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Daughter is currently taking an advanced high school writing course called Rhetoric. In it she and her classmates have to write a number of essays, one every few weeks or so. The teacher holds the students to high standards on these essays because she is trying to inculcate  in them a superior writing ability while showing them the requirements of college papers.

Daughter takes this class seriously (so seriously that she periodically suffers Writer’s Panic). She asks me to read through each paper during the writing process in order to help her flesh out ideas. When she is finished, she has me check the papers for errors. Her essays undergo a second round of editing by various classmates, who serve as editing partners before papers get handed in.

This might sound strange, but Daughter’s editing partners tend to give her more editing suggestions than I do, even though I’ve been a practicing writer for longer. This is because the students are in a better position to understand the teacher’s requirements; they attend her class daily and know exactly what she is looking for in Rhetoric papers.

Because I’m not sitting in Daughter’s classroom, I’m left attempting to divine the teacher’s intentions from what Daughter has told me and often find myself disagreeing with the writing “rules” I’m gleaning second-hand. (Examples: Don’t ever start a paper with a question. Don’t ever use the words “very” and “thing.”)  This is compounded by having been out of school for years and writing for a popular audience. In order to best reach that popular audience and make my writing enjoyable to them, I had to unlearn some of what I learned about writing college papers.

As I’ve been helping Daughter through the essay-writing process, it dawned on me that one of the things I’ve unlearned is the practice of using a thesis statement in my writing. Ah, the thesis statement! The sentence that’s supposed to appear at the end of an essay’s first paragraph that encapsulates what the piece is about.

Here are two examples written by me for my high school “The Research Paper: English 412” class that, incidentally, was the precursor to Daughter’s Rhetoric class:

From Jack the Ripper Put to Rest:

Although there are many theories as to the identity of Jack the Ripper, the most credible of them all proves that he was three people: Sir William Withey Gull, John Netley, and Walter Sickert.

From Astrology and Eleanor Roosevelt: Do They Stand on Common Ground?:

Although many people believe that a birth chart won’t predict the personality or life of a person, in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, her horoscope is an accurate representation of her existance [sic].

These thesis statements dutifully show up at the end of the first paragraph of their respective papers. I cringe to read them, even though I got A’s on both papers. (Note the misspelling of “existence” in the second example. Yeesh! The teacher didn’t even catch it.)

Thesis statements come across as pedantic and bald; so overtly obvious that they smash the reader upside the head with a six-inch width of planking. They scream, “HERE IS WHAT I’M GOING TO PROVE!!” They take some of the mystery out of an essay, particularly when they show up at the end of the first paragraph, and can cause the reader to disengage from a piece.

In order to show that thesis statements do not need to appear in essays as traditionally taught, below are a few examples from a bestselling author. These are the final sentences of the first paragraphs of some of his essays.

She was Old World Orthodox, with severe, tightly pulled back hair; no one was good enough for her son.

Outside, television-satellite trucks were parked up and down the block.

He gets Bs and B-pluses.

Grey Poupon was magic.

Of all of these first paragraph final sentences, the closest one to a thesis statement is the last one, Grey Poupon was magic, and even that does completely explain the essay.

Any idea who wrote these sentences?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, the first three of which were number one on the New York Times bestseller list, the fourth of which is a collection of his essays from The New Yorker magazine. The aforementioned sentences came from the following essays  in What the Dog Saw (in order from above): True Colors, Open Secrets, The New-Boy Network, and The Ketchup Conundrum.

The New Yorker among writers is like the orchestra’s reaction to  Bugs Bunny’s rendition of famous conductor Leopold Stokowski. “Leopold! Leopold!” orchestra members whisper in fervent awe, while writers mentally chant, “The New Yorker! The New Yorker!” with the same reverence.  The point is, Malcolm Gladwell, with his position at The New Yorker and bestselling books, is recognized for knowing a thing or two about writing and he does not use thesis statements in a textbook manner.

That’s not to say he doesn’t use them at all. In fact, the taglines of his essays could easily stand in as traditional thesis statements if they were bogged down with a bit of unnecessary verbiage. The tagline for The Ketchup Conundrum, where the Grey Poupon sentence was taken, reads, “Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?”

Note that Gladwell has left a mystery in the reader’s mind by asking a question. He then sets about fully developing and explaining his thesis throughout the essay without resorting to spelling it letter-for-letter in the final sentence of the first paragraph. He leads readers on a journey, the whole of which makes his point, rather than any given part.

Without a doubt, the thesis statement is important to novice and experienced writers alike.  It serves as a  focusing agent, keeping the writer from spinning off into the hinterlands while writing and providing a map of where an essay ought to go.

Teaching beginning writers to consistently plop a thesis statement at the end of their first paragraphs, however, does a disservice to both writers and readers. I’d love to have Daughter come home with a Rhetoric assignment that requires her to write an essay that proves a thesis without actually stating that thesis. Papers generated from this assignment could then be shared in class, with other students discussing what they think is the intended thesis. This would provide clear proof of a writer’s ability to communicate.

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