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Set Your Expectations
Nailing down a thesis can be the most difficult part of a writing project whether you need it for a historical research paper, an exegetical work, or a sermon.
- Give yourself permission to invest time in the process of creating a thesis that will work for you. Nobody expects you to come up with one right off the top of your head.
- Mull it over. Don't obsess about it, but keep it in the back of your mind as you read and do other things.
Get Started by Developing a Research Question
As you work through your resources, like class notes, readings, and preliminary computer searches, make note of the things that stand out.
- Does something in particular speak to you?
- Do something surprise or irritate you?
- How does the reading compare/contrast with what you already know?
- What is the author’s perspective and emphasis?
Alternative Techniques for Crafting a Research Question
- Talk out an idea with a receptive listener.
- Diagram ideas on paper using bullet points, pictures, multi-colored markers, or anything else that unlocks your thought processes.
- Listen in class for any mention of current questions being debated by scholars in the field
- Reformulate an unresolved question from a classroom discussion into a research project. Informed disagreements are the basis for much good research.
Restate Your Question as a Thesis Statement
Rather than write the thesis as a question, restate it as a sentence. Remember that a scholarly paper differs from a summary; it is an argument. The thesis represents the assertion that the body of the paper will support, i.e. you will prove or disprove your thesis using the evidence gathered through research. Below is one example of restating a question as a thesis:
- Question: “What influence did Germanic tribes have on the kind of Christianity spread throughout northern Europe in the early Medieval period?”
- Thesis: “The Christianity that spread through northern Europe in the early Medieval period reflected a Germanic tribal influence because of several specific cultural characteristics. These characteristics included . . . ”
Adjust Your Thesis
Refine your thesis to fit the assignment. Like Goldilocks you are striving to ask a question that is neither too big, nor too little, but just right. You want something appropriate for the page limit of your assignment. For example, if you have to come up with twenty pages, consider the following:
- Too broad: "Methodism as a Religion of the Heart"
- Too narrow: "Methodism as a Religion of the Heart in Rural East Anglian Parishes between 1791 and 1792"
- Just right (for most classes): "Methodism as a Religion of the Heart as Reflected in John Wesley's Later Sermons"
Let Your Thesis Evolve as You Research
Once you have a thesis with which to work, do not force your evidence to fit it. Listen to what the evidence tells you and allow your thesis to evolve.
This evolution can provide a nice introduction to your work. It lets you to say that based on what you knew previously, the situation appeared to be one thing, whereas in light of the evidence, it is actually something different. Then introduce your revised thesis statement and you are off to the races.