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Supporting your Thesis Effectively

Supporting your Thesis Effectively

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Author: Gavin McCall
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This lesson describes how to use evidence and rhetorical appeals to support a thesis.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be learning about supporting a thesis. First, we'll look at how to determine when a thesis or claim needs support.

And then we'll talk about the difference between having too much or too little of it before learning strategies for evaluating the nature and amount of support a thesis needs. And finally, we'll take a look at examples of an under-supported thesis and one that's got just enough.

First, let's talk about why and how writers support their claims. At the conceptual level, we support our theses by using evidence and rhetorical appeals to prove the points inherent in the thesis and to convince our audiences to agree with our position or to take whatever action we're advocating. Most of the time, we end up using both evidence and rhetorical appeals, usually in conjunction, to support a thesis. And often, we do this is the exact same time.

For example, using a source's opinions on a subject, while also referring to his or her credibility, or ethos. And just as each of our paragraphs makes a point and supports the main thesis, it should also contain sentences that supports its topic sentence, which is ideally, a claim that itself supports the thesis. Thus, every sentence in a paragraph-- in the entire essay, for that matter-- should be supporting the thesis, in one way or another.

Before beginning the drafting step for the writing process, it's important to use brainstorming techniques to generate ideas for support and to clarify what exactly the thesis is, as well as to think critically about any potentially complex issues related to it. In order to determine when support is needed, it's best ask questions of the thesis, as well as the topic sentences and claims. Questions to ask include, is this true? How do I know it's true?

Is my knowledge based on information that's defensible? Or do I need to come up with more easily defended reasons or explanations for why I believe what I do? What would a highly skeptical reader think of my thesis or my topic sentences or my claims? What kind of evidence and rhetorical appeals will most likely persuade that reader?

And how might I best convince him or her that I'm a responsible thinker and writer? Is this thesis, topic sentence, or claim controversial or debatable? If it isn't, do I even need to make it? If it is, how much support, and what kind, will I need?

The answers to these questions will help reveal the kind and amount of support the writer will need for a thesis, a topic sentence, or claim. Keep in mind, too, that in most academic essays, the topic sentences of most paragraphs will be claims themselves, which will generally need support of some kind. And now that you've got the answers you need, you'll be in a better position to begin outlining your draft, identifying the primary ideas and points you need to cover, in order to support the thesis. The outline should provide you with enough of a plan to organize these ideas and points in whatever order or manner is best, again, to support the thesis.

So how could writers tell if they have enough support for their thesis statements? In abstract terms, you have enough support when you've provided evidence and reasoning that proves your thesis. I know this doesn't sound particularly helpful. But there are a few things to keep in mind that might do more for you.

The first is that there will almost always be more research to be done and more ideas to be expressed than you could possibly fit into your essay. So most of the time, it's not a question of whether you have enough support, but which elements-- which sources, what evidence, which rhetorical appeals-- you can afford to fit into your text. And in a slightly less abstract sense, you have enough support when you've fulfilled the reader's expectations, in tandem with your goals for the essay. As in convincing, entertaining, informing, et cetera.

It's also important to question each element of support you're considering using, as including unnecessary support will weaken your essay as a whole. It's also often a sign that your thesis is too broad for the essay's parameters.

In order to determine what value an essay or other piece of writing will get from any particular piece of evidence or rhetorical appeal, we need to ask questions about the support. It's important to consistently question the validity of whatever claim you're making, as well as that of any evidence and reasoning supporting it. Writers must also assess their use of rhetorical appeals, looking for effectiveness and ethical use. They should select the best, strongest, and most relevant support for their ideas and claims, which is not, unfortunately, always the easiest support to find or to write about.

Finally, writers need to address-- or at least acknowledge-- whatever counter-evidence or counter-perspectives readers might have. Failing to do this will result in a failure to convince or persuade these readers. So it's important not to just ignore conflicting evidence and positions and to be both fair and accurate when confronting them.

And now that we've seen all the ways writers can prepare to support their thesis statements, let's take a look at a couple of examples. This first paragraph is taken from a work in progress of mine. It's not complete, though. So as I read, follow along and try to identify the main idea of the paragraph and whatever support for it you can find.

Hawaiian plants and animals have evolved in isolation to become the best fit for a static island environment. But now that humans have introduced change to the islands' ecosystems, many of these plants and animals are no longer suited for their changed world. Part of the reason Hawaii seems like such a paradise is that it's not home to many of nature's less pleasant organisms. Until humans arrived, Hawaii was a paradise for many organisms.

But now that we've introduced rats, cats, sheep, pigs, and evasive vines and trees and grasses, the ecosystem that had been at stasis for so long is slowly and steadily becoming more like that of the continental United States. We do what we can to prevent this, but ultimately we know it's a battle we can't ever win.

As you can see, the thesis statement-- that Hawaiian plants and animals have evolved in isolation, but now that humans have introduced change, many of these plants and animals are no longer suited for this world-- is not really being supported yet. Other claims are given. The part of the reason Hawaii seems like a paradise is that it doesn't have these organisms.

But not only do we not have much evidence, we don't really even have any concrete detail. For example, when I write at the end, we do we can to prevent this, what does that mean exactly?

And now, here's another version of that same paragraph. As you can see, I've gone through it and added a bit more, in the way of support. Again, follow along, and see if you can tell whether this version is better, or just long.

Hawaiian plants and animals have evolved in isolation to become the best fit for a static island environment. But now that humans have introduced change to the islands' ecosystems, many of these plants and animals are no longer suited for their changed world. Part of the reason Hawaii seems like such a paradise is that it's not home to many of nature's less pleasant organisms-- no nettles or poison ivy, few thorny plants or poisonous plants, no snakes or apex predators. Until humans arrived, Hawaii was a paradise for many organisms.

But now that we've introduced rats, cats, sheep, pigs, and invasive vines, trees, and grasses, the ecosystem that had been at stasis for so long is slowly and steadily becoming more like that of the continental United States. Even as government officials inspect ship and air cargo for green tree snakes and fire ants, tree frogs and the multitude of other species that haven't yet managed to establish a foothold in the islands, as ranchers and hunters coordinate to keep wild pigs and sheep populations within certain levels, as university researchers in park rangers tag endangered birds and turtles, we know it's a battle we can't ever win.

As you can probably see, this version of the paragraph now has much more in the way of concrete detail. While it's still not using outside sources, which is a weakness I'll have to work on before I could hope to get this published, at least we can now see what exactly I'm talking about when I say that humans have introduced change to the islands' ecosystem. Without the kind of detail I've added now, it would be hard for any readers who aren't already familiar with the subject matter to understand what exactly I'm talking about.

And keep in mind that this is just one paragraph, taken from a bigger writing project. These kinds of changes, wrought by me asking the questions of my thesis that we've just looked at, probably need to be applied to all the other paragraphs in the piece. But that's the nature of the writing process-- recursive and repetitive, but always moving forward.

What have we learned today? We learned about how to support a thesis effectively. We looked at ways to determine when and where support is needed, and how to tell enough support from too much support, as well as ways to evaluate the kinds of support a particular thesis might need. Finally, we saw examples of a claim that's in need of more support and one that's probably got enough.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.