Discovering Ideas Handbook

1.4    The Thesis Statement

1.4.1    What Is a Thesis Statement?

1.4.1.1    A single sentence.
1.4.1.2    A declarative sentence.
1.4.1.3    States what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand.
1.4.1.4    After having read your essay.

1.4.2    Why Write a Thesis Statement?

1.4.2.1    Why do you need to develop a thesis statement when you write an essay?  
1.4.2.2    What's the value of writing out your thesis statement on a piece of paper?  
1.4.2.3    Seeing the relationship between your thesis statement and your essay.

1.4.3    How to Write a Thesis Statement

1.4.3.1    Ask and answer the questions "why?" and "how?" of your trial thesis statement.
1.4.3.2    Make your thesis statement a positive statement, not a negative one.
1.4.3.3    Use the active voice in every clause in your thesis statement.

1.4.4    Content of Your Thesis Statement

1.4.4.1    Make it clear.
1.4.4.2    Make it precise and limited.
1.4.4.3    Make it controversial or informative.
1.4.4.4     Make it defensible.

Checklist for Revising Thesis Statements


1.4.1    What Is a Thesis Statement?

We will be talking about thesis statements quite a bit this semester. We will be writing thesis statements, revising them, and using them as tools to help us revise our essays. So let me clarify what I mean by the term "thesis statement."  By the way, some of the explanation that follows will be more specific or slightly different from some things you find in your handbook.  Where there is any conflict, this document rules. 

Perhaps the first step would be to clarify what I do not mean by the term "thesis statement." A thesis statement, as we will be using the term this semester, is not necessarily a sentence that appears in the first paragraph of your essay. Your thesis statement might appear in the first paragraph, or the last paragraph, or it might not appear in the essay at all. I do not mean by a thesis statement something that you necessarily write before writing the essay. I will often ask you to write a "trial thesis statement" before submitting a draft of your essay; the term "trial" means that this is not a thesis statement you are committed to. The only reason for asking for a trial thesis statement is to allow us to have something to discuss in class. You will usually not finish writing your thesis statement until you have nearly finished writing and revising your essay.

Because your thesis statement may or may not appear in the body of your essay, I will ask you to always put your thesis statement at the very end of your essay, labeled and printed as a separate paragraph after your last paragraph or after your list of works cited, if you have one.

So what is a thesis statement? A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after having read your essay. If we understand that definition, it will be a lot easier to work with thesis statements, so let's take a minute to break it down into its component parts and make sure we see what it contains.

1.4.1.1    A thesis statement is a single sentence.

A thesis statement, in other words, is only one sentence, not two or three or more. Why? Because the thesis statement is the main point you want to make in one essay; so it should be one sentence. Frederick Crews defines an essay as "a short piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way." What makes it an essay is that it aims to make a point, one point. This doesn't mean that you can only make one assertion in an essay. But it means that all of the many claims you make must fit together, that they must all support or lead to a single point (claim, conclusion) that defines the whole essay. And if everything you say in an essay supports a single point or claim, then you can express that claim in a single sentence. Notice that nobody is saying that it must be a short sentence or a pretty sentence. But it must be one sentence, not two or more sentences. If you can't express the main point of your essay in one sentence, your essay probably doesn't have one point; it probably has two. And that means it should be two essays. Feel free to write them both, but one at a time.

1.4.1.2    A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence.

A declarative sentence is simply a sentence that makes a statement rather than asking a question or making a command. It is really saying the same thing twice to say that a thesis statement is a declarative sentence. It just means that a thesis statement is a statement. The repetition is for emphasis; it helps us to keep in mind that a thesis statement is not a question. You may often start work on your essay with a question in mind. That's a good idea. But the question is not your thesis statement. Your thesis statement will be the answer to the question, an answer that you will defend and explain in your essay.

1.4.1.3    A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand.

Different essays will have different purposes, depending on your message and your audience. If you are writing about a topic that your readers know very little about, you will write differently than you would if you were writing about a topic about which your readers were well informed. Some textbooks attempt to break down the kinds of essays into categories like "informative," "persuasive," "expository," or "argumentative." These categories can sometimes be useful in thinking about your essay, but they are always a little artificial. No good essay is entirely informative or entirely persuasive. Almost any good essay will have to inform the reader at some points and persuade the reader at others. But every good essay is unified, moves toward a single major point. Thus every good essay has a thesis statement, though it may be implied rather than explicitly stated in the text of the essay. If you are writing a primarily "informative" essay rather than a primarily "persuasive" essay, that doesn't mean your essay doesn't have a thesis; it just means that your thesis is a statement about which your readers are uninformed, rather than one on which they may have opinions that differ from yours. Whatever kind of essay you are writing, you want to decide before you finish it what the point will be, where it's going. Thus you want your thesis statement to express in a sentence what your whole essay says, what you want your readers to know or believe or understand by the end of the essay. You don't just want the thesis statement to be a general conclusion that someone might reach from your essay; you want it to say what your essay says. One problem with many, perhaps most, trial thesis statements is that they are too general and hence do not really give any guidance as to what issues and what evidence will be in this essay.

1.4.1.4    A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after having read your essay.

You may have been asked in a previous class to put your thesis statement in the first paragraph of your essay. There is nothing wrong with putting the thesis statement in the first paragraph, if that will help you to get your point across to your readers. But many excellent essays do not state the thesis statement in the first paragraph. The decision as to whether to do so should be based on what will work best with your subject and your readers. However, the tradition of putting the thesis in the first paragraph has led some students to mistakenly think of the thesis statement as a kind of introduction to the essay. In some cases, the thesis statement works well as part of the introduction; in some cases it doesn't. But a thesis statement is not necessarily part of the introduction, and in developing your thesis statement you should not be thinking primarily about how you want your essay to start. You should be thinking about what you want the whole essay to say, what you want the reader to know or believe at the end of the essay, not the beginning. This is why you often cannot finish your thesis statement until you finish your essay.

1.4.2    Why Write a Thesis Statement?

Why should you write a thesis statement when you write an essay? What is it good for? Is it just busy work? Something English teachers are required to impose on students to keep them from having any free time? One of those long traditions that everyone has forgotten the reason for? I don't think so. Developing a thesis statement is an important part of the process of writing an essay. In fact, you really can't write a good essay without developing a thesis statement. Of course, to "develop" a thesis statement doesn't necessarily require writing it down on a piece of paper and handing it in with your essay. But that is what I will ask you to do for every essay you write. So I'll have to answer this question in two parts: First, why do you need to develop a thesis statement? Second, why do I ask you to write it down and hand it in?

1.4.2.1    Why do you need to develop a thesis statement when you write and essay?

First, why do you need to develop a thesis statement when you write an essay? The reason is that, using the definition of a thesis statement given above, you can't write a good essay without one. In fact, it flows from the definition of an essay that an essay cannot fail to have a thesis. An essay is "a short piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way." The thesis statement, as we have defined it, is merely a statement of the point the essay makes. If it doesn't make a point, if it's just a random bunch of paragraphs about the same topic that never come to any conclusion, then it isn't really an essay. Notice that the definition says that an essay tries to make a point in an interesting way. Most essays don't completely succeed for all readers. Having a thesis is no guarantee of a good essay. You might try to make a point, and fail. But if you don't have a point to make, if you don't have a thesis, then you can't possibly succeed.

When I talk about "having a thesis," I don't mean that you have to have the thesis before writing the essay. When you write you are creating ideas. One of the things that makes writing so interesting and exciting is that, in the process of writing, you almost always discover ideas and connections between ideas that you didn't recognize before. Even if you have a clear idea of what you think you want to say before you start to write, you will usually discover that in the process of writing your idea changes. Often you will have to start writing with only a question to answer or a topic to explore, and you'll have to write your way to a thesis. You will keep revising your thesis statement as you revise your essay. Where the thesis statement is most important is at the end of the process, during revision. You want your essay to come to a point, to have a clear thesis that every reader will understand.

1.4.2.2    What's the value of writing out your thesis statement on a piece of paper?

This brings us to the second question. Even if we accept that every good essay does have a thesis statement, often that thesis is implied by the essay and not explicitly stated. But I am going to ask you to submit your thesis statement in writing with every draft and every essay you write. What's the value of writing out your thesis statement on a piece of paper? If you know the point you are trying to make, isn't that enough? The basic answer is "yes." If you really do know what you're trying to say in the paper, if it's crystal clear in your own mind, then it really isn't necessary for you to write down your thesis and label it in order to produce a good essay. On the other hand, if your thesis is clear in your mind, it is very easy to write it down on a piece of paper. It just takes a few seconds. No problem. Unfortunately, most of us are not absolutely clear in our minds about what point we are making when we write. Even when we think we know exactly what we want to say, we often discover when we start to write it down that it isn't all there. The main reason I ask you to write down your thesis statement and submit it before, during, and after you write your essay is that we will use the trial thesis statement as a tool to discuss and revise your essay.

1.4.2.3    Seeing the relationship between your thesis statement and your essay.

Think of your essay as a building. You are the architect. As you design the building you construct a scale model so that you and your clients can see what the finished building will look like. It doesn't have all the detail the finished building will, but it does allow us to see the shape and overall design. If you make changes in the design, you will alter the scale model. People's reactions to the scale model may help you to decide how to alter the design. Your thesis statement is to your essay as the scale model is to the building. Until construction is complete, you can always make changes. And so your scale model will not be "final" until the building is finished. If you think of the thesis statement as a scale model of your essay, you can see why your thesis statement must evolve and develop as your essay does, and you won't worry about having a finished thesis statement until you have a finished essay. But you will recognize that in working on your thesis statement you are working on your essay. If the thesis statement is a good model of your essay--if everything in the essay is reflected in the thesis statement and everything in the thesis statement is developed in the essay--then we can give you useful feedback on your trial thesis statement that will help you to decide how to revise your essay.

Having to develop a written thesis statement along with your essay also helps you to discover problems with your essay and solve them. For example, unless you have a very clear idea of what you want to say when you start writing your essay, you are likely to "drift" as you write the first draft. That is to say, you will change your argument as you develop it. This is a good thing because you usually improve your argument as you change it. But it often results in a draft that starts out by posing one question and ends up by answering a different one. The essay will often seem to be two separate half-essays pasted together in the middle. This problem is usually not hard to fix, but it may be hard for you to see at first because you are so close to the essay that you have just written. A thesis statement can help you to recognize that your essay has changed from its original intention. And in trying to revise your thesis statement so that it summarizes your whole essay, you will see that that is an impossible task until you have settled on a single direction in which to revise the essay. If you think of the thesis statement as a scale model of your essay, it will point you toward answers to many of the questions that arise in the process of revision.

Sometimes it will not be easy to see the relationship between your thesis statement and your essay. This can be frustrating. You may be tempted to think that if you could just ignore the thesis statement your essay would be fine. Usually, this is wishful thinking. One of the reasons why it may be hard to come up with a thesis statement that matches your essay is that you haven't really decided what you want to say in the essay. You may have seven or ten decent paragraphs down on paper. They might even be interesting. But if you can't say for sure what they add up to, what point they make, you probably don't have an essay yet. A good thesis statement will tell you when you have finished. This may not sound important, but it is. One of the hardest things about writing good essays--even for very experienced writers--is knowing when you're finished, knowing when you should stop revising, knowing when you've reached the end of the process. Most essays that don't work very well fail because they were never completed. And one reason we hand in incomplete essays is that we don't know how to tell when they are finished. If you make the effort to really develop and revise your thesis statement, you will find that it gets much easier to tell when the finished essay has done what it needs to do.

1.4.3    How to Write a Thesis Statement

If you understand why you are writing a thesis statement, it will be easier to write one. To get started, use whatever techniques seem to work for you: freewriting, clustering, talking it over with friends, brainstorming. By the time you write a thesis statement, we will have discussed the topic in class, and you will have an idea how your fellow students--your audience for the essay--are thinking about it. You will have read about the general topic and written on your reading. Throughout the whole process of reading, writing, and discussing the topic in class, be on the lookout for questions and problems that interest you. Don't try to think of the one perfect topic for an essay; there probably isn't one. Try to think of interesting issues, several of them. I'll probably ask you to suggest three or four topics that might lead to interesting essays.

Once you have a topic, the actual development of a thesis statement begins. At first, your goal is just to get your rough idea down on paper. You should not expect to just sit down and write a perfect thesis statement. It doesn't work that way. Your first trial thesis statement is only a rough approximation of what you will eventually end up saying. But it gives you something to work with, something to improve. Usually, the process of revising a trial thesis statement consists of making your point clearer and more specific, narrowing down and filling in what you can really do in the essay, saying more about less. This is a process that writers have to go through in order to produce good work. It's normal and healthy. It's a form of success, not a sign of failure. If you expect not to have to revise your thesis statement, you are bound to feel bad when you do. It's the false expectation that causes the problem. So expect to revise your thesis statement and you will neither be surprised or disappointed. You can just get on with it.

Your handbook has good advice on how to revise a trial thesis statement. My suggestions here are just a supplement to your handbook, not a substitute for it. Several of the most important things you want to look for I have already mentioned while discussing the definition of a thesis statement. In addition to those, the following techniques can be useful in revising and trying to improve a thesis statement once you have one to work with.

1.4.3.1    Ask and answer the questions "why?" and "how?" of your trial thesis statement.

One of the most common problems with a trial thesis statement is that you have given the final conclusion you want to reach in the essay, but you haven't stated your reasons. Often you will devote much more space in your essay to giving reasons than to stating conclusions. A quick test is to look at your trial thesis statement and see if it makes sense to ask either "why?" or "how?" of your thesis statement as you have written it. If it does, then answer the question and write the answer down. The answer to that question will often be a better thesis statement than your original.

Some thesis statements need to state both a conclusion and a premise. Often these take the form of "X because Y." If you don't answer the question "why?" in your trial thesis statement, try adding a "because clause." If you do so, be careful to make it a clause and not a phrase. That is, make it a group of words with a subject and a verb, not just a string of nouns and modifiers. If you use "because" in your thesis statement, don't ever follow it with "of." "Because of" leads to a prepositional phrase; it will give you a static topic, but won't tell who is doing what to whom. Always use "because" in the form "because somebody does something."

1.4.3.2    Make your thesis statement a positive statement, not a negative one.

Tell us what somebody did, not what they didn't do; what caused the problem, not what didn't cause it; what you know, not what you don't know. Be very careful about using the word "not" in a thesis statement. The problem with making your thesis statement a negative claim is that the only way to support it is by making a positive claim. So if your thesis statement is worded negatively, you probably haven't said what you need to say yet. Notice that if you ask the question "why?" of a negative claim, you will almost always have to answer it with a positive one.  This suggestion is about the wording of your thesis, not your attitude.  I don't mean that your statement must be "positive" in the sense of optimistic, just that it must be worded as a positive claim, rather than one that uses terms like "not." 

1.4.3.3    Use the active voice in every clause in your thesis statement.

Clauses that use transitive verbs are in either the active or the passive voice. A transitive verb is an action verb that transmits the action to a receiver. An example would be the verb "throw" in the sentence "Jane throws the ball." The action, throwing, is transmitted from the doer, Jane, to a receiver, the ball. When a transitive verb is in the active voice, as in this example, the doer of the action is the subject of the sentence or clause. Jane did the throwing, she does the action, she is the subject of the sentence. When such a clause is in the passive voice, the receiver is the subject of the sentence: "The ball was thrown by Jane." All of these terms are also defined in your handbook. Look them up if you need to, as often as you need to, until the meanings become clear. And don't hesitate to ask questions if you are confused.

Most of the time, the active voice is clearer, more informative, and more direct than the passive voice or than clauses using linking verbs (for example, "is" or "was"). But we are sometimes, though very rarely, justified in using the passive voice in writing for variety or emphasis. But when we are writing thesis statements, I think we should always use the active voice when we can. And we almost always can. We want a thesis statement to express action, not just join topics together. We want a thesis statement to express what we are going to say, not just what we are going to write about. If we try to put every clause in every thesis statement in the active voice it will help us to find out what we really want to say and to write better essays faster.

One corollary to the rule that we should use the active voice is that we should never, or hardly ever, use a form of the verb "to be" as the main verb in a clause. So if you find yourself using a verb like "is," "are," "was," or "were" as a linking verb rather than just a helping verb, revise. Ask yourself "Who's doing what? Who's kicking who?" And rewrite your thesis statement in the active voice.

If you still find the concept of the active voice confusing or difficult, don't think you're the only one.  Many students come into English Composition without a clear understanding of the idea of voice.  But it is important.  So please do the tutorial on The Active Voice

1.4.4    Content of Your Thesis Statement

So far, we have been discussing fairly formal tests of a thesis.  But as you start working with actual thesis statement, you will have to look at the meaning of the thesis, the ideas it contains, and ask whether what your thesis says expresses the right content, the meaning you want the essay to have. 

1.4.4.1    Make it clear and unambiguous.

Make sure it couldn't be interpreted to mean something other than what you want it to mean. It should be unambiguous. Ask whether the sentence could mean different things to different people. If it could, revise it to remove the possible meanings that you don't want to convey.

1.4.4.2    Make it precise and limited.

State no more than you are willing to defend. Probably the most common problem with trial thesis statements is that they are too broad, that they claim too much.  In a good essay, you will say more about less, not less about more.  That is, you will develop your essay through specifics, examples, evidence of some detail that you can directly relate to your own experience or to specific sources.  The test is will you answer the question "how do you know?" to the satisfaction of your readers for every major claim you make?

1.4.4.3    Make it controversial or informative.

Your thesis statement should be a statement about which your audience's knowledge or thinking is deficient or erroneous. You should be telling them something they don't already know or don't already believe.  The point you make in your essay shouldn't be obvious.  If most of your readers are likely to believe your thesis without even reading your essay, you probably don't need to write an essay to support that thesis.

1.4.4.4    Make it defensible.

Can you move your audience to accept this thesis statement in an essay of the length you propose to write? Just as you can't write a very good essay pointing out something that is already obvious to your readers, you shouldn't make a claim that is so controversial that you really don't have a chance of getting your readers to accept it.  

Remember, for all working drafts and essays, you will put your thesis statement for the essay at the very end, as the last lines in the document, labeled "Thesis Statement."

Checklist for Revising Thesis Statements

Use this checklist to revise your trial thesis statement.  Each item in the list is liked back to its explanation above.  For a copy of this checklist that can be printed out on one page for easy reference, click here.

  1. Is your thesis statement a single declarative sentence?
  2. Does your thesis statement state what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after reading your essay?
  3. Does your thesis statement reflect everything in the essay? Does your essay develop everything in the thesis statement?
  4. Can you ask and answer the questions "why?" and "how?" of your trial thesis statement?
  5. Is your thesis statement a positive statement, not a negative one?
  6. Do you use the active voice in every clause in your thesis statement?
  7. Is your thesis statement clear and unambiguous?
  8. Is your thesis statement precise and limited?
  9. Is your thesis statement controversial or informative?
  10. Is your thesis statement defensible?

Use the On-line Tutor to help in Developing Your Thesis Statement.


1.5    Writing a First Draft


Copyright 2004 by John Tagg

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