Southwest Tennessee Community College      Composition Lessons & Resources        John Friedlander

THESIS STATEMENTS, OUTLINES, AND FIVE-PARAGRAPH THEMES

Here are a few thoughts that may help you better understand thesis statements, essay outlines, and five-paragraph themes.

THESIS STATEMENTS

Purpose
The thesis statement is a single declarative sentence (a statement, not a question or a vague phrase). It states the central idea of the essay (the "essay idea"). If you had to squeeze the whole essay down to a single sentence, you'd have a thesis statement. The thesis statement guides and restricts the writer, making it easier for him or her to write a unified and coherent essay--one that sticks to its topic, hangs together, and moves naturally.

Look at this example of a thesis statement:

Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming.


This statement guides the writer, reminding him that his essay must examine both commercials and programming, that the essay must focus on craft, and that it must show the superiority of commercials. This statement also restricts the writer, reminding him that his essay will not discuss distantly related ideas like content, or scheduling, or audience response.

When the thesis statement appears in the final version of the essay, it guides the reader. The statement promises the reader that the essay will prove the superior craft of commercials, and that it will not drift off into a discussion of newscasters' hairstyles.

Now that first version of the thesis statement can be further refined, to give still more guidance to the writer, to better clarify the restrictions on the essay, and to make a more exact promise to the reader.

Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming in their video techniques, in their audio techniques, and in their use of language.

In this second version, the thesis statement compels the writer (and promises the reader) to discuss video techniques, audio techniques, and language in commercials and programming. It further restricts the essay, eliminating discussion of such other "craft" issues as acting and directing.

Because this second version of the thesis statement previews the way the essay will be developed, it is called a previewing thesis statement (pretty clever, huh?). In this example, the thesis statement previews three main ideas--so it's called a three-point thesis statement. If it previewed two, or four, or five main ideas, it could be a two-point, or four-point or five-point thesis statement.

All right then--the thesis statement is a single sentence expressing the main idea of the essay, guiding and restricting the writer, and also guiding the reader, promising that the essay will explore certain ideas and not other ideas. And a previewing thesis statement offers more guidance, more restrictions, and clearer promises than a non-previewing thesis statement.

Note that strong thesis statements do more than name topics and subtopics, though--they also express the writer's position, or attitude, or angle, and often the writer's tone. Because we're concentrating on the mechanics of the thesis statement here, the tone of the example is a bit flat or impersonal.  [For more thoughts about effective thesis statements, you might look at More Thoughts about Thesis Statements, linked at Composition Lessons & Resources.]

Methods

Composing a firm thesis statement will help any writer to produce a more effective essay. But different writers use different methods for composing or discovering thesis statements.

If you know your topic well, you may come up with a fairly good thesis statement off the top of your head--though usually there's more searching and thinking and rethinking than that. You might use brainstorming, clustering, or freewriting to invent and discover ideas, and then shape them into thesis statements. Burke's pentad can be a very effective tool for examining a topic and developing a thesis.

Some writers use outlines to help them formulate thesis statements. Others write full drafts of their essays before finding and forming their thesis statements.

Whatever method or methods you use, writing a good thesis statement does require careful thought and careful language. You should feel comfortable about rethinking and rewriting your thesis statements throughout the writing process.

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OUTLINES

Outlines help the writer in the same way that thesis statements do--they guide him or her through the content of the essay, setting up (at least temporarily) what will be included in the essay and what will not. A previewing thesis statement, like the three-point thesis statement above, is almost an outline by itself. It states the essay idea (Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming . . .), and then it states and orders the main developing ideas of the essay's body (...in their video techniques, in their audio techniques, and in their use of language.).

Of course, outlines can be much more detailed than even previewing thesis statements. In addition to identifying the essay idea, and the main supporting ideas, and the order of the main supporting ideas, an outline might identify how those main supporting ideas will themselves be developed. Part of an informal outline on the television topic could look like this:

I. (Introduction) Commercials better crafted than programming
[many writers omit the introduction and conclusion from their outlines]

II. Better video techniques


     A. Film versus videotape
     B. More imaginative camera angles
     C. More sophisticated editing

III. Better audio techniques

[and so on . . .]

Your outline could be more formal than this, and more detailed--each entry could be a complete sentence, and still more subordinate ideas or details could be added (such as the naming of particular camera angles).

Your outline could be less formal--it could eliminate the numbers and letters, and just list key words to remind you of what you plan to say.

Regardless of the form it takes, the outline is just another tool for helping you examine and arrange what you want to say. As with the thesis statement, you should feel comfortable about adding to, or subtracting from, or rearranging your outline at any stage in the writing process.

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THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH THEME

see a sample five-paragraph theme

The five-paragraph theme is an entirely artificial approach to essay writing. Some ancient English teacher probably dreamed it up as a simple way to compress the writing process into a two-hour period. Even though it is artificial and a little bit phony, it's a pretty handy technique for learning the basic elements of essay writing.

In the real world, an essay is as many paragraphs long as it needs to be. The writer gloms onto some idea, looks at this part of it and that part of it--two ideas, or ten, or twenty; simple ideas he can cover in one paragraph, and complex ideas that need many paragraphs. If he's writing on assignment for a magazine, he may face a limit of so many words--a thousand, or two thousand, or whatever--but he doesn't decide in advance that there will be exactly three, or seven or seventy paragraphs. He finds out as he goes along, and if he ends up with too much, he cuts something out.

No matter how long that real-world essay ends up, though, it will have a sense of introduction--usually a paragraph or more--to capture the reader's attention and then set up the body of the essay for easier reading. Usually the introduction will include a thesis statement--often a previewing thesis statement if the essay is fairly complex.

The real-world essay will also have some kind of conclusion--again, usually a paragraph or more--to bring the essay to a graceful end, and to make sure the main point or points stick in the reader's mind when he finishes.

If you're going to learn to write essays, you've got to learn to write introductions and conclusions, and you've got to practice the paragraphs of the body. So whatever you write has to be long enough to use an introduction paragraph and a conclusion paragraph and some paragraphs in the middle.

Let's decide on three paragraphs in the middle--enough to give you practice without entirely eliminating sleep, work, and relationships with your families.

So you'll write an introduction paragraph to make the reader want to read, with a thesis statement to tell the reader where the essay is going. Then you'll force your topic into three main ideas which you'll explain in three wonderfully developed paragraphs--one paragraph for each idea (all right, if you absolutely need four main ideas, use four). Then you'll write a snappy conclusion paragraph to wrap things up neatly. That's the five-paragraph theme!

see a sample five-paragraph theme

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12/18/03