What’s a Thesis Statement?

thesis_funnelYou’ve glimpsed its name between the pages of (maybe) your tenth-grade English grammar book. Your teacher might have written it on the board several times. Most probable of all, it has appeared numerous times in glaring red letters in the margin of your essays, right next to that first paragraph. That’s right: the thesis statement.

Most students shiver at the very name. But I want to prove to you that the thesis statement is not worth shivering over. It is certainly fundamental to every academic essay, and you will spend the rest of your time in school refining it as a skill. (Trust me; I’m about to graduate college and have only just figured it out!) Nonetheless, the thesis statement is quite simple conceptually. Starting to understand it now will make all of those future essays much, much easier.

[Continue reading to learn about the thesis statement]

So, what is a thesis? 

The simplest definition of a thesis is as follows: the thesis statement is the main argument of your essay, the meat of your entrée, if you will. It should summarize concisely and crisply what you wish to prove to the reader, and should stress why this argument is important.

The thesis statement at its bare bones should fit into this basic formula, what some have called The Magic Thesis Statement:

By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most people don’t see; this is important because ______.

Example: By looking at John Donne’s use of colonial language in To His Mistress Going to Bed, we can see that the poem is actually a discussion about New World expansion and its conflation with eroticism, which most people don’t see; this is important because it challenges the motives of imperialism.

Note: This should never be the final form of your thesis in your polished, finished essay. This is merely the structure you should follow in gaining a clearer idea of what a thesis statement looks like.

Where should the thesis appear in my essay?

The thesis should ideally wrap up your first paragraph; or, if your paper is longer (7-10 pages) it might appear within the second paragraph after a concise introduction. Remember: the thesis statement, as precise summary of what you are going to argue in your essay, should appear as soon as possible to orient your reader (and yourself in the writing process).

How do I arrive at a thesis?

It depends on the topic, certainly. Your thesis statement will never arrive immediately, and the first thesis statement you write down is likely to change, especially throughout the writing process.

In locating your thesis, consider these questions: Why should the reader care about what I have to say? What is intriguing, puzzling, or interesting about what I am analyzing? What is something unique/new/exciting I can say about this topic? What’s the point?

It may be helpful to consider your thesis as a contradiction. For example, if most people think x-y-z about something, you can prove that they should actually consider q-p-k in the equation; this is very important because of b-c-v.

Sometimes you will find that your argument, throughout the course of the paper, merges into a larger argument by the end. Great! This may certainly be the case if you are writing a longer paper with lots of good points. But for shorter papers like those your teachers will assign in high school (5 pages or less) you should stick to your thesis throughout.

What are some examples?

Consider this thesis statement from an essay written about George Moore’s Esther Waters:

“If her status as a ‘fallen woman’ gives Esther an irrevocable identity that aligns her with the foreign ‘other’ of society, much like an Irish-Catholic’s condition in Protestant England, I will show that Moore’s heroine provides an unflinching morality to which her own environments, many of them religiously sterile, adapt. The fact that Esther’s consciousness pervades the text stylistically creates the sensation of a nationalist, anti-colonial voice in conflict with modernity.”

The author gives an assumption (“If her status as a ‘fallen woman’…aligns her with the foreign ‘other’ of society’) only to offer a modification (‘I will show that…’). The thesis concludes with an illustration of how this is important to the novel as a whole (‘The fact that Esther’s consciousness pervades the text stylistically creates the sensation…’).

Next week we’ll discuss the thesis statement further, with a blog about motive. But in the meantime, start working some magic into your essays!

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.

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