I hang out (virtually) in The Writer’s Discussion Group, a Google+ community which, just weeks into its existence, has about five thousand members.
One of the discussion boards I like the best there is “Ask an Editor”. Now you might think that professional editors woud say “Pfff — I’m not giving this stuff away for free.” Au contraire, mon cher — editors LOVE talking about editing, and there are enough of us there that you’ll generally get more of an answer than you bargained for.
A recent “Ask an Editor” question was from a student whose Professor had taken issue with his thesis statement in an essay exam. The extra-helpful constructive criticism was apparently along the lines of “This sucks!” Gee, thanks.
Not knowing what the thesis statement was, I went with my tried and true “Dammit” advice. I’ve written about it before, but this one is tailored just for students:
When you write a thesis statement, you’re essentially taking a stand for something, and that should be clear. So try this: put “dammit!” at the end and see how it sounds.
“Robert Frost is a very good poet, dammit!”
OK: there you are, your back against the wall, fists clenched, ready to fight about Robert Frost’s “goodness”.
Is anyone fighting back?
No, of course not. Partly because, well, duh. And partly because “good” is subjective — you’d have to start by defining “good” in terms of poetry… and nobody wants to get into all that in a five-page essay.
OK, but how about this:
“Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is about suicide, dammit!”
AHA! — _now_ you’ve got my attention. You’ve taken a very specific stand there. So specific that the only possible responses are “Nuh-UH!” or “Oh, how interesting; please explain,” (but only your professor is likely to say that).
Either way, what is your next step after saying something kooky like “Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is about suicide, dammit!”
Well, you have to prove it, right? With that “dammit!” you’re leaving yourself no alternative but to pull out lines from the poem that prove it’s about suicide.
And what about structure? And what about meter? And what about evidence from other poems, such as the unhappy home life depicted in ‘I Am One Acquainted With the Night”? SO much you could pull in. But the point is that everything is going to relate to that thesis because it has to! You’ve painted yourself into a corner with that “dammit,” dammit! And that’s exactly where you want to be.