From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.