In academic writing, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the thesis statement, or core argument, of an essay. When assessing the thesis statement, instructors—among others—might wonder “so what?” In other words, they wonder why the thesis is significant or meaningful. Traditionally, thesis work is focused on what comes next: the body of the essay. Author Karen Gocsik suggests that a thesis needs to be an "umbrella idea," an idea “big enough that all of [the ideas explored in body paragraphs] can stand under” it. While it is crucial to look forward, it is as important to look back to the material that introduces the thesis in order to answer this question: so what?
However, many writers often forget the importance of the introduction in setting up the thesis statement. Typically, writers fall back on formulaic moves, like a super broad statement (the “funnel” approach) or a quick story or a hook line or a brief biography of the writer whose work they’re writing about. All of these moves, however, are missed opportunities because they don’t do one vital thing: create a need for your thesis. They are isolated bits of information. Creating a need for your thesis will not only provide you with a more organic introduction, it will also help you drive home the relevance of your essay, the often challenging or elusive “so what?”
So, how do you create a need for your thesis? There are a number of ways to approach it, but the main thing you have to do is describe a problem. You might even “create” a problem, as Harold Hill famously does in The Music Man by making the parents in town fear that their boys are getting into trouble at the new pool hall and that what the boys need is a distraction, hence a marching band that he’ll direct—and for which he’ll sell the instruments and costumes. That doesn’t mean that the problem has to be so nefarious or self-serving. But you do want to describe a problem that your core argument (thesis) and essay address.
This strategy of creating a need cuts across disciplines: literature, sociology, politics, economics, biology, engineering, psychology, art, business, among others. It also undergirds others’ advice about thesis statements, such as that of Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s They Say/I Say. Graff and Berkenstein suggest a writer note what other thinkers have said about a certain topic, outlining key threads of debate, and state their own stance. Similarly, Joseph Harris, in Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts suggests all writing grows out of the work of other writers, and thus that we “forward” or “counter” others’ work, building on it as we “rewrite” it. Other common advice includes starting with common ground and then moving into less familiar territory. These strategies can all be effective, but they’ll be even more so if you drive home the relevance of your argument by using your introduction, before you state your thesis, to create a need.
Let’s look at a few examples.
When assigned to write an analysis of a novel, many students begin by providing a brief biography of the author. However, that strategy only works if the whole essay is going to be about some biographical element in the novel. Instead, it’s better to explain a problem that the novel addresses, which is what the following example from CW R1A student Vanessa Montes de Oca does:
Although colonialism is considered a thing of the past, it is still an ongoing issue that creates long lasting damage to Native people. The erasure and assimilation of Native Americans has always been the goal for colonists. They aspire to take over traditional lands and relocate the indigenous people to urban areas. When Native people are brought into cities, they are forced to assimilate to the European culture and leave behind their language, culture, and identity. Colonization has affected the lives of millions of Native Americans, creating a negative impact on their culture. In Portraits of Violence, Frantz Fanon argues that colonialism “distorts and destroys” (qtd. in Evans and Wilson 42) the culture of people which leads them to experiencing repeated violence. Fanon’s views on colonialism are embodied by several characters in the novel There, There by Tommy Orange. For example, the character Orvil embodies the effects of oppressive and violent colonialism because he encounters different forms of violence due to the lack of knowledge and exposure to his Native culture. However, Orange extends Fanon’s views by addressing how Orvil resists and thus heals from the damages of colonialism.
The first sentence describes a problem: colonialism is not a thing of the past; it is an ongoing issue. To elaborate on the problem, Montes de Oca provides some historical background on colonialism and the damage it has wrought for Native people. She also deploys or “forwards,” to use Harris’s term, a core concept from the post-colonial theorist Franz Fanon. In doing so, she explains one of the central tensions in Tommy Orange’s novel. But she doesn’t stop there. On the basis of the foregoing frame, she adds her own claim that Orange not only demonstrates the damages of colonialism but addresses how one of the main characters begins to heal from those damages. Because the introduction has provided readers with some background on the continuing harm of colonialism, bolstered by ideas from a key figure in post-colonial theory, the reader is ready for Montes de Oca’s thesis about how Orange’s novel provides new insight and some solution to the problem.
Another strategy is to focus on an issue that others haven’t noticed before. For example, you might argue that many critics have written about science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but few have written about how the legal system is presented in the novel; thus, you’ve set-up your thesis about a problem, the lack of coverage of legal systems in the novel.
Let’s assess one of the essays written by the past winners of the Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research. Note that as arguments get more complex, writers often need to create a need for their thesis in more than just one introductory paragraph. One example is the essay from “Run Like a Girl: Renewing the Western Gender Binary through Testosterone Regulations in an Age of Neocolonialism” by Chung Lindsay. Lindsay uses three paragraphs to create the need for the thesis. I’ll summarize and describe those paragraphs, but you may want to glance at the essay in the link above for a fuller illustration.
Lindsay opens with the story of Mokgadi Caster Semenya, who won the World Athletics 2009 female championship for the 800-meter race but was criticized by many who thought her too masculine. In response, World Athletics imposed regulations on testosterone levels in female competitors. In the rest of this first paragraph, Lindsay explains the negative reaction to Semenya winning the championship that resulted in discriminatory regulations instituted in the name of equality, leading up to a question in which she poses a problem explicitly which the opening anecdote helps her to frame: “How can it be that exceptional athletes can be excluded from competition because of the way they were born?” In the second paragraph, Lindsay contextualizes the problem by citing a number of sources that note there are many factors beyond testosterone that give athletes advantages over others but that these are not regulated, thus highlighting that testosterone has been singled out unfairly. Lindsay uses these first two paragraphs to provide a need for her argument in the third paragraph, which is that the World Athletics’ regulation of testosterone reflects racist, sexist, and colonial standards, damaging many Black and Brown athletes.
Science and Engineering:
We can see this strategy in highly specialized and scientific writing, too. Take, for example, the introduction from “Mapping patterns of abiotic and biotic stress resilience uncovers conservation gaps and breeding potential of Vigna wild relatives” by Maarten van Zonneveld et al. Again, because the issue is complex, the authors used more than one paragraph to set up the context for their research. I’ll also summarize this introduction for brevity, but you may want to follow along with the full introduction in the link.
In their first paragraph, the authors note the importance of legume crops in both feeding many people and as a means of improving soil nutrients for other crops. But, they explain, climate change is damaging these crops; thus, they set up a general problem. They use the second paragraph to note how researching particular traits of legumes, specifically wild relatives, could help genetic modifications of current crops; they note research on the trait distributions is being done on cereal crops but not enough on legumes. Along the way, they support their claims by referencing sources. Thus, they refine and narrow the scope of their problem. They then explain how understanding trait distributions will help develop more resilient legume crops. In the final paragraph of their introduction, they explain that their research focuses on a few traits of a specific wild relative, Vigna, and thus provide their portion of a solution to the problem, successfully creating a need for their specific focus on selected traits in a specific legume genus.
As you can see, the possibilities of creating a need for your argument are plentiful, and the strategy is widely adaptable. So, for your next paper, prevent “so what?” criticism by setting up the “what” in your introduction.
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Berkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Third edition. New York: Norton. 2014.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Utah State UP: 2017.