How to Write a Paper Topic Proposal & Thesis Statement
• PART 1 OF THE ASSIGNMENT: PAPER TOPIC PROPOSAL
The formal research paper or honors thesis will provide you with an opportunity to more fully develop the background and implications of one of the topics presented during the semester or explore a related topic not covered. Your paper topic proposal requires research in order to make your proposal as close to your paper topic as possible. I strongly suggest you come to office hours to discuss your topic proposal with me, because I will review all proposals for viability and reject any inappropriate or undoable topics.
The written proposal must include the following 2 things:
1. Your proposed paper topic: This part of the proposal is one sentence. Keep your paper topic narrow (but not so narrow that there are no scholarly sources available on the topic).
2. Why the topic is interesting and important: Address how you will focus the topic. If you choose a topic that is not of interest to you, it will show in your paper. This topic must remain of interest to you for two semesters, so give it some serious consideration. As we cover topics in class, undoubtedly something will come up that you want to learn more about. This would be an ideal paper topic. This part of the assignment requires that you include two to three paragraphs about why this topic is interesting and important. Why should the reader care about Roger Williams’s relationship with the Narragansett Indians? If you simply retell the story of his exile from Massachusetts and what he thought of the Narragansett religious beliefs and practices, that’s a book report, not an honors level research paper. However, if you explore the significance Narragansett religion had on Williams, his writings, and his life, you have the makings of an interesting and important research paper. It would require research pertaining to the role of missionaries in the American colonies, research of the Puritan philosophy and why Williams was banned from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and research of Narragansett beliefs and religious views and how they were impacted by the English and Dutch.
What should your paper topic be? Select a course-related topic. I suggest you write about an area that most interests you and in which you might already have some background knowledge. What do you want to learn more about? What are you interested in? Avoid choosing a topic that bores you. Sustained interest in your topic is important, as a topic that bores you makes for a boring paper. It is unlikely you will be able to fool the reader into believing you liked a topic that you didn’t actually like.
Now, narrow down your topic: Once you’ve chosen a topic, ask yourself if it’s narrow enough for you to tackle in the paper or honors thesis you will be writing. Narrow topics generally result in the best papers. One important consideration is the availability of material. Therefore, before making a final decision on your topic, do some initial research to find out the type, quality, and quantity of information available. Finally, how much time do you have to write your paper? The earlier you begin your paper, the more thorough the treatment your topic will receive. If you can’t begin your paper early in the semester, consider limiting your topic so you can deal with it adequately.
• PART 2 OF THE ASSIGNMENT: THESIS STATEMENT
What is a thesis statement? A thesis statement is “a proposition stated as a conclusion which you will then demonstrate or ‘prove’ in your paper.” It is the focal point around which your research will revolve. It is usually stated in the form of an assertion or statement you resolve through your research. It’s not a question; it’s an answer, such as:
“Key decisions in large U.S. cities are made by a handful of individuals, drawn largely from business, industrial, and municipal circles, who occupy the top of the power hierarchy.”
“Cigarette smoking harms the body by constricting the blood vessels, accelerating the heartbeat, paralyzing the cilia in the bronchial tubes, and activating excessive gastric secretions in the stomach.”
A thesis takes a position on an issue. Because you must take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement in your research paper. It is different from a topic sentence in that a thesis statement is not neutral. It announces, in addition to the topic, the argument you want to make or the point you want to prove. This is your own opinion that you intend to back up. This is your reason and motivation for writing. A thesis statement:
i) tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
ii) is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
iii) directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
iv) makes a claim that others might dispute.
v) is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation. After you have done some preliminary research and reading on your narrowed-down topic, you should formulate a single-sentence thesis statement.
Writing in college often takes the form of persuasion – convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you are studying. Persuasion is a skill you practice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up, your parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favorite candidate or policy. In college, course assignments often ask you to make a persuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your point of view. This form of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictable pattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your topic, you state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper.
What is the purpose of the thesis statement? The thesis statement guides you, enabling you to focus your research paper and outline what you will write. It allows you to clarify your thinking and determine what is relevant and irrelevant as you do your research. Your research paper must be thesis-driven. A high school level “report” will not receive a passing grade. The thesis must pull together the analysis that follows. Your thesis statement must be specific – it should cover only what you will discuss in your research paper and must be supported with specific evidence. The thesis statement usually appears at the end of the first paragraph of a paper. Early in your paper I should be able to locate the thesis statement. If I ask you “Where is the thesis statement?” you should be able to point to it immediately.
How do you come up with a thesis statement? A thesis is the result of a lengthy thinking process and careful deliberation after preliminary research. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading a writing assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way. Your topic may change somewhat as you write, so you may need to revise your thesis statement to reflect exactly what you have discussed in the paper.
Thesis Statement Samples:
1) The non-thesis thesis: You must take a stand or you’ll end up with a “non-thesis thesis.”
a) Bad Thesis 1: In his article, Stanley Fish shows that we don’t really have the right to free speech.
b) Bad Thesis 2: This paper will consider the advantages and disadvantages of certain restrictions on free speech.
c) Better Thesis 1: Stanley Fish’s argument that free speech exists more as a political prize than as a legal reality ignores the fact that even as a political prize it still serves the social end of creating a general cultural atmosphere of tolerance that may ultimately promote free speech in our nation just as effectively as any binding law.
d) Better Thesis 2: Even though there may be considerable advantages to restricting hate speech, the possibility of chilling open dialogue on crucial racial issues is too great and too high a price to pay.
2) The overly broad thesis: A thesis should be as specific as possible, and it should be tailored to reflect the scope of the paper. It is not possible, for instance, to write about the history of English literature in a five-page paper. In addition to choosing simply a smaller topic, strategies to narrow a thesis include specifying a method or perspective or delineating certain limits.
a) Bad Thesis 1: There should be no restrictions on the First Amendment.
b) Bad Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech.
c) Better Thesis 1: There should be no restrictions on the First Amendment if those restrictions are intended merely to protect individuals from unspecified or otherwise unquantifiable or unverifiable “emotional distress.”
d) Better Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech in cases of overtly racist or sexist language because our failure to address such abuses would effectively suggest that our society condones such ignorant and hateful views.
3) The incontestable thesis: A thesis must be arguable. And in order for it to be arguable, it must present a view that someone might reasonably contest. Sometimes a thesis ultimately says, “people should be good,” or “bad things are bad.” Such thesis statements are redundant or so universally accepted that there is no need to prove the point.
a) Bad Thesis 1: Although we have the right to say what we want, we should avoid hurting other people’s feelings.
b) Bad Thesis 2: There are always alternatives to using racist speech.
c) Better Thesis 1: If we can accept that emotional injuries can be just as painful as physical ones we should limit speech that may hurt people’s feelings in ways similar to the way we limit speech that may lead directly to bodily harm.
d) Better Thesis 2: The “fighting words” exception to free speech is not legitimate because it wrongly considers speech as an action.
4) The “list essay” thesis: A good argumentative thesis provides not only a position on an issue but also suggests the structure of the paper. The thesis should allow the reader to imagine and anticipate the flow of the paper, in which a sequence of points logically proves the essay’s main assertion. A list essay provides no such structure, so that different points and paragraphs appear arbitrary with no logical connection to one another.
a) Bad Thesis 1: There are many reasons we need to limit hate speech.
b) Bad Thesis 2: Some of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive.
c) Better Thesis 1: Among the many reasons we need to limit hate speech the most compelling ones all refer to our history of discrimination and prejudice, and it is, ultimately, for the purpose of trying to repair our troubled racial society that we need hate speech legislation.
d) Better Thesis 2: Some of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive because they ask pornography proponents to ask themselves whether such a profession would be on a list of professions they would desire for their daughters or mothers.
5) The research paper thesis: In another course this would be acceptable, and, in fact, possibly even desirable. But in this kind of course, a thesis statement that makes a factual claim that can be verified only with scientific, sociological, psychological, or other kind of experimental evidence is not appropriate. You need to construct a thesis that you are prepared to prove using the tools you have available, without having to consult the world’s leading expert on the issue to provide you with a definitive judgment.
a) Bad Thesis 1: Americans today are not prepared to give up on the concept of free speech.
b) Bad Thesis 2: Hate speech can cause emotional pain and suffering in victims just as intense as physical battery.
c) Better Thesis 1: Whether or not the cultural concept of free speech bears any relation to the reality of 1st amendment legislation and jurisprudence, its continuing social function as a promoter of tolerance and intellectual exchange trumps the call for politicization (according to Fish’s agenda) of the term.
d) Better Thesis 2: The various arguments against the regulation of hate speech depend on the unspoken and unexamined assumption that emotional pain is trivial.
How do I know if my thesis is strong? If there’s time, run it by a professor or make an appointment at the Writing Center to get some feedback (http://www.umass.edu/writingcenter/index.html). Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft of your working thesis, ask yourself the following:
1) Do I answer the question? Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
2) Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose? If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
3) Is my thesis statement specific enough? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: why is something “good”; what specifically makes something “successful”?
4) Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test? If a reader’s first response is, “So what?” then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
5) Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering? If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It’s okay to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
6) Does my thesis pass the “how and why?” test? If a reader’s first response is “how?” or “why?” your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.
Jane M. Smith
[Date] Paper Topic Proposal and Thesis Statement
Proposed paper topic: [One sentence.] Why the topic is interesting and important: [Two to three paragraphs.] See details above on what is required of this section.
Thesis statement: [One sentence.]
- Descriptive: This annotation describes the source without summarizing the actual argument, hypothesis, or message in the content. Like an abstract, it describes what the source addresses, what issues are being investigated, and any special features, such as appendices or bibliographies, that are used to supplement the main text. What it does not include is any evaluation or criticism of the content. This type of annotation seeks to answer the question: Does this source cover or address the topic I am researching?
- Informative/Summative: This type of annotation summarizes what the content, message, or argument of the source is. It generally contains the hypothesis, methodology, and conclusion or findings, but like the descriptive type, you are not offering your own evaluative comments about such content. This type of annotation seeks to answer these types of questions: What are the author's main arguments? What conclusions did the author draw?
- Evaluative/Critical/Analytical: This annotation includes your evaluative statements about the content of a source. It is the most common type of annotation your professor will ask you to write. Your critique may focus on describing a study's strengths and weaknesses or it may describe the applicability of the conclusions to the research problem you are studying. This type of annotation seeks to answer these types of questions: Is the reasoning sound? Is the methodology sound? Does this source address all the relevant issues? How does this source compare to other sources on this topic?
NOTE: Strategies about how to critically evaluate a source can be found here.
II. Choosing Sources for Your Bibliography
There are two good strategies you should use to begin identifying possible sources for your bibliography--one that looks back into the literature and one that looks forward.
- The first strategy is to identify several recent scholarly books or journal articles on the topic of your annotated bibliography and review the sources cited by the author(s). Often, the items cited by an author will effectively lead you to related sources about the topic.
- The second strategy is to identify one or more important books, book chapters, journal articles, or other documents on your topic and paste the title of the item in Google Scholar [e.g., from Negotiation Journal, entering the article, "Civic Fusion: Moving from Certainty through Not Knowing to Curiosity"], placing quotation marks around the title so Google Scholar searches as a phrase rather than a combination of individual words. Below the citation may be a "Cited by" reference followed by a linked number. This link will direct you to a list of other study's that have cited that particular item after it was published.
Your method for selecting which sources to annotate depends on the purpose of the assignment and the research problem you are investigating. For example, if the research problem is to compare the social factors that led to protests in Egypt with the social factors that led to protests against the government of the Phillippines in the 1980's, you will have to consider including non-U.S., historical, and, if possible, foreign language sources in your bibliography.
NOTE: Appropriate sources to include can be anything that has value in understanding the research problem. Be creative in thinking about possible sources, including non-textual items, such as, films, maps, photographs, and audio recordings, or archival documents and primary source materials, such as, diaries, government documents, collections of personal correspondence, meeting minutes, and official memorandums. Consult with a librarian if you're not sure how to locate these types of materials for your bibliography.
III. Strategies to Define the Scope of your Bibliography
It is important that the sources cited and described in your bibliography are well-defined and sufficiently narrow in coverage to ensure that you're not overwhelmed by the number of potential items to consider including. Many of the general strategies used to narrow a topic for a research paper are the same that you can use to define the scope of your bibliography. These are:
- Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of your topic [e.g., rather than a bibliography of sources about the role of food in religious rituals, create a bibliography on the role of food in Hindu ceremonies].
- Time -- the shorter the time period to be covered, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than political scandals of the 20th century, cite literature on political scandals during the 1930s and the 1990s].
- Geography -- the smaller the region of analysis, the fewer items there are to consider including in your bibliography [e.g., rather than cite sources about trade relations in West Africa, include only sources that examine trade relations between Niger and Cameroon].
- Type -- focus your bibliography on a specific type or class of people, places, or things [e.g., rather than health care provision in Japan, cite research on health care provided to elderly men in Japan].
- Source -- your bibliography includes specific types of materials [e.g., only books, only scholarly journal articles, only films, etc.]. However, be sure to describe why only one type of source is appropriate.
- Combination -- use two or more of the above strategies to focus your bibliography very narrowly or to broaden coverage of a very specific research problem [e.g., cite literature only about political scandals during the 1930s and the 1990s and that have only taken place in Great Britain].
IV. Assessing the Relevance and Value of Sources
All the items you include in your bibliography should reflect the source's contribution to understanding the research problem or the overall issue being addressed. In order to determine how you will use the source or define its contribution, you will need to assess the quality of the central argument within the source. Specific elements to assess include an item’s overall value in relation to other sources on the topic, its limitations, its effectiveness in defining the research problem, the methodology used, the quality of the evidence, and the author’s conclusions and/or recommendations.
With this in mind, determining whether a source should be included in your bibliography depends on how you think about and answer the following questions related to its content:
- Are you interested in the way the author frames the research questions or in the way the author goes about answering it [the method]?
- Does the research findings make new connections or promote new ways of understanding a problem?
- Are you interested in the way the author uses a theoretical framework or a key concept?
- Does the source refer to and analyze a particular body of evidence that you want to cite?
- How are the author's conclusions relevant to your overall investigation of the topic?
V. Format and Content
The format of an annotated bibliography can differ depending on its purpose and the nature of the assignment. Contents may be listed alphabetically by author or arranged chronologically by publication date. If the bibliography includes a lot of sources, items may also be subdivided thematically or by type. If you are unsure, ask your professor for specific guidelines in terms of length, focus, and the type of annotation you are to write.
Your bibliography should include a brief introductory paragraph that explains the method used to identify possible sources [including what sources, such as databases, you searched], the rationale for selecting the sources, and a statement, if appropriate, regarding what sources were deliberately excluded and the reasons why.
This first part of your entry contains the bibliographic information written in a standard documentation style, such as, MLA, Chicago, or APA. Ask your professor what style is most appropriate and be consistent!
The second part should summarize, in paragraph form, the content of the source. What you say about the source is dictated by the type of annotation you are asked to write. In most cases, however, your annotation should provide critical commentary that examines the source and its relationship to the topic. Things to think critically about when writing the annotation include: Does the source offer a good introduction on the issue? Does the source effectively address the issue? Would novices find the work accessible or is it intended for an audience already familiar with the topic? What limitations does the source have [reading level, timeliness, reliability, etc.]? Are any special features, such as, appendices or non-textual elements effectively presented? What is your overall reaction to the source? If it's a website or online resource, is it up-to-date, well-organized, and easy to read, use, and navigate?
Annotations can vary significantly in length, from a couple of sentences to a couple of pages. However, they are normally about 300 words. The length will depend on the purpose. If you're just writing summaries of your sources, the annotations may not be very long. However, if you are writing an extensive analysis of each source, you'll need to devote more space.
Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Annotated Bibliography. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Annotated Bibliography. Writing Center. Walden University; Engle, Michael et al. How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography. Olin Reference, Research and Learning Services. Cornell University Library; Guidelines for Preparing an Annotated Bibliography. Writing Center at Campus Library. University of Washington, Bothell; Harner, James L. On Compiling an Annotated Bibliography. 2nd edition. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000; How to Write an Annotated Bibliography. Information and Library Services. University of Maryland; Knott, Deborah. Writing an Annotated Bibliography. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Norton, Donna. Top 32 Effective Tips for Writing an Annotated Bibliography Top-notch study tips for A+ students blog; Writing from Sources: Writing an Annotated Bibliography. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College.