Forming good thesis statements in academic essays
Not to be confused with a thesis (a long paper written at the end of a degree), a thesis statement is a statement of the central argument of an essay—it usually appears near the end of the introduction, but everything in an argumentative academic essay serves the thesis statement. Almost without exception, any essay that makes an argument requires a thesis.
The simplest way to find your thesis statement is to answer a simple question:
What claim will your essay try to convince your reader of?
The answer to this question forms your thesis statement.
Just having a thesis statement is not enough, however. You need a good thesis statement. A good thesis statement takes the form of a declarative statement; it is contentious and interesting; it is precise and concise; and it is unified and coherent.
The components of a good thesis
As the name suggests, a declarative statement declares something to be the case. Notice that this means that thesis statements cannot take the form of questions. Instead, they take the form of answers. Examples include the following:
- The sky is blue.
- Vanilla ice cream is the best kind.
- For better or worse, George Bush Jr. changed the world.
- The poem uses images of hooks and eyes to imply both security and danger.
- The poem shows the contradictory feelings of the speaker; the images imply security (as with the hook and eye of a bra) and danger (as with a fish hook entering an eyeball).
- The poem uses images of hooks and eyes to show the contradictory feelings of the speaker, since the images simultaneously imply security (as with the hook and eye of a bra) and danger (as with a fish hook entering an eyeball).
All of these count as declarative statements, but only the last counts as a good thesis. I’ll explain why with reference to the other elements of a good thesis.
A contentious thesis is simply a thesis that requires argument for your readers to believe it or see that it is true. Essentially, a contentious claim requires you to refer to the some other claims for support, which you provide in the body of the essay.
Of the above declarative statements, #1 and #2 are not contentious. “The sky is blue” is too obvious to require argument, even if you can provide facts to support it. “Vanilla ice cream is the best kind” is not the kind of claim that can be supported with argument. We can assume the person who makes this claim is really saying “I like Vanilla ice cream best,” a statement that no one else is in a position to deny. Your thesis statement should avoid the obvious, and should avoid making claims about your thoughts or tastes, since these are indisputable.
To make your thesis interesting, you need to consider your reader. An interesting thesis also does not make an obvious argument, but whether or not something is interesting depends on reader expectations. The best theses make unexpected claims, since the unexpected is always interesting.
Of the above declarative statements, #1-3 are not interesting. Even if #3 (that Bush Jr. changed the world) is contentious, this is not a new claim—it is not unexpected or original enough to be interesting.
Precise and concise
Being precise means giving a sense of the details of the essay; it means elaborating enough. Being concise means writing as efficiently as possible; it means not elaborating too much. To ensure your thesis is precise, ensure that your reader knows the most important reasons that support it. To ensure that the thesis is concise, ensure that each detail you give is absolutely necessary to showing these reasons.
Whereas #5 and #6 are precise enough, #1-4 are not. They simply don’t have the detail. An example of a thesis statement that is not concise enough is as follows:
For better or worse, George Bush Jr. changed the world when he declared a ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 after the attacks on World Trade Centre in New York, despite the concerns of conscientious objectors; his war led the United States into Iraq on false premises that the country was amassing nuclear weapons, even though intelligence reports gave no reliable indication of these weapons. These political moves changed the place of the United States in the world’s political landscape and resulted in tighter regulations at airports.
This thesis statement mentions too much obvious history and focuses too much on facts not directly relevant to proving its main claim (i.e. that Bush Jr. changed the world), burying the main claim in irrelevant details. It also tackles a minor and comparatively insignificant claim (tighter regulations at airports)— these extra details only distract from the central argument of the paper.
Unified and coherent
All of a unified thesis’s parts clearly relate to one another. Whereas #5 lacks unity, #6 is better. The latter uses key words in the first part of the thesis (hooks and eyes) to more clearly link this first part to the details that prove it, given in the second part. It also uses “since” to show that the relationship between the parts is that the second proves the first, and “simultaneously” to emphasize the connection to “contradiction” in the first part.
Another aspect of a unified thesis is that it stands out from the rest of the text. When you state your thesis, make it clear in some way that you are stating your thesis. Begin your thesis in a new sentence. If you need to, begin with a phrase such as “this essay will argue that..”, “in this essay I will argue…”, or “in this essay it will be argued that…”.
A coherent thesis clearly relates to important points in the body of the paper. Use key words from your most important topic sentences or section introductions to help establish these connections. For example, if we were to use #6 as our thesis in an essay, we would make sure to begin some of the most important paragraphs or sections with sentences that use the key words “security” and “danger” (among others).
- A thesis statement may take up more than one sentence if necessary.
- A thesis statement should be contentious and interesting, but it should also be realistic. Avoid overstatement, and avoid making claims that will take more space to support than allowed by the space you have available in your essay.
- In very short papers (about 10 pages or less), the thesis statement usually appears at the end of the first paragraph, but the longer the paper, the more acceptable it is for the thesis to appear later in the introduction.