Sometimes…you are called upon to write a thing.
Sometimes…the thing will have a central idea.
Sometimes…you’ll want to make that central idea very clear to the reader early on in the thing.
In these times, the thesis statement is your friend.
So What the Hell is a Thesis Statement, Anyway?
A thesis statement tells the reader the central idea you’ll be exploring or arguing in an essay. Ideally, you should be putting your best foot forward in your thesis statement: it should provoke interest, engagement, and a little frisson of excitement in the reader.
Those are lofty goals, though, and if you’re a student still building your skills, your instructor will usually be your primary reader, and he or she will likely be quite pleased with a thesis statement that simply provides a clear, focused, reasonable response to the prompt.
Not a Title
Your title and thesis will, presumably, echo one another, but a thesis statement isn’t a title. “Cats of The Internet” could be a title, but it’s definitely not a thesis.
A good title suggests the main idea of an essay, but the thesis statement is the main idea, neatly expressed. A good title needn’t be a complete sentence, but a thesis statement should be.
Not a Question
Some students ask why a question can’t be a thesis statement, especially if it’s a rhetorical question.
There’s some merit to that idea. However, a thesis is the writer’s central idea or argument; it’s the answer to a question, so it makes sense for a thesis to be a statement.
The thing is, you really don’t want to screw up a rhetorical question. If the reader doesn’t answer it the way you intend them to, you may end up doing some serious damage to your own argument.
Here’s a handy visual metaphor to illustrate:
Not a Restatement of the Topic
This is a fairly common problem in student writing. The instructor hands out a prompt — something like: “write an essay in which you discuss how social media marketing tactics influence young consumers.” (Note implied question.)
The student then merrily churns out an introduction, and at the end of the introduction blithely states something like “In this essay I will discuss viral marketing and its influence on young consumers” with great fanfare, as if he or she has written a thesis statement.
The writer has not answered the implied question, which is “how do social media marketing tactics influence young consumers?” The writer has merely restated the topic. As an instructor, that tells me nothing new. I assigned the prompt. Since I did not immediately have a brain-wipe after assigning it, I know the topic. What I want is for you to answer the damn question.
An actual thesis statement might look more like this: “Although social media marketing tactics may seem harmless, they’re making it harder for young consumers to tell the difference between advertising and entertainment.” Now, we have a sense of how the writer is answering the question, what his or her stance is, and what the focus of the essay will be. Huzzah!
Needs to be Arguable
A statement of fact is not a thesis statement. “Kellogg is a brand with a large share of the cold cereal market in the United States,” for example, is a statement of fact. “Dracula was written during the Victorian Era,” is a statement of fact. “Wombat poop is cube-shaped,” is a statement of fact.
You get the idea: if the writer is simply stating an agreed-upon fact, there’s no argument. A thesis needs to be arguable, or there’s nowhere for the essay to go.
Does Not Need to List the Main Points of the Essay
Uuuuuuuuuuuuuugh. I’m not a fan of five-paragraph essays, and the “list” thesis and the FPE tend to go hand in hand.
That said, if you are facing one of the following scenarios, listing the main points of your argument may be a good idea:
- You anticipate that your audience or reader is going to be busy, distracted, or otherwise crunched for time and attention — for example, if you’re writing a work email and need to present an argument that spans more than a few sentences.
- Your audience or reader is a novice in the area or a less-skilled reader, and would benefit from having a concrete “list” of supporting points up front.
- Your instructor has specifically asked you to write a “five-paragraph essay” or has otherwise indicated that they want a “list” thesis. Try not to let it drain your soul too much. Chocolate helps.
Qualities of a Strong Thesis Statement
If the writing situation or assignment calls for an explicit thesis statement, and you have researched and written enough to have a clear sense of how your argument will play out in the body of the essay, it’s time to start drafting your thesis statement. A strong thesis statement:
- Answers the question posed by the prompt
- Clearly expresses your stance
- Is appropriate in scope
- Is arguable
Answers a Question (Usually Posed by the Prompt)
Assuming you’re writing an essay for a class, and the instructor has posed a question in the prompt, it’s important to read the prompt carefully. Make sure that the essay you’re writing is actually responding to the prompt.
You’d be surprised how many students run into trouble by neglecting this point. (Or maybe not so surprised. Have you met people?)
If the prompt asks you to respond to a fairly straightforward question, the thesis should answer that question. For example, if a prompt asked “Should the city of Springfield build a monorail?” your thesis should be a clear answer to that question. Any of the following responses could be a strong thesis statement:
- Given that Main Street is littered with enormous, dangerous potholes, spending city funds on the development of a monorail, instead of existing infrastructure, would be a huge mistake.
- Because of the financial risk involved, the city of Springfield should only consider investing in a monorail if monorails in nearby cities such as Brockaway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook prove themselves to be worth the investment.
- The city of Springfield should take the opportunity to invest in a monorail, not only because it will create new jobs, but also because this is an opportunity to bring the city together as a community.
Clearly Expresses Your Stance
Look again at the sample thesis statements in the previous section. In each case, the writer’s stance is clear. The first writer opposes the monorail, and one would expect the body of the essay to develop the argument that city funds would be better spent repairing city infrastructure.
In the second example, the writer has taken a more qualified stance. They aren’t totally opposed to a monorail, but in the essay, they’re going to be arguing that Springfield should hold off on building its own until the data from similar local cities provides proof of concept.
The third writer supports the monorail, and has established a couple of central rationales for doing so. One expects the essay to present a vigorous defense of the monorail as a job-creator, and to support the argument that the monorail will bring the community together.
Is Appropriate in Scope
All of the claims made and supported in the body paragraphs should be serving the larger central idea stated in the thesis, so your thesis should certainly never be less broad than any of your topic sentences. At the same time, your thesis statement shouldn’t be too broad. Focus. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver, like a sleazy monorail salesman.
Is Arguable and Defensible
Your thesis should be arguable both in the sense that it is not a statement of fact, and in the sense that you will be able to defend or support your stance with logical reasoning and evidence. This is why it’s so important that you do some exploring and drafting before you write your thesis. Even if you read a prompt and right away have what you think is a good response, spend some time exploring the available evidence.
If you can, run your thesis by a friend or a tutor. Without looking at your paper, tell them your central argument in a nutshell. See if you can concisely paraphrase your thesis. Ask, “Does that make sense?” Then listen. Remember: if you have to explain your essay to the reader, your essay has problems — the writing needs to speak for itself.
If you have only a few disparate, disconnected pieces of evidence in support of your argument, do more research. If you can’t defend your position well, then maybe your position sucks. Be open-minded and be willing to be swayed by compelling, high-quality evidence. Changing your mind based on evidence is not a problem — it’s an opportunity.