Thesis statements are hard to write. There, I said it. As an English major people usually assume that I have some sort of internal thesis generator that spits out finely tuned arguments instantly. This is not true. I often spend an embarrassing amount of time wading through poorly drafted theses (yes, that is the plural) before I finally land on something that works.
That being said, your thesis is important and it deserves a lot of time and attention. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what a good thesis looks like, especially because many professors seem to be unable to present a good definition of what a thesis is. Basically, a thesis statement is a sentence (or several sentences) that outlines the argument you will be defending in your paper. This can seem like a bit of a vague definition, but if you break up the goals of your thesis, it becomes a lot more manageable.
A good thesis statement accomplishes three purposes:
- It introduces the topic at hand and gives a reader an idea of what to expect out of the paper.
- It presents your argument.
- It demonstrates the importance of your argument, giving the reader more reason to be invested in your essay.
Let’s look at some examples of possible thesis statements, and see whether or not they accomplish these goals.
- This is a paper about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.
This thesis accomplishes goal number 1, but it doesn’t accomplish the other two goals. For a thesis to successfully present the argument of your paper, someone needs to be able to disagree with it. Because there is no opposing viewpoint to this statement, it does not function as a successful thesis. Your thesis should be a strong argument, which the reader can choose to agree or disagree with.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional.
This thesis is better, in that it does present an argument. A potential reader could disagree with the idea that Confessions defined the confessional genre, so this thesis accomplishes both of the first two goals of a successful thesis. However, this thesis does not accomplish the third goal. There should be some sort of importance to your argument; maybe your thesis has implications outside of the specific argument that you’re making, or maybe there is a specific benefit to thinking about the topic in the way that you advocate. In argumentative essays, an easy way to demonstrate the importance of your argument is to provide a “call to action”, in which you ask the reader to do something with your information, such as advocate a change in policy. In literary critiques, it can be helpful to pull your thesis outside of the text and talk about broad implications of your arguments. It is difficult to create a thesis that accomplishes all three of your goals, but it is crucial for having a successful essay.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional. Because many of these conventions persist within the confessional genre to this day, gaining an understanding of the devices used within Confessions can provide valuable context to contemporary confessional novels.
Although this thesis is a bit wordy, it does accomplish all three of the goals of a successful thesis. The reader knows what you plan to discuss in the paper, what you are going to argue about your topic, and why it is important. Presenting a fully developed thesis, such as this one, will allow you to write a strong essay.
Writing a thesis with this much depth is tricky. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to break through to a thesis that accomplishes more than the first two goals right away. Something that I have often noticed in my own writing is that I will write an entire paper on what I think is my thesis, only to find that a more in-depth, well-developed thesis appears in for the first time in the conclusion. If you’re having trouble with your thesis, it may be a good idea to begin writing your paper, and only finalize your thesis once you have already started analyzing your topic. Not only does this take the pressure off of you in the beginning, it allows you plenty of time to truly develop your ideas before you draft your actual thesis.
Thesis statements are hard, but they are important, and they are certainly writeable. If you have a good understanding of your topic and its importance, your thesis is in there somewhere. The only real obstacle is teasing it out and refining it so that it best reflects your thoughts. Good luck.
Whenever you are writing to explain something to your reader or to persuade your reader to agree with your opinion, there should be one complete sentence that expresses the main idea of your paper. That sentence is often called the thesis, or thesis statement. (Some other names it goes by are "the main idea" and "the controlling idea.") Based on everything you've read, and thought, and brainstormed, the thesis is not just your topic, but what you're saying about your topic. Another way to look at it is, once you've come up with the central question, or organizing question, of your essay, the thesis is an answer to that question. Remember, though, while you are still writing your paper, to consider what you have to be a "working thesis," one that may still be "adjusted." As you continue to write, read, and think about your topic, see if your working thesis still represents your opinion.
Handy reminders about the thesis:
- Where to put it
- Put it as a statement
- Don't go overboard
- Focus further
- Choose the right shape
Where to Put the Thesis
The thesis usually comes within the introductory paragraph, which prepares the reader to listen to your ideas, and before the body of the paper, which develops the thesis with reasons, explanations, and evidence or examples. In fact, if you examine a well-written thesis, you will find hidden in it the questions your reader will expect you to answer in the body. For example, if your thesis is "Cannibalism, if practiced tastefully, can be acceptable in extreme circumstances," the body of your essay will develop this idea by explaining HOW it can be practiced tastefully, WHY it would be acceptable, and WHAT you would consider extreme circumstances.
Put the Thesis as a Statement
Make sure your thesis is in the form of a statement, not a question. "Can we save the Amazon rain forest?" is an ear-catching question that might be useful in the introduction, but it doesn't express an opinion or perspective as the following statements do:
- "We can save the Amazon rain forest by limiting tourist presence, boycotting goods made by companies that deplete the forest's resources, and generally educating people about the need to preserve the rain forest in order to preserve the earth's ecological systems."
- "We cannot save the Amazon rain forest since the companies that deplete its resources in their manufacturing are so widely-spread throughout the world, so politically powerful in their respective countries, and wealthy enough to fight the opposition fully."
Don't go Overboard!
Make sure your thesis expresses your true opinion and not an exaggerated version of it. Don't say "Computers are wonderful" or "Computers are terrible" if what you really believe is "Computers do more good than harm" or "Computers do more harm than good." Why commit yourself to an extreme opinion that you don't really believe in, and then look like you're contradicting yourself later on?
Make sure your thesis covers exactly the topic you want to talk about, no more and no less. "Drugs should not be legalized" is too large a thesis if all you want to talk about is marijuana. "Boxing should be outlawed" is too small a thesis if you also want to discuss wrestling and football. Bite off as much as you can chew thoroughly--then chew it!
Choose the Right Shape
Shape your thesis to fit the question you wish to answer. A thesis can come in many forms, including the following:
- Simply stating an opinion: "Langston Hughes was a master stylist."
- Indicating categories or reasons: "Langston Hughes was a master stylist because of his vivid imagery, surprising metaphors, and effective alliteration."
- Showing two aspects of a topic and emphasizing one (in this sample, the 2nd topic in the sentence is emphasized): "While Langston Hughes was a master stylist, as a critic he had several blind spots."