Formulating Your Claim
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 Apologyis 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.
For advice on how to discover claims based on responding to other writers’ analyses and arguments, see the section on “Responding.”