Today’s post is similar to my earlier post on the importance of thesis statements for developing strong arguments. A weak thesis statement does more than just contribute to a weak “explorative” research paper. It also sets you up for having an unclear argument that contains unnecessary material.
One of the more common comments that I make, particularly when reading theses and guided research projects, is that certain sections seem unconnected to the main argument. This can happen for two reasons. Maybe you didn’t have a clear thesis statement to begin with. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you are trying to accomplish with a particular paper or chapter, it’s very difficult to determine whether you need to include some piece of information or argument. Without a good thesis statement, you’ll end up with a hodgepodge of loosely related information that does not really take the reader anywhere interesting.
It’s also possible that you had a good thesis statement, but you forgot that the thesis is supposed to drive the argument. The thesis should guide every part of the paper. If something doesn’t directly contribute to the argument that you are developing in support of your thesis, leave it out. It’s as simple as that. It might be good information, but leave it out anyway. You may have spent several hours working on it. Kill it. You didn’t waste your time. You still learned from the experience, and you can always save it in another document for later use. But, get it out of your paper. If it doesn’t support your argument, you don’t need it. If you include it anyway, you will weaken your paper. When you are done writing your paper or chapter (every chapter of your thesis should have its own thesis statement), you should be able to go through it and say how every paragraph supports the main argument.
Even when you’ve determined how a section relates to your thesis, however, you are still not done. You still need to go on and ask a further question: “Is it necessary?” If I’m writing my paper on Calvin’s view of election, a section on Luther’s view of election is certainly related. It would help establish the overall context of Calvin’s view and provide background information on what other people of the day might have thought. So, it’s related, but is it necessary? Do I need that section for my argument to succeed? If so, I definitely include it. If not, I have a decision to make. I might still determine that it is sufficiently helpful to warrant its inclusion. That’s fine. “Helpful” can be good enough. Just make sure that you take the time to think it through. Don’t include it just because it’s interesting and related. Make sure it has an important role to play in the paper.
So, the question that you should be asking yourself constantly is, “Why is this in my paper?” What is the purpose of this section? How does it connect to the overall argument?