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Academic Skills

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Academic Skills

Developing an Argument

Topic & Thesis Development

  1. The Topic
    1. Choosing a Good Topic
    2. Narrowing the Topic
    3. Analyzing an Assigned Topic
  2. The Thesis
    1. Generating a Good Thesis
    2. Ask Questions to Develop a Thesis
    3. Tentative Thesis Statements
    4. How Long Should a Thesis Statement Be?
    5. Thesis Checklist

The Topic

The first stop in writing an essay is finding a topic. A topic is the general place or area explored in a paper. Sometimes this is not difficult: the instructor assigns a very specific, precise topic. Other times, you must find your own topic, or narrow a very broad topic into one of more manageable scope.

For all writing assignments, it is valuable to review your course materials. This helps you to consider how this paper fits with the focus of the course and its goals. Look to the syllabus, your readings, and your lecture notes to consider important course or discipline-specific concepts or knowledge that should form the basis of your research and analysis. This review is particularly helpful in the early stages when you need to narrow your topic because you cannot narrow something down unless you understand it, even at its basic form.

Choosing A Good Topic

  1. A good topic has enough scope. It has room for analysis and research but is not too broad. Scope is shaped by the assignment requirements and the focus of the course.
  2. A good topic has adequate research material available. Avoid a focus that is so specialized there is little or no data. Check to make sure research material is available.
  3. A good topic engages its reader (your professor, T.A., or marker, who generally have a good understanding of the field) and addresses questions that are relevant to the discipline of study.
  4. A good topic must interest you! An interesting topic, something you are passionate about, will motivate you to create an original argument.

Narrowing the Topic

A topic that is too broad often leads to a shallow essay; however, a topic that is too narrow will not have enough material to develop an adequate thesis and deep exploration. To reduce a broad topic to a manageable “right size,” you need to ask questions about it or interrogate it. You may find it helpful to start with where, when, what, who, why, or how questions.

Furthermore, it is helpful to consider the following:

  1. the level of detail at which the course is pitched
  2. the topic’s significance within the context of the course
  3. the length of the essay

Example of Narrowed Topics

An Essay for Cultural Studies/Film Studies

  1. Spike Lee’s films (too broad)
  2. Lee’s dramas (all of them?)
  3. Lee’s 25th Hour and Old Boy (similarities? Differences?)
  4. A comparative study of 25th Hour and Old Boy

An Essay for Environmental Studies

  1. The environment (way too broad)
  2. Environmental damage (what kind?)
  3. Environmental damage due to fishing (where?)
  4. Environmental damage due to fishing in the Otonabee River (when?)
  5. Environmental damage due to fishing in the Otonabee River during spawning season (narrowing this further might make it too minute)

If you are in doubt about whether you have come up with a good, narrowed topic, run it past your instructor.

Analyzing an Assigned Topic

In your first year, you are likely to be assigned a topic or given a list of topics from which to choose. The trick with assigned topics is to use what your professor gives you to produce a focused essay that responds exactly to the requirements. To do that, you must analyze your topic or break it into smaller parts to see things more clearly.

Steps to Analyzing the Topic

  1. Recast statements into question form.
  2. Restate the topic in your words to better understand it. Be careful not to distort it.
  3. Understand key words and concepts in the question.
    1. Underline key instructional words (use them later as a checklist).
    2. Know key concepts and review relevant course materials. Use discipline-specific dictionaries and reference works to understand key terms, like heuristic, epistemology, or class (which has different definitions in biology and sociology).
  4. Break the topic into subtopics. If you have analyzed the topic, but are still unsure about what exactly you need to do, ask your instructor.

The following are examples of assigned essay topics and preliminary analysis of them.

Example 1

Assess provincial energy subsidy programs for Canadian consumers (e.g. programs that offer rebates for purchase of electric cars, energy-efficient furnaces, upgraded windows or insulation).

Ask more questions to see this topic more clearly:

  1. Are provincial energy subsidy programs successful?
  2. How do we define success?
  3. What standards should be used to assess success (financial, political, environmental, social?)

Answers to these questions will be determined by the focus of the course; a political economy class may treat this topic differently than an environmental policy class.

Example 2

Select one local organization involved in Canada Day/July 1 celebrations or demonstrations. Analyze the goals of this organization, their involvement in July 1 activities, and their discourse about Canada Day. What does their discourse reveal about local and national ideas about Canadian identity? Do local and national ideas about identity differ? How and why? Why is this discourse important to understand in an analysis of 21st century Canadian identity?

Multi-part essay questions like this can be trickier to navigate. Break down the question, note the key words

  1. Start by listing out the questions it asks:  
    1. What does the organization’s discourse reveal about local and national ideas about Canadian identity?
    2. Do local and national ideas about identity differ? How and why?
    3. Why is this discourse important to understand in an analysis of 21st century Canadian identity?
  2. Define key words: discourse and identity.
  3. Select a local organization that you find interesting and that fits the requirements.
  4. Identify concepts about Canadian or national identity from your course material – you will likely want to pick only a few, so consider those which help you to understand local and national ideas about identity.

All of these questions work together to support your analysis of the topic, and will lead you to a thesis that focuses on the discourse of one local organization and how that discourse fits with ideas about national identity. This response would rely heavily on concepts discussed in the course and on a comprehensive examination of an organization’s exposure in social media and traditional media.

The Thesis

A good thesis is a continuation of a good topic. It individualizes your essay. Your thesis is you speaking, offering the argument or results you have come to after research and thought. From the thesis, the rest of your essay will develop, supporting your thesis and showing how and why your thesis is valid.

Generating a Good Thesis

After preliminary research, ask questions to find a thesis.

If your topic is the Vietnam War, you can narrow it by focusing on American involvement. You can analyze this further by asking what was the most important cause of this increased involvement. Your thesis might then be "The escalation of the Vietnam War during the 1960s was caused primarily by America’s anti-Communist foreign policy."

The topic outlines the subject. The thesis declares the writer's position. Note the process, how each step gets closer to a thesis.

Consider the following topics, questions arising from the topics, and thesis statements.

Example 1

Topic: Diefenbaker and the Cuban missile crisis.                                                                

Question: What were the results of Diefenbaker’s response to the Cuban missile crisis?

Thesis Statement: Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness during the Cuban missile crisis damaged his chances of re-election and hurt Canada’s image abroad.

The question narrows the topic and indicates the focus. The thesis is the writer’s argument and answers the question. The specifics — Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness, re-election, and Canada’s image — are the material covered in the essay.

Example 2

Topic: The importance of the setting of Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing

Question:   Is there some aspect of this novel and its setting I feel strongly about?

Answer: I think the setting is clearly meant to be symbolic of Canadian identity but I don't think it really works anymore

Thesis Statement: While the setting of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing is presented as and was once understood to be an iconic symbol of Canadian identity, this is no longer the case in the twenty-first century, and this affects the twenty-first century experience and interpretation of the novel.

Ask Questions to Develop a Thesis

Get into the habit of asking all kinds of questions of your topic when you are trying to develop a thesis. Just remember, though, that a thesis is not a question but the answer to a question. Make sure your “what” question is not simplistic. An essay is not a plot summary or catalogue of events (instead of “What number of students use Twitter?” try a more probing “What accounts for Twitter's popularity?”).

  1. Why? For example, why did Canada not apologize sooner for residential schools? Why is secure attachment important for healthy relationships? Why are European and North American human trafficking laws inconsistent?
  2. How? For example, how did a particular cultural practice evolve? How does a bee communicate? How are decisions made in Parliament? How does Hermoine Granger’s character develop over the Harry Potter series?
  3. What? For example, what did a historical figure do that was of lasting importance? What are the important parts of a theory? What is the role of Darius in Atlanta?
    1. What was the cause of something? What was the effect of something? What is the effect of oral rehydration therapy in Ethiopia? What will be the effect of capitalism on sustainability?
    2. What is similar between two things? What is different? Comparison questions can move your ideas forward and help generate a thesis. What are the similarities and differences between two theories of chivalry, the humour of Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain, or two sources of electricity?
    3. What are the strength and weaknesses of something? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's health policy, or of the use of setting as symbol in Atwood's Surfacing?
    4. What are the pros and cons of an issue? Does your material lend itself to an examination of pros and cons? For example, what are the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana? You should still have a clear thesis and take a stand in such an essay.

Be careful with your thesis question; your answer must not degenerate into a recitation of information without interpretation. Go beyond listing facts; focus not just on the what and how but also on the why.

In your answer to this question, work to maintain a narrow focus. Use specific language and extend your thesis by explaining how you know or understand your answer and why the answer is meaningful to the field of study.

The Tentative Thesis Directs your Research and Writing

We recommend asking these questions and developing a tentative answer or thesis in the early stages of research and writing. A tentative thesis or a thesis question helps you to stay focused and offers direction for your analysis of evidence. You will likely develop your thesis as you read, think, and write; a more compelling focus or a slightly different one often appears after you have written a first draft.  

How Long Should a Thesis Statement Be?

A thesis statement should be unified and coherent; in other words, it shouldn't point in more than one direction. Often one sentence is enough, but not always. You may need two or three sentences to articulate your argument or results in complex upper-year essays.

However, anything longer than three sentences might mean you haven't focused your thoughts enough. A strong thesis helps an essay proceed with deliberate purpose.

Thesis Checklist

  1. Does your thesis statement do more than restate the topic or question? It should present the results of your investigation and/or make an argument, not make a statement of intention.
  2. Is your thesis statement written clearly, stating the central idea of your essay precisely?
  3. Is your thesis statement brief, preferably no more than one sentence?
  4. Does your thesis statement present a proposition that can be supported with evidence? Avoid statements that are only factual, overly subjective, or over-state the case.
  5. So what? If you ask this of your thesis statement and nothing comes to mind, your thesis statement may be simply factual, or it may be arguing nothing of significance, or its truth may be too readily apparent. You want to argue something to which your reader can intellectually respond.


Thesis question: How can the environmental impacts of farming be changed? What barriers exist to these changes?

Not a thesis: This paper will address the environmental impact of farming and how they can be changed. (This is a statement of purpose or intent for the paper.)

Not a thesis: There are many practices that can be implemented to change the environmental impact of farming, but there are also many barriers to these changes. (This statement is too general.)

Tentative thesis: Integrated agricultural practices can fundamentally change the environmental impact of farming in Canada; however, farmers need economic and social incentive to implement these environmentally sustainable practices.

Revised thesis: Canadian policymakers must provide farmers with economic and social incentives to implement integrated agricultural practices and adopt environmentally sustainable approaches to farming.