By Geraldine Woods
You’ve got a subject (“human-bear interactions”) and a topic (“the relationship between Goldilocks and the three bears”). Now it’s time to come up with a thesis statement — the point that you want to make about Goldie and the furry guys. A couple of possibilities occur to you — “bears that hang around people end up eating porridge and sleeping in beds,” “both blonds and baby bears like medium-firm mattresses,” and “humans and bears share forest resources.” As you tease out a few more ideas, you search for the middle ground, avoiding a thesis statement that is too broad or too narrow. You want one that, like Goldilocks’s porridge, is “just right.”
As soon as you’ve got a chunk of research, a deck of index cards, or a few files on the computer, take a few moments to reread your material. Think about what you might prove with all those facts and quotations. A couple of techniques will help you decide.
As you review your notes, do any questions occur to you? Is your curiosity piqued by anything you’ve written? If not, check out the next sections, “If only,” “I recommend,” and “Relationships,” or go back to note taking and try again later.
Any questions that pop into your mind arise from issues that are relevant to your topic, and issues are the breeding ground for theses. For example, suppose you’re doing a psych paper on parental influence — specifically, how parental discipline affects children’s behavior. You’ve read a ton of studies that attempt to describe the relationship between parents’ actions and children’s reactions. As you review your notes, you may find yourself wondering:
- Do children of very strict parents behave better?
- Does a child’s reaction to strict parental rules change as the child grows older?
- Does spanking affect children’s self-esteem?
- Does inconsistent discipline have a negative effect on children’s behavior?
Not one of these questions is a thesis, but each is a possible starting point. Possible because you can’t cover them all in one paper. You have to choose. Right now, suppose that you select the second sample question.
If the question of age interests you the most, read your notes again with question two in mind. Look closely at every note concerned with discipline, age, and rules. Put little check marks next to information about children’s behavior — the behavior of those children identified as having trouble in school or with the law, perhaps. If necessary, go back to the library or the Internet for more research on the relationship between discipline techniques, age, and children’s behavior. If you can, do some statistical analysis to see which factors matter and which are simply coincidence.
After you’ve finished those tasks, you’re probably ready to take a stand. Express that stand in a single sentence, perhaps this one:
Children of very strict parents follow the rules diligently until adolescence, but not during the teen years.
Now you’ve got the basis for your paper: the thesis statement. (By the way, the preceding paragraphs are just an example, not necessarily a psychological truth!)
Another way to hunt for a thesis is to consider the “if only” spots in your paper. This method is particularly helpful for history projects. Again, start by rereading your notes. Look for moments when the entire course of historical events might have changed, if only one decision or one detail had been different. For example, suppose you’re writing about a famous incident involving Humpty Dumpty. You’ve read eyewitness accounts, historians’ analysis of the events, and doctors’ descriptions of the injuries Mr. Dumpty suffered. Now you’re ready to make a thesis statement.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, here are the “facts” of the case:
Victim: Humpty Dumpty, male egg
Physical description: Round but delicate build, oval face, pale complexion
Date of incident: Nineteenth century
Place: King’s walled courtyard
Description of incident: Victim had a great fall from a wall approximately ten feet high. Bystanders called 911 immediately. King’s horses and king’s men arrived within ten minutes. Entire battalion of horses and men worked on the victim for 45 minutes, but could not put him back together again.
After reviewing all your material, you think
- If only the top of the wall had been shaped like an egg crate, giving Humpty Dumpty more stability
- If only Humpty Dumpty had eaten a calcium-rich, shell-strengthening diet
- If only the king’s men had had more training in re-gluing than in military maneuvers
The last “if only” in the preceding list gives you an idea for a thesis, which you turn into a sentence:
The emphasis on militarism in the training of the king’s men led to the tragic demise of Humpty Dumpty.
Depending upon your topic, another road to a thesis statement comes from the phrase “I recommend.” This road is especially helpful if you’re writing about science, social science, technology, or any area that looks toward the future. Review your notes and ask yourself what improvements you’d like to see in the situation or conditions. Then ask yourself what should be changed to bring about those improvements.
Here’s this method in action. Suppose you’re writing about fatal accidents. One of your sources is the Humpty Dumpty incident, described in the preceding section, “If only.” As you scan your notes, think about the improvements that you would like to see — perhaps the prevention of shattering injuries caused by falls. What should be changed to bring about that improvement? The addition of calcium supplements to the water supply, a change in the design of palace architecture, additional training in egg gluing for emergency medical personnel, or something else? One of those ideas becomes your thesis statement:
To prevent serious injury, architects should design safer walls.
Another thesis catcher is the relationship question, especially helpful when you’re writing about literature. As you’re poring over your notes, look for events or ideas that belong together in one of these ways: cause and effect, contrast, or similarity. For example, suppose you’re writing about the murder of the king in a modern drama, Macbeth Revisited (not a real play). You delve into English politics during the Thatcher era and decide that the factions portrayed in the play reflect the conflict between contemporary English political parties. Now you’ve got a “relationship” thesis.
The strife between the Googrubs and the McAgues in Macbeth Revisited mirrors the conflict between the Labor and Tory parties in the late twentieth century.
Or, suppose you’re writing about energy and pollution. You contrast fossil fuels with solar power, deciding on this thesis statement:
Solar energy is less harmful to the environment than fossil fuels.
A thesis can be found in many places—a debate speech, a lawyer’s closing argument, even an advertisement. But the most common place for a thesis statement (and probably why you’re reading this article) is in an essay.
Whether you’re writing an argumentative paper, an informative essay, or a compare/contrast statement, you need a thesis. Without a thesis, your argument falls flat and your information is unfocused. Since a thesis is so important, it’s probably a good idea to look at some tips on how to put together a strong one.
What is a “thesis statement” anyway?
You may have heard of something called a “thesis.” It’s what seniors commonly refer to as their final paper before graduation. That’s not what we’re talking about here. That type of thesis is a long, well-written paper that takes years to piece together.
Instead, we’re talking about a single sentence that ties together the main idea of any argument. In the context of student essays, it’s a statement that summarizes your topic and declares your position on it. This sentence can tell a reader whether your essay is something they want to read.
2 Categories of Thesis Statements: Informative and Persuasive
Just as there are different types of essays, there are different types of thesis statements. The thesis should match the essay.
For example, with an informative essay, you should compose an informative thesis (rather than argumentative). You want to declare your intentions in this essay and guide the reader to the conclusion that you reach.
To make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you must procure the ingredients, find a knife, and spread the condiments.
This thesis showed the reader the topic (a type of sandwich) and the direction the essay will take (describing how the sandwich is made).
Most other types of essays, whether compare/contrast, argumentative, or narrative, have thesis statements that take a position and argue it. In other words, unless your purpose is simply to inform, your thesis is considered persuasive. A persuasive thesis usually contains an opinion and the reason why your opinion is true.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the best type of sandwich because they are versatile, easy to make, and taste good.
In this persuasive thesis statement, you see that I state my opinion (the best type of sandwich), which means I have chosen a stance. Next, I explain that my opinion is correct with several key reasons. This persuasive type of thesis can be used in any essay that contains the writer’s opinion, including, as I mentioned above, compare/contrast essays, narrative essays, and so on.
2 Styles of Thesis Statements
Just as there are two different types of thesis statements (informative and persuasive), there are two basic styles you can use.
The first style uses a list of two or more points. This style of thesis is perfect for a brief essay that contains only two or three body paragraphs. This basic five-paragraph essay is typical of middle and high school assignments.
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series is one of the richest works of the 20th century because it offers an escape from reality, teaches readers to have faith even when they don’t understand, and contains a host of vibrant characters.
In the above persuasive thesis, you can see my opinion about Narnia followed by three clear reasons. This thesis is perfect for setting up a tidy five-paragraph essay.
In college, five paragraph essays become few and far between as essay length gets longer. Can you imagine having only five paragraphs in a six-page paper? For a longer essay, you need a thesis statement that is more versatile. Instead of listing two or three distinct points, a thesis can list one overarching point that all body paragraphs tie into.
Good vs. evil is the main theme of Lewis’s Narnia series, as is made clear through the struggles the main characters face in each book.
In this thesis, I have made a claim about the theme in Narnia followed by my reasoning. The broader scope of this thesis allows me to write about each of the series’ seven novels. I am no longer limited in how many body paragraphs I can logically use.
Formula for a Strong Argumentative Thesis
One thing I find that is helpful for students is having a clear template. While students rarely end up with a thesis that follows this exact wording, the following template creates a good starting point:
___________ is true because of ___________, ___________, and ___________.
Conversely, the formula for a thesis with only one point might follow this template:
___________________ is true because of _____________________.
Students usually end up using different terminology than simply “because,” but having a template is always helpful to get the creative juices flowing.
The Qualities of a Solid Thesis Statement
When composing a thesis, you must consider not only the format, but other qualities like length, position in the essay, and how strong the argument is.
Length: A thesis statement can be short or long, depending on how many points it mentions. Typically, however, it is only one concise sentence. It does contain at least two clauses, usually an independent clause (the opinion) and a dependent clause (the reasons). You probably should aim for a single sentence that is at least two lines, or about 30 to 40 words long.
Position: A thesis statement always belongs at the beginning of an essay. This is because it is a sentence that tells the reader what the writer is going to discuss. Teachers will have different preferences for the precise location of the thesis, but a good rule of thumb is in the introduction paragraph, within the last two or three sentences.
Strength: Finally, for a persuasive thesis to be strong, it needs to be arguable. This means that the statement is not obvious, and it is not something that everyone agrees is true.
Example of weak thesis:
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are easy to make because it just takes three ingredients.
Most people would agree that PB&J is one of the easiest sandwiches in the American lunch repertoire.
Example of a stronger thesis:
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are fun to eat because they always slide around.
This is more arguable because there are plenty of folks who might think a PB&J is messy or slimy rather than fun.
Composing a thesis statement does take a bit more thought than many other parts of an essay. However, because a thesis statement can contain an entire argument in just a few words, it is worth taking the extra time to compose this sentence. It can direct your research and your argument so that your essay is tight, focused, and makes readers think.
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