Every essay needs a thesis. Whether you've spent months combing through resources for a final term paper or you're just dashing off a short opinion piece, you need to be able to state your argument clearly and succinctly. Not only will it make your essay easier to read and understand, but it will also make the writing process easier for you.
What is a thesis?
A thesis is a single sentence that sums up the argument you are going to make in your paper. It should be placed at the end of your introduction. For a short essay this will likely be the end of the first paragraph, while for longer essays the thesis may come a page or two into the paper. Either way, the reader needs to see your thesis statement before you start the main body of your paper. It provides a road map for your audience, and they need to know what to expect from your work before you can start providing evidence or analysis.
It is sometimes possible to give your thesis at the end of an essay
, a format known as the delayed thesis
. This is usually done in persuasive papers where the author introduces a number of different viewpoints before giving his own opinion. While this can be an effective way to organize a paper, you want to be careful if you choose this route. It's easy to think you are building a clear argument when you know what your main point will be, but a paper without a strong thesis at the beginning can feel meandering and disorganized to the reader. In general, it's better to include your thesis at the beginning of the work.
Doing the research
You can't write a thesis statement
if you don't know what you want to say, so before you start writing you need to do the research. This may mean hitting the library to look for sources for a research paper or it could just mean sitting down to brainstorm ideas for an opinion piece. You'll probably find that doing research will help clarify what topic you want to discuss as well as what specific argument you want make. But no matter what you're writing about, you need to have a clear idea of what you're going to try to say and what evidence you're going to use before you can state your thesis
Making an argument
When working on your thesis statement, ask yourself "Is it arguable?" That is, does it take a position that somebody else could argue against? A good thesis sentence won't just restate accepted facts, but will instead make an argument that needs to be analyzed and backed up with evidence (after all, that's what you're going to be doing in the rest of your paper).
For example, if you say that "Lady Macbeth is a central characters in Shakespeare's Macbeth", you won't find many people who would argue against that. But if you said, "Lady Macbeth is the true villain of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and it is because of her greed and her violent nature that so many characters die tragically", then you've taken a stand that someone could argue against. Another student could write a paper arguing that it is Macbeth who is the play's villain, or that the play has no villain at all. Either way, it's an arguable position instead of a simple statement of fact.
What makes a good thesis?
Below are some tips for writing a good thesis statement along with examples.
Never say in your thesis statement that something is "important"
You need to be more precise and explain exactly why that something matters.
Example: "Gertrude plays an important role in Hamlet's mental breakdown" doesn't tell the reader much of anything about why or how Gertrude is important. This can be rewritten as "Gertrude's betrayal of her son leads him to question the loyalty of everyone around him, which ultimately causes Hamlet's mental breakdown".
Stick to one main idea
Even if your paper is quite long, you should still be able to distill your argument into a single, clear sentence.
Example: In the thesis statement "Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay is a key figure in 20th century feminism, and she was also personally very special to Woolf", it's unclear what exactly the paper will address. Will it focus on Virginia Woolf's personal life? 20th century feminism? Rewrite it so that the focus of the paper is clear: "Since her inception, the character of Mrs. Ramsay has been divisive, and modern 20th century feminists have reshaped the character from Woolf's original ideas to fit their own views on women in post-Victorian England".
Example: "Consumers must do more to protect the environment" is too vague. Rewrite with details that specify what you're going to discuss in the body of your paper: "In order to preserve the environment, consumers must start recycling more, using less gas, and turning to renewable energy sources".
Don't be afraid to take a stand
It can be tempting to back away from strong claims in an essay, particularly for students who feel uncertain about the material being studied. But even if you're unsure, your thesis needs to come down strongly on one side of the argument or the other.
Example: "There are both pros and cons to the new, healthier school lunch menu" is just a vague summary - every argument has pros and cons. Instead, choose one side of the issue to argue: "While some have said that the new, healthier school lunches aren't necessary, the rapidly rising obesity rates among students means that it is absolutely critical that these changes be implemented".
Do more research on your topic
If you're having trouble deciding what to write about, do more research on your topic and look for sources with which you strongly agree or disagree to help you shape your argument.
Example: "While Barton (2004) argues that territorial concerns were the most important cause of the War of 1812, it's clear from primary sources that latent anger towards Britain was at the root of the American desire for war".