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."
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A thesis statement is a single sentence, preferably a simple declarative sentence, that expresses the basic idea around which the paper will develop.
The thesis statement declares the main purpose of the entire paper. It should answer the questions: "What is my opinion on subject X? What am I going to illustrate or define or argue in this paper?" It is the single most useful organizational tool for both the writer and the reader.
Although the thesis statement is a valuable organizing tool, it does not have to be the first sentence you write when you begin your paper. If you find yourself getting bogged down trying to zero in on your thesis statement, start writing background or detail paragraphs. Then come back and work on the thesis statement
Like any other sentence, the thesis statement has a subject and a verb. After you have decided upon the subject, write a verb to go with that subject. It should indicate what assertion you are making about that subject. A good thesis statement is clear, restricted, and precise. It must deal with only ONE dominant idea.
The thesis statement should be phrased in words that permit only ONE interpretation. Verbs made up of is or are plus a vague complement, such as good or interesting, are too imprecise to be useful. Also, avoid sentences with subordinate clauses. Subordinate clauses set booby traps for most writers because it takes so much time to explain the subordinate idea that there is often neither the time nor the space to do justice to the main idea.
Notice how this topic is pared down to a workable size:
- The college marching band
- My first week with out college marching band
- The day I won the tryout for the marching band
- Making the marching band gave me new confidence in my musical talent
- The day I made the marching band I decided to major in music
Finding the right thesis statement is like fishing; you may have to throw many back before you hook a satisfactory one—one that says exactly what you want it to. A well-thought-out thesis statement controls and directs the paper; it indicates both the writer's purpose and attitude. Here, clarity and precision are preferred to effect.
- There are serious objections to tracking students.
(This is too broad; what objections will be presented?)
- Benjamin Franklin had a colorful career.
(Colorful could mean anything; you have no control over the subject.)
- Paris is one of the most interesting cities in Europe.
("Interesting" is so vague that you may write about Paris with no point.)
- The United Nations has major weaknesses and cannot prevent a major war.
(This requires two you to do two things, not one).
- Comprehensive examinations encourage student cramming.
- A college education is a life-long benefit.
- In European nations that have adopted national health insurance, the cost of this program has always been much greater than that estimated by its supporters.
Summary of Do's and Don'ts
As you develop your thesis statement, keep the following "Do's" and Don'ts" in mind
A Good Thesis Statement Should
- Fulfill the assignment
- Assert one main idea
- Be clearly stated in specific terms
- Say what it means
- State an attitude or opinion
It Should Not
- Be unreasonable.
- Insult the reader
- Use general statements
- Be a figure of speech
- Consist of facts or data
- Start with "My purpose is...," "I intend to show ...," "In my opinion ...," "I feel ...," etc.