Providing Support for Your Thesis Help (page 3)
Providing Support for Your Thesis
Your thesis is as important as the evidence that supports it. This lesson describes six different strategies for supporting your assertions.
The word friendly can be used to describe the "general reader." It's important to think of your reader this way, because when you write for a friendly audience, you won't be tempted to employ an unnecessarily adversarial or defensive tone. But friendly doesn't mean that the reader will accept everything and anything you say. Unsubstantiated assertions will be questioned, and evidence will be required.
An essay is an explanation, not just of what you think, but of why you think it. The why comprises many types of support, including evidence, examples, and details. Most types of support are in one of six categories:
- specific examples
- descriptions and anecdotes
- expert opinion and analysis
- quotations from the text
The boundaries of these categories are not absolute; an anecdote is often an example, and a reason can also be a fact. However, the categories are useful for discussing types of support and illustrating how to substantiate your assertions in a variety of ways.
Using Specific Examples in Your Thesis
Specific examples comprise the broadest category of evidence. Such an example offers something tangible to the reader; it is a person, place, or thing that exemplifies your idea. Let's examine the following statement:
Movies often portray the American suburb as a place of false happiness and hidden misery. But this is an unfair and inaccurate depiction.
This thesis has two ideas that need support: the portrayal of the American suburb as a place of false happiness and hidden misery, and that this depiction is unfair and inaccurate. You could cite films such as American Beauty and The Ice Storm as specific examples.
But examples can't simply be mentioned. To support your thesis, you'll need to demonstrate that both films portray the American suburb in precisely this negative way. You could begin this demonstration with a summary of the plot (remember, you shouldn't assume that a general reader has the same knowledge as you), and then offer the following specific examples as evidence:
- the Burnhams' home and neighborhood
- Mrs. Burnham's obsession with appearance
- the breakdown of the Burnhams' marriage
- Mr. Burnham's rebellion against the status quo
- Jane Burnham's hatred of her parents
- Mrs. Fitts' comatose state
Specific examples like these provide concrete evidence of your assertions. They make your claim "real" for your reader.
Using Facts in Your Thesis
The next form of support must be differentiated from opinion.
A fact is:
- something known for certain to have happened
- something known for certain to be true
- something known for certain to exist
An opinion is:
- something believed to have happened
- something believed to be true
- something believed to exist
Facts are what we know; they are objective and therefore do not change from person to person. Opinions are what we believe; they are subjective and debatable, and they often change from person to person. Because facts are objective, they're particularly valuable as evidence in an essay, especially when your thesis is controversial.
Facts include statistics, definitions, recorded statements, and observations. For example, a writer is drafting an essay assessing the flat tax from her outline. Here is her thesis:
A flat tax would be good for the government and for citizens.
To support it, she could include the following facts:
- The IRS publishes 480 different tax forms.
- The IRB publishes 280 different tax forms to explain those 480 tax forms.
- The body of the tax law has 7.05 million words—ten times the number of words in the Bible.
- The cost of income tax compliance is over $1.3 billion a year (some sources estimate the cost as high as $2 billion).
Using Reasons in Your Thesis
For many essays, the best way to support your thesis is to explain why you think the way you do. That explanation will lay out your reasons—some will be facts, others will be opinions. The key to this type of support is logic. Your reasons must be based on evidence or good common sense. That is, they must be logical.
To meet that standard, many reasons need considerable support. They can't simply be stated with an expectation that the audience will believe them. Here is another thesis:
School officials should not be allowed to randomly search students' lockers and backpacks.
For support, the following reasons could be used:
- These searches violate the right to privacy.
- Searches should not be done randomly, but only when there is a suspected violation.
Both of these reasons are opinions, and they need support to be convincing. The writer must use evidence to show that these opinions are logical and reasonable. To support the first reason, he could define the right to privacy (a combination of specific examples, facts, and description); he could provide an example or describe a certain situation where a search led to a violation of privacy (specific example, anecdote); and provide expert opinion.
To support the second assertion, he could explore the idea that "random searches" can lead to profiling of who is searched, and that without a suspected violation, everyone then becomes a suspect unless otherwise cleared of a violation; and provide expert opinion.
Of course, people's reasons for believing certain things are often very personal and highly debatable. While it's fine—and often effective—to use emotional arguments to convince your readers, the more logical your reasons, the more effective they will be as support.
Description and Anecdotes
Evidence and support can also come in the form of short stories or descriptions that illustrate a point. Descriptions and anecdotes are effective evidence—especially in essays about people—because they help the reader form a picture that illuminates your ideas. In the following thesis, the writer addresses a college application essay topic:
The person I admire most is my sister. I call her Wonder Woman. A professional who copes daily with the most stressful and potentially depressing situations, she is the strongest person I know.
The best kind of support for this essay will be description and anecdote—a series of "snapshots" and stories that illustrate the sister's strength. Here's an example:
Amy's job with the Division of Youth and Family Services is incredibly stressful. Every day for the past five years, she has visited families who are struggling with addiction, abuse, poverty, and hopelessness. One family has been "in the system" for a decade, cycling through the same problems without resolution. But instead of burning out, Amy's compassion and resolve have increased. She visits this family weekly, and is available to them almost 24 hours a day if a crisis arises. Once, she was awakened at three in the morning when the teenager in this family failed to come home. She got in her car and drove to their apartment, then called the police and helped them file a missing persons report. And this is just one family under her watch.
Similarly, to support the assertions that searches of students' lockers and backpacks should not be allowed, you could describe a search in which a student was unfairly accused and blamed for a crime. The following description appeared in a law journal article about such as case:
Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and flip-flops, Sam Mazza looked dejected as he made his first court appearance. He was facing three years in prison for a crime he says was intended as a private joke. His spirits appeared to lift, however, when his attorney carefully laid out his case: The search of every locker in the school was unconstitutional. When Mazza's principal ordered the search, he was in violation of the "reasonable suspicion" component of legal searches. Since the note about a bomb threat (Mazza contends it was a joke) was found during an illegal search, the case had to be dropped. Mazza sat taller in his seat and smiled at his parents when his attorney concluded his remarks.
Expert Opinion and Analysis
During a trial, lawyers often call upon expert witnesses to help them make their case. These witnesses were not involved in the crime, but they have expertise that can help the jurors determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Similarly, in many essays, and particularly in research papers, much of your support will come in the form of expert opinion and analysis. The experts you call upon can help you demonstrate the validity of your thesis.
You can collect expert opinion and analysis in two ways: by interviewing sources yourself (primary research) or by finding print or other recorded sources of expert opinion or analysis (secondary research). Sources of secondary research include the Internet, periodicals, journals, books, and transcripts.
The strength of expert opinion and analysis as evidence comes from the fact that your sources are experts. They've spend a great deal of time studying the issue or experiencing the phenomenon you're describing. In some cases, they know the issue far better that you or your readers do.
That's why you must give the credentials of any cited expert. It is not good to quote the author of Jane Austen: The Ultimate Readers' Guide on his opinions about Pride and Prejudice if you don't mention his book. This also helps avoid plagiarism. For another example, recall the flat tax essay. Its assertions could be supported with the following expert sources and their opinions:
- Dr. Alan Auerbach, professor of Economics at the University of California of Berkeley and former chief economist at the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimates that the average family of four will have $3,000 more in income per year with a flat tax.
- The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit tax think tank, estimates that America spends $140 billion complying with the current tax code—a cost that would be reduced 94% by instituting a flat tax.
Be certain to give enough identifying information about each expert source to convince your reader of the importance of his or her opinion.
Quotations from the Text
When your essay is about literature, much of your evidence will come from the text itself. For example, imagine that you've written the following thesis statement:
In his poem "Splinter," Carl Sandburg uses metaphor and sound to suggest loss.
To support your assertion, you will need to discuss the poem's content, structure, and style. But that's only part of the task. In addition to telling the readers why you think what you do about the poem, you also need to show them the evidence that led you to your conclusion. Thus, you can tell readers that the poem suggests loss by the repetition of the short i sound, known as a phonetic intensive, in line 4 (thin, splinter, singing). You can also explain how metaphor is used to emphasize the same theme, and show evidence by quoting the last line, which describes the voice of the last cricket by comparing it to a thin splinter.
- The voice of the last cricket
- across the first frost
- is one kind of good-by.
- It is so thin a splinter of singing.
A Word of Advice
When writing a college application essay, remember that regardless of the topic, the essay needs to reveal something personal about you. Writing an essay about your sister in response to the prompt "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence" is fine. However, you need to avoid the common pitfall of that prompt, which is to write about the person, and not about yourself. The writer of the sister essay needs to relate her sister's story to herself, not simply explain why her sister is the person she admires most.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Providing Support for Your Thesis Practice.
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