Having practiced the various stages of the writing process, we now return to an early phase: narrowing and refining the focus of our topic. Most of us have been part of heated political discussions between friends and family members. Grandfather states that the taxes are too high under the new administration. Cousin Susan points out that corporations do not pay their fair share, and Dad shouts that the government funds too many social programs and allows too many foreigners to immigrate to this country. These discussions are often discursive and unsatisfying because they are not focused on one clear and precise question at issue. For an argument to be successful, one person does not necessarily have to defeat another; one point of view does not have to be proven superior to another. An argument can also be considered successful if it opens a line of communication between people and allows them to consider--with respect--points of view other than their own. But if an argument is to establish such a worthwhile exchange, it must focus first on a single topic and then on a particular question at issue.
An issue is any topic of concern and controversy. Not all topics are issues since many topics are not controversial. Pet care, for instance, is a topic, but not an issue; laboratory testing of animals, on the other hand, is an issue. In the hypothetical family discussion above four issues are raised--taxes, the new administration, immigration, and government-funded social programs. No wonder such a discussion is fragmented and deteriorates into people shouting unsupported claims at one another.
Whether we choose our own issue or are assigned one, the next step is to choose one question at issue--a particular aspect under consideration. Abortion, for instance, has many questions at issue: Should abortion remain legal? Should the government fund abortions for poor women? Should a man have the right to prevent a woman from aborting her/their fetus? Should minors be required to obtain parental permission to have an abortion? When does life begin? A writer who does not focus on one and only one question at issue risks producing a disorganized essay, one that will be difficult to follow because the readers will not be sure they understand the point the writer is arguing.
The final step in establishing the focus of an essay is determining the thesis. While the issue and question at issue state, respectively, the subject and focus of the paper, they are neutral statements; they do not reveal the writer's opinion nor should they. To encourage objective analysis, the question at issue should be expressed in neutral rather than biased or emotionally charged language. The thesis, however, states the writer's position, her response to the question at issue.