This series has ended up being much longer than I’d originally anticipated. So, I thought I would compile a list of all the posts in one place to make them a little easier to access. I’ll do this again once I’m all done (assuming I ever finish).
- Tips for the ThM – part 1 (journal articles)
- Tips for the ThM – part 2 (strong arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 3 (concise arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 4 (criticism)
- Tips for the ThM – part 5 (concise answers)
- Tips for the ThM – part 6 (I don’t know)
- Tips for the ThM – part 7 (summarizing research)
- Tips for the ThM – part 8 (writing proposals)
- Tips for the ThM – part 9 (the proposal process)
- Tips for the ThM – part 10 (picking a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 11 (finding a topic)
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?
Many of the Th.M. research papers that I read manifest a common problem; they lack a clear, strong argument. Instead, students seem to prefer research papers that are more summative or explorative. Papers like this will sometimes explicitly declare their intent to “explore” a topic: “This paper will explore John Calvin’s view of predestination.” Others, will take a more indirect route and just start summarizing out of the gate. (Biblical Theology and history papers are particularly prone to this.) Either way, rather than staking out a position, these papers just summarize data.
There is nothing wrong with providing a good summary. Indeed, that is often critical for writing an effective paper. If you are dealing with a complex issue on which there are multiple perspectives, you need a good summary to orient yourself and your readers on the topic. But, a good summary is not enough for a quality research paper. That’s only the first step. The more significant part of the project comes when you identify the position that you will take.
That’s why writing a thesis statement for your paper is so important. The thesis statement clearly communicates what your are doing with the paper. If you have a weak thesis statement (“I will explore…” or “This paper will look at…”), you will have a weak paper. A strong thesis statement, on the other hand, makes an explicit claim that must then be supported and defended through the course of the paper. Something like, “I will argue that John Calvin’s view of predestination was more biblical and less speculative than that of later interpreters like William Perkins.” Or, “In this paper, we will see that Richard Muller’s arguments regarding the faithfulness and accuracy of Calvin’s later interpreters are correct.” If I took a little more time, I’m sure I could come up with better examples of strong thesis statements. But, you get the point. Make a claim. It doesn’t need to be a new claim, but it does need to be one that you will argue and defend in the paper.
A good Th.M. research paper, then, should clearly stake out a position, interact with the primary data/opinions that both support and contradict that position, and conclude with a statement of how all of this leads to the conclusion drawn in the paper. Don’t get cute. These are not creative writing classes. A good research paper can serve as the foundation for a more creative writing project later. For now, focus on developing a solid argument that is clearly explained and well defended.