Southwest Tennessee Community College Composition Lessons & Resources John Friedlander
THESIS STATEMENTS, OUTLINES, AND FIVE-PARAGRAPH THEMES
Here are a few thoughts that may help you better understand thesis statements, essay outlines, and five-paragraph themes.
The thesis statement is a single declarative sentence (a statement, not a question or a vague phrase). It states the central idea of the essay (the "essay idea"). If you had to squeeze the whole essay down to a single sentence, you'd have a thesis statement. The thesis statement guides and restricts the writer, making it easier for him or her to write a unified and coherent essay--one that sticks to its topic, hangs together, and moves naturally.
Look at this example of a thesis statement:
Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming.
This statement guides the writer, reminding him that his essay must examine both commercials and programming, that the essay must focus on craft, and that it must show the superiority of commercials. This statement alsorestricts the writer, reminding him that his essay will not discuss distantly related ideas like content, or scheduling, or audience response.
When the thesis statement appears in the final version of the essay, it guides the reader. The statement promises the reader that the essay will prove the superior craft of commercials, and that it will not drift off into a discussion of newscasters' hairstyles.
Now that first version of the thesis statement can be further refined, to give still more guidance to the writer, to better clarify the restrictions on the essay, and to make a more exact promise to the reader.
Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming in their video techniques, in their audio techniques, and in their use of language.
In this second version, the thesis statement compels the writer (and promises the reader) to discuss video techniques, audio techniques, and language in commercials and programming. It further restricts the essay, eliminating discussion of such other "craft" issues as acting and directing.
Because this second version of the thesis statement previews the way the essay will be developed, it is called a previewingthesis statement (pretty clever, huh?). In this example, the thesis statement previews three main ideas--so it's called a three-point thesis statement. If it previewed two, or four, or five main ideas, it could be a two-point, or four-point or five-point thesis statement.
All right then--the thesis statement is a single sentence expressing the main idea of the essay, guiding and restricting the writer, and also guiding the reader, promising that the essay will explore certain ideas and not other ideas. And a previewing thesis statement offers more guidance, more restrictions, and clearer promises than a non-previewing thesis statement.
Note that strong thesis statements do more than name topics and subtopics, though--they also express the writer's position, or attitude, or angle, and often the writer's tone. Because we're concentrating on the mechanics of the thesis statement here, the tone of the example is a bit flat or impersonal. [For more thoughts about effective thesis statements, you might look at More Thoughts about Thesis Statements, linked at Composition Lessons & Resources.]
Composing a firm thesis statement will help any writer to produce a more effective essay. But different writers use different methods for composing or discovering thesis statements.
If you know your topic well, you may come up with a fairly good thesis statement off the top of your head--though usually there's more searching and thinking and rethinking than that. You might use brainstorming, clustering, or freewriting to invent and discover ideas, and then shape them into thesis statements. Burke's pentad can be a very effective tool for examining a topic and developing a thesis.
Some writers use outlines to help them formulate thesis statements. Others write full drafts of their essays before finding and forming their thesis statements.
Whatever method or methods you use, writing a good thesis statement does require careful thought and careful language. You should feel comfortable about rethinking and rewriting your thesis statements throughout the writing process.
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Outlines help the writer in the same way that thesis statements do--they guide him or her through the content of the essay, setting up (at least temporarily) what will be included in the essay and what will not. A previewing thesis statement, like the three-point thesis statement above, is almost an outline by itself. It states the essay idea (Television commercials are better crafted than most television programming . . .), and then it states and orders the main developing ideas of the essay's body (...in their video techniques, in their audio techniques, and in their use of language.).
Of course, outlines can be much more detailed than even previewing thesis statements. In addition to identifying the essay idea, and the main supporting ideas, and the order of the main supporting ideas, an outline might identify how those main supporting ideas will themselves be developed. Part of an informal outline on the television topic could look like this:
I. (Introduction) Commercials better crafted than programming
[many writers omit the introduction and conclusion from their outlines]
II. Better video techniques
A. Film versus videotape
B. More imaginative camera angles
C. More sophisticated editing
III. Better audio techniques
[and so on . . .]
Your outline could be more formal than this, and more detailed--each entry could be a complete sentence, and still more subordinate ideas or details could be added (such as the naming of particular camera angles).
Your outline could be less formal--it could eliminate the numbers and letters, and just list key words to remind you of what you plan to say.
Regardless of the form it takes, the outline is just another tool for helping you examine and arrange what you want to say. As with the thesis statement, you should feel comfortable about adding to, or subtracting from, or rearranging your outline at any stage in the writing process.
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THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH THEME
see a sample five-paragraph theme
The five-paragraph theme is an entirely artificial approach to essay writing. Some ancient English teacher probably dreamed it up as a simple way to compress the writing process into a two-hour period. Even though it is artificial and a little bit phony, it's a pretty handy technique for learning the basic elements of essay writing.
In the real world, an essay is as many paragraphs long as it needs to be. The writer gloms onto some idea, looks at this part of it and that part of it--two ideas, or ten, or twenty; simple ideas he can cover in one paragraph, and complex ideas that need many paragraphs. If he's writing on assignment for a magazine, he may face a limit of so many words--a thousand, or two thousand, or whatever--but he doesn't decide in advance that there will be exactly three, or seven or seventy paragraphs. He finds out as he goes along, and if he ends up with too much, he cuts something out.
No matter how long that real-world essay ends up, though, it will have a sense of introduction--usually a paragraph or more--to capture the reader's attention and then set up the body of the essay for easier reading. Usually the introduction will include a thesis statement--often a previewing thesis statement if the essay is fairly complex.
The real-world essay will also have some kind of conclusion--again, usually a paragraph or more--to bring the essay to a graceful end, and to make sure the main point or points stick in the reader's mind when he finishes.
If you're going to learn to write essays, you've got to learn to write introductions and conclusions, and you've got to practice the paragraphs of the body. So whatever you write has to be long enough to use an introduction paragraph and a conclusion paragraph and some paragraphs in the middle.
Let's decide on three paragraphs in the middle--enough to give you practice without entirely eliminating sleep, work, and relationships with your families.
So you'll write an introduction paragraph to make the reader want to read, with a thesis statement to tell the reader where the essay is going. Then you'll force your topic into three main ideas which you'll explain in three wonderfully developed paragraphs--one paragraph for each idea (all right, if you absolutely need four main ideas, use four). Then you'll write a snappy conclusion paragraph to wrap things up neatly. That's the five-paragraph theme!
see a sample five-paragraph theme
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When it comes to writing essays in college, we all need a place to start. Think of the five-paragraph essay as just that. Some students may find this to be a simple process, while others may spend a greater amount of time understanding this basic building block of college writing. Whatever the case, use the following guidelines to strengthen your knowledge of this preliminary essay format. Five-paragraph essays are incredibly useful in two situations — when writers are just starting out and when a writing assignment is timed.
The five-paragraph essay has three basic parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.
The introduction is the first paragraph of the essay, and it serves several purposes. This paragraph gets your reader's attention, develops the basic ideas of what you will cover, and provides the thesis statement for the essay. The thesis statement is usually only one sentence and is made up of the topic, focus, and three main points of the essay.
Each body paragraph should start with a transition — either a word or phrase, like First, or Another important point is. Then, the first sentence should continue with your topic sentence. The topic sentence tells your reader what the paragraph is about, like a smaller-level thesis statement. The rest of the paragraph will be made of supporting sentences. These sentences, at least four of them, will explain your topic sentence to your reader.
Be sure that each sentence in the paragraph directly addresses both your topic sentence and your thesis statement. If you have a point to make that is not directly connected to the topic sentence, it does not belong in the paragraph. You might write a different paragraph on that other point, but you may not stick it into any old paragraph just because you thought of it at that point. (You can't stick a red towel into a load of white laundry without causing damage to the rest of the clothes, and you can't stick a point that' off-topic into a paragraph without doing damage to the rest of the essay. Keep your laundry and your paragraph points separate!)
The conclusion is the last paragraph of the essay. This paragraph brings the essay to a close, reminds the reader of the basic ideas from the essay, and restates the thesis statement. The conclusion should not contain new ideas, as it is the summation of the content of the essay. The restatement of the thesis is a simpler form that the one originally presented in the introduction.
An outline is often used to demonstrate the content of most five-paragraph essays:
- First Point
- Second Point
- Third Point
Before we finish, it is important to remember that the format of the five-paragraph essay is the foundation of nearly every other essay you'll write. When you get ready to write longer papers, remember that the job of the introduction and conclusion are just the same as they are in the five-paragraph essay. Also, when you write longer papers, change your idea of support from three body paragraphs to three (or two or four) body sections, with as many paragraphs as necessary in each section (just as you had as many sentences you needed in each body paragraph).
Below is an example of a 5-paragraph essay. Notice how the essay follows the outline.
Outline of this essay:
- Introduction about camping, with three main points and thesis statement
- bad weather
- equipment failures
- Conclusion reviewing three main points and thesis statement
Enjoying Your Camping Trip
Each year, thousands of people throughout the United States choose to spend their vacations camping in the great outdoors. Depending on an individual's sense of adventure, there are various types of camping to choose from, including log cabin camping, recreational vehicle camping, and tent camping. Of these, tent camping involves "roughing it" the most, and with proper planning the experience can be gratifying. Even with the best planning, however, tent camping can be an extremely frustrating experience due to uncontrolled factors such as bad weather, wildlife encounters, and equipment failures.
Nothing can dampen the excited anticipation of camping more than a dark, rainy day. Even the most adventurous campers can lose some of their enthusiasm on the drive to the campsite if the skies are dreary and damp. After reaching their destination, campers must then "set up camp" in the downpour. This includes keeping the inside of the tent dry and free from mud, getting the sleeping bags situated dryly, and protecting food from the downpour. If the sleeping bags happen to get wet, the cold also becomes a major factor. A sleeping bag usually provides warmth on a camping trip; a wet sleeping bag provides none. Combining wind with rain can cause frigid temperatures, causing any outside activities to be delayed. Even inside the tent problems may arise due to heavy winds. More than a few campers have had their tents blown down because of the wind, which once again begins the frustrating task of "setting up camp" in the downpour. It is wise to check the weather forecast before embarking on camping trips; however, mother nature is often unpredictable and there is no guarantee bad weather will be eluded.
Another problem likely to be faced during a camping trip is run-ins with wildlife, which can range from mildly annoying to dangerous. Minor inconveniences include mosquitoes and ants. The swarming of mosquitoes can literally drive annoyed campers indoors. If an effective repellant is not used, the camper can spend an interminable night scratching, which will only worsen the itch. Ants do not usually attack campers, but keeping them out of the food can be quite an inconvenience. Extreme care must be taken not to leave food out before or after meals. If food is stored inside the tent, the tent must never be left open. In addition to swarming the food, ants inside a tent can crawl into sleeping bags and clothing. Although these insects cause minor discomfort, some wildlife encounters are potentially dangerous. There are many poisonous snakes in the United States, such as the water moccasin and the diamond-back rattlesnake. When hiking in the woods, the camper must be careful where he steps. Also, the tent must never be left open. Snakes, searching for either shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, can enter a tent. An encounter between an unwary camper and a surprised snake can prove to be fatal. Run-ins can range from unpleasant to dangerous, but the camper must realize that they are sometimes inevitable.
Perhaps the least serious camping troubles are equipment failures; these troubles often plague families camping for the first time. They arrive at the campsite at night and haphazardly set up their nine-person tent. They then settle down for a peaceful night's rest. Sometime during the night the family is awakened by a huge crash. The tent has fallen down. Sleepily, they awake and proceed to set up the tent in the rain. In the morning, everyone emerges from the tent, except for two. Their sleeping bag zippers have gotten caught. Finally, after fifteen minutes of struggling, they free themselves, only to realize another problem. Each family member's sleeping bag has been touching the sides of the tent. A tent is only waterproof if the sides are not touched. The sleeping bags and clothing are all drenched. Totally disillusioned with the "vacation," the frustrated family packs up immediately and drives home. Equipment failures may not seem very serious, but after campers encounter bad weather and annoying pests or wild animals, these failures can end any remaining hope for a peaceful vacation.
These three types of camping troubles can strike campers almost anywhere. Until some brilliant scientist invents a weather machine to control bad weather or a kind of wildlife repellant, unlucky campers will continue to shake their fists in frustration. More than likely, equipment will continue to malfunction. Even so, camping continues to be a favorite pastime of people all across the United States. If you want camping to be a happy experience for you, learn to laugh at leaky tents, bad weather, and bugs, or you will find yourself frustrated and unhappy.
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