However different your assignments may seem, most will share one characteristic. In each, you will almost certainly be asked to make a claim. What exactly does that mean? If asked what the point of their paper is, most students answer with something like, “Well, I wanted to write about the way Falstaff plays the role of Prince Hal’s father.” But that kind of sentence names only your topic and an intention to write about it.
When most of your instructors ask what your central claim is, they have in mind something different. By point or claim (the words are virtually synonymous with thesis), they will more often mean the most important sentence that you wrote in your essay, a sentence that appears on the page, in black and white; words that you can point to; a sentence that sums up the most important thing you want to say as a result of your reading, thinking, research, and writing. In that sense, you might state the point of your paper as “Well, I want to show/prove/claim/argue/demonstrate—any of these words will serve to introduce the point that
Though Falstaff seems to play the role of Hal’s father, he is, in fact, acting more like a younger brother who. . . “
If you include in your paper what appears after I want to prove that, then that’s the point of your paper, its central claim that the rest of your paper supports.
What’s a good claim?
A question just as important as what a claim is, though, is what counts as a good one. Many beginning writers think that writing an essay means thinking up a point or thesis and then finding evidence to support it. But few of us work that way. Most of us begin our research with a question, a puzzlement, a hunch—something that we don’t understand but want to, and maybe a vague sense of what an answer might look like. We hope that out of our early research to resolve that puzzle there emerges a solution to the puzzle, an idea that seems promising, but one only more research and reflection can test. But even if more research supports that developing idea, we aren’t ready to say that that idea is our claim or point. Instead, we start writing to see whether we can build an argument to support it, hoping that in the act of writing we will refine that idea, maybe even change it substantially.
Paradoxical as it may sound, you are unlikely to know exactly what words to use in constructing the sentences (or set of sentences) that offer your central claim until after you have written the paper in which you make it. Because everything you do at the beginning of your writing process aims at finding a good point, it is useful to have a clear idea about what it is you are trying to find, what makes for a good point.
A strong claim has several key characteristics:
- it says something significant about what you have read or examined
- it helps you and your readers understand your object of study better
- it says something that is not obvious (something your reader didn’t already know)
- it is at least mildly contestable (something that no one would agree with just by reading it)
- it asserts something that you can plausibly support in an essay (not something that would require a book)
Measured by those criteria, these are weak claims:
- “Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare is a play that raises questions about the nature of kingship and responsibility.” Sounds impressive, but who would contest it? Everyone who has read the play already knows that it raises such questions.
- “Native Son is one of the most important stories about race relations ever written.” Again, your readers probably already agree with this, and if so, why would they read an essay that supported it? Further, are you ready to provide an argument that this point is true? What evidence could you provide to make this argument? Are you prepared to compare the effect of Native Son with the effects of other books about race relations?
- “Socrates’ argument in The Apology is very interesting.” Right. So?
- “In this paper I discuss Thucydides’ account of the Corcyrean-Corinthian debate in Book I.” First, what significant thing does this point tell us about the book? Second, who would contest this (who would argue that you are not going to discuss Thucydides’ account?).
None of these is a particularly significant or contestable point, and so none of them qualifies as a good one;
In contrast, these might qualify as good claims:
- The three most prominent women in Heart of Darkness play key roles in a complex system of parallels: literally as gatekeepers of Africa, representatively as gatekeepers of darkness, and metaphorically as gatekeepers of brutality.
- While Freud argues that followers obey because each has a part of themselves invested in the leader, Blau claims that followers obey in order to avoid punishment. Both neglect the effects of external power.
You should recognize, however, that you will only rarely be able to state good points like these before you write your first draft. Much more often, you discover claims as you draft, or at the end of your drafting process. Writing is a way of thinking through a problem, of discovering what you want to say. So do not feel that you should begin to write only when you have a fully articulated point in mind. Instead, write to find it and to give it a discursive shape.
A note on the language of claim sentences
If you’re like most writers, you will want your readers to think that your points are terrifically interesting and significant. What almost never accomplishes this is to say: “My claim is terrifically interesting and significant.” Many writers try to generate a sense of importance for what they write by simply adding some synonym of the word “important”: “An important question to consider. . .” “It is essential to examine. . .” “A crucial concern is whether. . .” This isn’t going to work. What convinces readers that a point is important is not the word “important,” but the words that tell us the substance of the point. If, during your first draft, you find yourself using words like “important,” you should make a note to yourself and come back during your revision to replace “important” with more substantive language. Now, that’s an important point.
Entering into the Territory of a Controversy
Both civic and intellectual public spheres are animated by issues and ideas about which reasonable persons may disagree. We witness public controversies over actions (Should the war in Afghanistan continue? Shall we allow real estate developers to drain the wetlands area? Shall we permit early release for criminals?) as well as concepts (What counts as a successful career? How shall marriage be defined? Is the new sculpture on the public square beautiful? What value is there to reading romance novels? Is the death penalty just?). Though some Americans tend to think of disagreement as an inevitably brutal event, it need not be feared and cannot be avoided in democratic arrangements where members of a public are likely to base their judgments on conflicting assumptions about the nature of the world: What is best? most judicious? most ethical? most pleasurable? most faithful? most honorable?, etc.
We commonly say that writers enter into controversies, a metaphor that suggests crossing into a territory. When we enter into a debate, we stake our claims to a portion of that territory, a discursive space already buzzing with voices: arguments, counter-arguments, assertions, and rebuttals. We make decisions about how we will respond—if at all—to a particular controversy by analyzing and evaluating what’s already been said. As we enter into the territory of a dispute, a first likely question is: What have others had to say about this matter?
As best we can, we attempt to become knowledgeable about what’s been said. We research the history of the dispute: Who has been saying what, at which moments, in response to what other commentary about the issue? This is a matter of “doing our homework,” as we access the archive of discourses in response to the issue at hand. Some controversies extend over centuries; others flare up and die out quickly. It is rare that the territory of a dispute appears as a neat and ordered sequence of comments and responses. More often (and especially in intellectual controversies) the territory resembles a tangled thicket of articulated positions and responses. When you enter into a controversy, it’s useful to have at hand a conceptual map of positions. You create that map from reading and analyzing others’ texts. The library has various materials that will help you map the territory of disagreements that attend to an issue: synopses of major intellectual issues, handbooks of disciplinary and sub-disciplinary research, or any number of what are called “finding sources,” that summarize contemporary or historical research in various fields.
The territory of a controversy is composed of language and data: key terms, images, statistics, experimental findings, descriptions, definitions of terms, analogies, propositions, etc., each of these appearing in the context of an argument or analysis that has been made at a particular moment, situated against the backdrop of a community, discipline, or tradition of inquiry. When we read another’s commentary, argument, or analysis and prepare to respond, we become members of a public, persons not personally known to one another, but who share an interest in how the issue has been and will be treated, how certain arguments have been made, with what levels of success, with what prospects for negotiation or lasting difference.
The Stases: What Do We Agree Upon? Where Do Our Disagreements Begin?
Most civic and intellectual controversies hinge on four kinds of disagreement. Particular arguments stake their claims in one (or more) of these areas of interest. These four areas (called stases in classical rhetoric) are each composed of questions typically posed by those who are interested in determining exactly where disagreements about a subject are likely to be found. As used in ancient Greek rhetoric, the term stasis (stases, plural) literally means “a place of rest,” the same concept found in homeostasis, the term from Biology). The stasis is an imaginary line of demarcation, below which agreement exists, and above which disagreement begin. This imaginary line is important for any writer new to an issue to recognize since there is no reason to argue in support of claim which no one disputes.
Writers new to a particular controversy use the stases much like a compass, since they are designed to orient the user to particular areas of disagreement within the territory of a dispute. Readers can use the stases to map the territory of current and future disagreements within a controversy. They help predict why reasonable persons may choose to disagree about an issue at hand. The four stases include:
- Do some people believe that something happened, while others deny its existence?
- Is there disagreement about exactly what happened or about the sequence of events?
- Do eye witnesses describe the event in contrasting ways?
- Are there differing accounts of how the event began?
- Are there differing accounts of what led up to the event or what caused it?
- Do the facts of the case differ across accounts?
- Are there disagreements about where/how/when the event (or phenomenon) originated?
- Are there disagreements over what kind of event it is or to what larger class of things it might belong?
- Do people describe the part or structure of the phenomenon in different ways?
- Do persons name the event/phenomenon in different ways?
- Do people agree on how the event/phenomenon should be named, but disagree about how it should be defined? What accounts for these differing definitions?
- Have some stipulated a definition for the term that differs from its typical meanings?
- Is there disagreement about whether this phenomenon is a good or a bad thing?
- Are there disagreements about the seriousness or severity of the matter?
- Are there disagreements (for example) about the aesthetic, economic, political, psychological, biological, ethical, or historical value of the phenomenon in question?
- Are there disagreements about the virtue of the phenomenon (courage, honesty, care, commitment, faith, honor, etc.)?
- Do some believe that the phenomenon is better or worse than some alternative?
- Do persons reach contrasting judgments about the goodness, truth, rightness, appropriateness, etc. of the phenomenon at issue?
- Do people disagree about what should be done in response to the event/phenomenon? Are there disagreements about what policy or procedure is possible as a response?
- Is there disagreement about how the proposed actions will change or improve the state of affairs?
- Are there disagreements about whether the proposed actions will make thing better or worse—for whom, in what ways?
- Do people advocate for a policy to be enacted, while others advocate for leaving things well enough alone?
- Are there disagreements about the implementation of the policy or procedure?
The stases hold other advantages. They can orient you to the kinds of claims others have made, or the kind of claim you may wish to forge. In other words, you can use them to locate the claim you want to support in an argument: a claim about the existence of something, a claim about the definition of something, a claim about something’s value, or a claim about the nature of a procedure.
For an especially robust examination of the stases, please consult Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 5th Ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.