The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement

I had decided to title this post, The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement. Then I Googled it and noted that someone else has already written that essay. Good for that guy! I am glad that I am not the only one who thinks thesis statements are horrible things that we ought to do away with forever, like every other shibboleth of old-timey writing instruction (I’m looking at you, five-paragraph essay!).

I cannot tell you how much I loathe thesis statements and everything they stand for. In my own work, I refuse to write thesis statements or anything that resembles them. I sincerely believe that no piece of decent prose contains anything that might be mistaken for a thesis statement. Thesis statements and good writing are utterly incompatible.

Furthermore, I most certainly will never – no matter how emphatic the department grading rubric – advise my students to write thesis statements. Why? Because I choose to treat student writers like the intelligent people they are. And – to the degree that it is possible – I choose to teach writing in a manner that takes into consideration the way that good writing is actually produced. No writer ever claimed s/he came up with a rad thesis statement and then went on to build an awesome essay around it, just like her 8th grade English teacher told her to do. I do not believe that such a scenario has ever occurred since the invention of the written word.

So why are students obsessed with thesis statements?

In my classes, most students have been told all their lives that they have to write thesis statements to write well. Most of them also had to pass some stupid writing test to graduate from high school. This is why they are traumatized. Even though I never mention thesis statements in class, students still ask me about them. They ask if they can “clear” their thesis statements with me before writing, as if I am an air traffic controller of the written word. In workshops, they advise each other to write better thesis statements and to include them in the first paragraph of every essay. Because that is where thesis statements live. Since I never utter the word, I marvel at how well the students police each other. They are haunted by the ghost of thesis statements past.

Here’s the thing about thesis statements that confuses me the most: what the fuck are they? A thesis is a sentence you’re supposed to put in your essay that states, unequivocally and without doubt, what your point is? Is that a practice we really want to encourage young people to engage in? Why would anyone who really cares about writing or thinking want to do that?  What about inquiry or exploration or – god forbid – figuring out what you are saying after you write something? What about the reality that writing is a messy, brutal business that no formula or series of rules could possibly prepare you for?

That brings me to the real reason I do not care for thesis statements. I despise them not only because they turn writing into a formula or a container for content, like a cement mixer of the mind. I also detest thesis statements because I strongly oppose the idea that we should aspire to know things for certain as either a consequence or a precondition of writing. It’s better to teach students – and to remind ourselves – to admire ambivalence and contradiction and to think of writing as a way to cultivate those things, not abolish them. That is what very good writing – a rare and beautiful thing – should be: a reflection of a commitment to knowing nothing at all and to writing forever into that void.


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11 Responses to The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement

  1. ... says:

    That’s it. I like you.

  2. Ry says:

    I’m in the middle of writing a revised paper for a college class where my professor wrote “WHERE IS YOUR THESIS?? at the top of my paper. I googled “I refuse to write a thesis”, and apparently you are my new paper-writing deity. Thank you.

  3. I really blog as well and I’m creating a little something related to this particular article, “The Tyranny of the
    Thesis Statement | A Post-Academic in NYC”. Will
    you care in case I actuallyimplement a number of of your own
    tips? Thanks for your time ,Nelle

  4. i like the frame work that you’ve provided.
    your last paragraph, love it!

  5. Reblogged this on MonkeyMoonMachine and commented:
    I’d quibble a bit with this post, but I love the idea and especially the last two paragraphs.

  6. I too love your last paragraph, and your point about how real, interesting writing doesn’t begin from an ex-nihilo thesis statement. But I try to have my high school writers come up with thesis statements only after they’ve first done some open-ended free-writing (brainstorming), and then they draw an idea from the free-writing as a thesis. Yes, it’s a bit of a brittle form, a mold into which to pour their writing, but some of my students seem to need the structure. The thesis and the five-paragraph essay, tedious though they are, are forms the students are expected to be able to write to (for the ACT writing test, for college applications essays). But I hope to expand my students’ writing minds with by encouraging them also to write very open-ended, “informal” essays, as a way to show them there’s a world beyond the five-paragraph essay.

    • post-ac says:

      Hi! Thanks for reading and responding to this post, MonkeyMoonMachine. K-12 teachers and their students have been suffering the worst of the focus on testing and formulaic writing since well before college teachers knew what was up. I appreciate your perspective here. I agree that 5-paragraph essays are often required for tests, so that’s why teachers teach them. But since these forms do not really exist outside testing genres, and resistance to them has to come from somewhere. I suppose that is the genesis of my post.

  7. I greatly appreciate that you question/criticize the thesis-model of writing — it reminds me to keep questioning myself. I’d add that I see formulaic writing in lots of places beyond just testing. My background prior to teaching was journalism, where a great deal of effort (for example, style guides, “inverted pyramids,” and coaching ) is made in order to make writing that is formulaic and seemingly written by anyone. Even whole genres (like romance novels, according to a friend of mine who writes them) are based on prescribed formulas. So I see the problem of formulaic writing as culture-wide. In my own writing practice, I am aware of the ease of fitting new writing into old forms, and I try to expand my own conceptions of what writing can be.

  8. dusk says:

    Thank you! My mind is so not accepting the concept of a thesis. Now that I know I am not crazy I will continue writing my paper without concern for the f…ing thesis!!!

    Another poster expressed this sentiment already – you are my writing deity. Thank you!!!

  9. Steve says:

    “Thesis statements and good writing are utterly incompatible.” (That is your thesis statement.)

    • pfprotips says:

      It is a claim (one which I find a bit extreme, but post-ac is just being a bit hyperbolic). The entire piece of writing, however, does not exist solely to support this particular claim. Post-ac also discusses the purpose of writing and how he believes it should be approached and taught in service of broader goals. He also introduces a new idea – his own definition of what good writing should be – at the end of the post without giving any explicit evidence to support it. He assumes that the reader also recognizes that ambivalence and contradiction are real, and that expressing them in writing has value.

      There are cases where a piece of writing does serve to support a specific argument that can be easily expressed in a sentence or two, but this is not always the case, even for short, non-fiction, and somewhat argumentative pieces. The idea that an essay is necessarily a rambling and incoherent mess if it isn’t structured like a math proof is absurd.

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