A thesis statement is a single, clear, direct statement of the main idea of an essay. It prepares the readers for the ideas and supporting details that follow and provides structure for the writing, enabling the writer to produce a coherent and organized essay. The thesis statement also restricts the writer, limiting the scope of the discussion in the paper. This helps keep the essay focused and on topic.
Coming up with a good, clear thesis statement is the first step in planning and organizing ANY piece of writing; developing and exploring that thesis is the purpose of all academic writing.
Different kinds of essays, such as narratives, comparison-contrast essays, arguments, and analytical essays, require different kinds of thesis statements—they say different kinds of things and are organized differently—but all theses have certain functions and features in common.
A thesis statement for a narrative essay might be something like this:
The eighteen hours I spent trapped in an elevator was one of the most frightening times of my life, and made me truly appreciate my freedom.
While a comparison-contrast thesis might sound like:
While “supply-side” economics focuses on providing tax breaks to those who hold investing power and capital, “demand-side” economics is concerned with generating demand for products at the consumer level.
An argumentative thesis articulates a claim and reasons for that claim:
The University should build more parking for its students because it will make class attendance easier, provide more value for students’ tuition dollars, and improve student safety.
An analytical thesis tries to describe the nature of something in very specific terms:
In Sonnet 73 (see Appendix 1: Readings) Shakespeare uses a series of metaphors of “fading” or “dying” things to show that despite the fact that he is aging and will die, he appreciates that his significant other loves him anyway.
Constructing a Thesis: The Four Ds
The Four Ds are a quick way of talking about some key standards to which all thesis statements—no matter what kind of essay you are writing—should adhere. A thesis statement should:
- Be clearly Discernible: the thesis should be easy to find in the introduction to your paper.
- Be Detailed: the thesis should articulate very specific claims regarding your topic.
- Provide Direction: the thesis establishes a sense of purpose and organization for the paper.
- Be Defensible: the thesis should be one you can back up with evidence and details.
This is probably the easiest of the Four Ds: the thesis should be easy to discern, or identify. A reader should not have to work very hard to find out the main point of your essay. After a brief scan of your essay’s introduction, your reader should be able to complete easily the following statement:
“The essay argues that . . .” or “This essay is going to compare X and Y.”
If your reader cannot answer these questions immediately after reading your introduction, there is a problem with the discernibility of your thesis statement.
To be easy to find, thesis statements in shorter arguments should generally be confined to one sentence. Longer papers (10 pages or more) can have thesis statements that are longer (usually no more than 2 sentences).
Generally speaking, you want to emphasize the thesis in the introduction to your paper, building up to it and highlighting its importance. As such, in most short papers, the thesis should be positioned at the end of the introductory paragraph. This presents the thesis to the reader and directly and clearly draws her attention to it.
Read the essay introduction below and notice how the introduction builds to the thesis statement (in bold), which is clearly discernible.
In the 2016 election for President of the United States, candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton raised—and spent—over a billion dollars. This money was raised from many sources, from individuals giving small donations over the internet to organizations called PACs (Political Action Committees), unions, and lobbyists contributing thousands of dollars. It is clear that money drives politics in this country: whomever has more money can usually spend him or herself into office. This needs to change. Campaign finance law in the United States needs to be reformed to ensure the integrity, transparency, and fairness of the American political system.
Now read this introduction, and see if you can find the thesis:
For the last 100 years, trans fats, mainly in the form of hydrogenated oils, have been a staple of the western diet. Cheaper and less perishable than animal-based fats like lard and tallow, trans fats are a large part of many processed foods. Cake mixes, oil-based spreads like margarine, canned soups, frozen dinners, and pizza dough all have an extremely high content of trans fat. Unfortunately, these fats are damaging to the human body, causing marked increases in coronary heart disease in all the populations shown to eat a diet high in them. City, state, and local governments should do their best to make it in the best interests of food manufacturers and restaurants to limit the use of trans fats in their products. In 2004, a study conducted by Rutgers University conclusively linked the elimination of trans fats with an increase in coronary health. Similarly, a 2007 experiment at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) suggested that removing even 50% of the trans fat in one’s diet can translate into a longer life expectancy.
This paragraph states its main idea in the middle of the paragraph, where the reader can more likely miss it. Instead of building to a good, easy-to-find thesis, the essay makes the reader guess at the main idea of the essay. The idea might become clearer in subsequent paragraphs, but making a reader work too hard for the information is a hallmark of ineffective or unclear writing.
Where could you move the thesis to improve its discernibility?
Is Adequately Detailed
The thesis should make explicit, specific statements about your topic. Thesis statements that are too broad and lack detail make constructing an essay around them very difficult.
Narrative thesis statements should clearly preview the specific story the essay is trying to tell and link the narrative to a general moral; comparison-contrast theses should outline clear and specific similarities and differences between the things being compared; argument thesis statements should articulate a specific claim and warrants for that claim.
Some very broad thesis statements that do not contain enough detail:
When I was a child I had an amazing experience that made me who I am today.
There are similarities and differences between low-sugar and low-fat foods.
The Transformers was a good movie.
Shakespeare uses metaphors to describe himself in his poems.
Better, narrower, more specific thesis statements with more detail:
When I was a young child, I was able to visit Japan with my parents, which helped me develop a great appreciation for Asian culture.
While both low-sugar and low-fat foods are good for dieting, they also feature different drawbacks, such as high sodium or artificial sweeteners.
The Transformers is an important accomplishment in moviemaking because of its innovations in special effects and set design.
In “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” Shakespeare uses images of permanent, immortal things to talk about the timeless nature of love.
The thesis should convey to your audience a sense of your topic's importance, as well as provide an organizational plan for the rest of the paper. Much of this is established by the structure and organization of the thesis itself. An effective thesis statement should introduce ideas in the order in which they will be discussed in the essay. This is especially important in comparison and argument essays.
Examples of thesis statements that provide a clear organizational plan:
There are four main components to wellness: physical, emotional, social, and psychological.
The Civil War was caused by three major factors: political tension over the power of the federal government over the individual states, economic conflict between industrialism and agrarianism, and of course the moral division over slavery.
Saving Private Ryan revolutionized how filmmakers approach the topic of war because of its graphic depiction of violence and extensive use of hand-held cameras to capture the panic of combat.
While both abstinence-only and full-disclosure sex education programs cover much of the same ground in terms of the information presented, the motivations behind each and their ultimate goals are quite different.
The Transformers is an important achievement in moviemaking because it expanded the possibilities of special effects, it created realistic CGI-based characters, and showed filmmakers new ways of photographing effects-driven movies.
Subsequent paragraphs should develop points brought up in your thesis in the order in which the thesis states them.
Topic sentences (the first sentence of a paragraph) should be based on the main points of your thesis statement. For example, topic sentences for the Transformers example above might look something like this:
- [Body Paragraph 1] The Transformers’ innovative use of computer-generated special effects significantly increased the scope of motion picture production capabilities. (Part 1 of thesis)
- [Body Paragraph 2] The Transformers’ hyper-realistic CGI characters raised the standard by which all subsequent action movies will be judged. (Part 2 of thesis)
3.[Body Paragraph 3] The groundbreaking cinematographic techniques in Transformers, most notably the seamless combination of "real life” footage and green screen footage, will change how sci-fi movies will be filmed.
For more information on connecting your thesis statement to the body of your paper, see Chapter 05.2 of this text, Organizing a Writing Plan.
Is Clearly Defensible
Your thesis should be one that you can support with details. You should be able to back it up with tangible evidence, comparisons that are logical and intuitive, and narratives that are grounded in fact.
Avoid unsupportable theses. Here are some examples that are difficult, if not impossible, to support with facts and details.
John F. Kennedy, prior to his election to the presidency, was a covert agent for the Soviet KGB.
The film The Ten Commandments will make you a better person.
If we allow junior high students to read Judy Blume's Forever, a trashy novel about a teenager losing her virginity, soon they will be reading Hustler and Playgirl magazines in the classroom.
Barack Hussein Obama is really just a terrorist in disguise; his real goal is to bring down the U.S. government.
Better, more supportable theses—these are ideas for which you can find facts and details to support:
Prior to his election to the Presidency, John F. Kennedy held a number of positions that prepared him to lead the country, including a position in the US Senate.
The films The Ten Commandments and The Last Temptation of Christ both explore religious themes, but they take radically different approaches to doing so and come to very different conclusions.
If we allow junior high students to read Judy Blume's Forever in class, we may be setting a dangerous precedent for the discussion of sexuality in the public schools.
Barack Obama prepared for his post as U.S. president by graduating from Harvard Law School, working as a community organizer, and eventually serving in the U.S. Senate.