Today's article is a guest post from my friend and an incredible editor, Mara Eller!
Pop quiz: What is the underlying purpose of all writing?
Do you have your answer?
Ok, see if you’re right.
The purpose of all writing is . . . communication.
We write to communicate—to deliver a message to a reader, even if sometimes that reader is ourselves.
Good writing is effective communication. (It’s both that simple and that hard.)
Therefore, the number one priority for good writing is always clarity. If your reader can’t understand what you’re trying to say, then none of the rest of it matters—not how correct, concise, or poetic the writing is. All of that is worth nothing if what you’re saying is unclear.
So how can you ensure that your writing is clear?
Clarity begins with making sure your writing has a purpose: a central message that you want your reader to remember. In school, this is called your argument or thesis.
No matter the genre—including memoir, fiction, or even poetry—every piece of effective writing must have an overarching, controlling argument or purpose that the author attempts to convey. The subtlety with which you articulate that argument that changes with the genre, but its centrality does not.
For nonfiction, the argument is extremely important since your message is the primary value for which readers come to your book, and that argument must be articulated early and often. Then, every chapter, every section, and even every paragraph should contribute to moving that argument forward.
The first step is to make sure you know what your argument is and can articulate it in one or two sentences. This is your thesis statement. You’d be surprised how many times writers will tell me all about their project with hundreds or thousands of words but then fall silent (or stumble repetitively through the same jumble of ideas) when I ask them to tell me their thesis statement. If you don’t know what you’re arguing, there’s virtually zero chance that your reader will figure it out.
So, as you’re working on any writing project, one of the first milestones you need to achieve is a clear, straight-forward, concise thesis (one sentence is best). Try asking yourself the following questions if you struggle:
Once you’ve got something, jot it on a post-it and press it to the top corner of your computer screen to keep you focused as you write. This thesis statement may evolve as you continue refining your argument—it’s normal and good to “listen” to your writing and learn from the process—but each time it does, be sure to adjust your post-it thesis to match.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that you need a thesis statement by now, one that articulates a clear, central argument. Hooray!
However, not all theses are created equal. You want to make sure you have a strong thesis, one that will set you up to write a powerful, clear, focused, and intriguing article or book. After all, it doesn’t do you much good to be super clear about communicating something boring, vague, or otherwise uninteresting that your reader sees and immediately puts in the “no, thanks” pile.
So, what makes a strong thesis?
Compelling: A strong thesis grabs your reader’s attention and provokes some kind of (emotional) response. The place to start for this one, however, is with you, the author. If your argument is exciting and emotionally charged for you, that energy will translate into your writing. Plus, who wants to spend days or months or even years writing about something that doesn’t ignite your passion?
Original: Every book or article is entering into a larger conversation around that topic. You want to make sure that your addition to that conversation is, in fact, adding something, rather than simply repeating what has already been said. In order to ensure originality, you have to start by familiarizing yourself with existing content related to your topic. Then, what unique angle can you bring to the conversation?
Limited: Here’s a tip based on 15 years of teaching writing: the vast majority of writers pick arguments that are too large for the container. Even if you’re writing a full-length book, you will probably be tempted to overestimate what you can really cover well. So I encourage you to “niche down” by adding limiters to your topic. For example, if you’re writing about moms, what kind? Young? First-time? Weary? Stay-home? Working? Christian? Single? It can be counterintuitive, but it often is actually easier to write about a more specific, limited topic than about something really big and broad.
Non-Obvious: No one wants to read a book that tells them something everyone already knows or that tries to convince them of something they and pretty much everyone already agrees with. Stating the obvious can sometimes have value, but not more than a few seconds or sentences of value. One way to assess this is to ask, would anyone disagree with this statement? The answer needs to be a resounding “yes.” Then you can spend one or fifty thousand words explaining your position.
Relevant: Your thesis needs to be relevant in two ways. First, you want to make sure it accurately reflects the material you intend to use. If you come up with a killer thesis, but it doesn’t relate to the content you have prepared (your research, experience, already written material), that doesn’t do you a lot of good. Second, your thesis needs to be relevant to your intended audience. More specifically, it needs to address a felt need or “pain point.” Ask yourself, what aspect of my topic is most challenging, confusing, or encouraging to my audience? Make sure that your thesis speaks into that need.
A COLORful thesis creates curiosity. Consider a thesis like “education is important.” This kind of thesis is weak because it’s so basic that it’s obvious: it’s not intriguing, because just about anyone can think of a handful of reasons to support that idea, and almost no one would anticipate reading something surprising or unexpected in an essay with such a thesis. Instead, you’ll need to pick something more specific with a narrower focus and with a conclusion that is less obvious, possibly by adding a “why” or “how” to your existing “obvious” thesis. For example, you could improve “education is important” by saying “education is the most important use of public funds” or by saying“ education molds our future as a nation more than any other social factor because the character of a nation is determined by the character of its citizens.”
A COLORful thesis is arguable. A strong thesis is something that not only can be argued, but that is worth arguing about: it’s something with which a reasonable person might disagree. This arguability criterion dovetails with the non-obvious one: it shows that the author has deeply explored a problem and arrived at an argument that legitimately needs 40-60,000 words to explain and justify. In that way, a good thesis sets an ambitious agenda for a book. A thesis like “education is important” isn’t at all difficult to argue for, and the reader would have little intrinsic motivation to read the rest of the book. However, an arguable thesis like “education policies will inevitably fail if they do not incorporate social justice,” brings up some healthy skepticism. Thus, the arguable thesis makes the reader want to keep reading (and simultaneously ensures that you will have interesting material for your support).
A COLORful thesis is specific. Some writers think that a purposefully vague thesis might be more intriguing to the reader. However, consider movie trailers: they always include the most exciting and poignant moments from the film to attract an audience. In nonfiction books, too, a well specified thesis indicates that the author has thought rigorously about an issue and done thorough research, which makes the reader want to keep reading. Don’t just say that a particular policy is effective or fair; say how. If you want to argue that a particular claim is dubious or incomplete, say why in your thesis. Being specific also helps you to narrow the scope of your thesis. Something like “education is important” could never be thoroughly, much less exhaustively, explored, not in a dozen books. However, a thesis like “education reform to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing is essential to improving student engagement and raising graduation rates” is something much more limited, something that could be thoroughly explored in 150-300pages. Finally, you should make your thesis specific by including the supporting reasons for your central assertion. This gives your reader a sense of what is to come in the central chapters.
A COLORful thesis includes implications. The final quality of a strong thesis is that it tells the reader why such ideas matter: the “so what” of the argument. Why should your reader care about your topic? Remember, in school you’re practicing for the real world, in which people are not forced to read or listen to things that you write or say: it’s your job to convince them that it’s worth their time. In your intro, you need to hint at why this subject matters, why it is relevant to your reader, and then you need to really bring that home in the conclusion. Your thesis statement itself might not explain why the subject matters, but you should be able to explain the significance of your thesis easily and quickly; if you can’t, you probably don’t have a strong thesis yet.
Mara has been teaching writing and literature at the college and high school level for over 15 years, as well as free-lance editing for over 13. Now, she's using that expertise to offer online writing courses and comprehensive editing services to nonfiction and fiction writers, with a specialty in personal narrative. Mara is also a wife and mother of three young daughters. When not writing, editing, scaling mountains of laundry, or herding cats (aka gently guiding and managing her children), she loves to read fiction and memoir, garden, and have impromptu living-room dance parties. She lives with her family in Tallahassee, FL.