interested in following your development on this issue. After all, you're not writing a paper trying to convince others that children like treehouses. Few would be interested in reading that. Now you can keep developing your working thesis until you have pinned down any question that might remain: e.g., What is the connection between "independence" and "imagination" and "appreciation for nature"? And so on...

In summary, if you can provide a good case, with evidence, that treehouses give a child a place of her own that improves self-confidence in a unique way, you could be making a good contribution to those interested in child-development (or treehouse manufacturers - they'd love to advertise this!). Moreover, you will need to satisfactorily argue the specific benefits of treehouses. Good enough for now (this is a working thesis, after all).


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The process we just went through to arrive at our working thesis might seem tedious, but it is actually very typical for writers to continually revise their working theses. In fact, our treehouse thesis is probably an exceptionally easy example. In reality, you will be revising, clarifying, revising, and clarifying throughout the writing process as your ideas develop and you add more evidence from research that shapes and reshapes your project.

We like to call this whole process of developing the working thesis the "lather, rinse, repeat" process - you are constantly refining your working thesis to make it "cleaner" and more effective. The link below takes you to a rather handy, printable synopsis of what is on this page.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat Handout

A final note - FEAR NOT! The best thing you can remember when at this stage of the writing process is to remain fearless of your topic and your research. You might stumble at points when your research forces you to question your own argument. This is good! It does NOT mean that your argument is not good - it simply means that you have an opportunity to clarify your ideas and increase your knowledge.


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Next Topic: Managing Your Research

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