Bobby Rich, Consultant
The thesis statement is the keystone of a paper: a solid thesis statement holds everything together, but without one, your paper can fall apart pretty easily. Because of this, developing a strong thesis statement is of high importance, and, as I’m sure many students are aware, the phrase “strong thesis statement” often appears at the top of many grading rubrics. So, you know it is a necessary thing, but…
What is it thesis statement, anyway?
The thesis statement can be an intimidating thing for many writers. At its most basic, a thesis statement is an explicit statement of argument. The majority of papers written in college are not simply restating information, they are assessing information, analyzing it, and making an argument about what the information means. A thesis is not a statement of raw opinion, rather, it is a strong assertion about how something should be interpreted, intended to apply to the general understanding of that thing, not just your own. Yes, to a degree the thesis statement is personal, but it is not a statement of simply individual taste or feeling; it is a statement of educated interpretation, based on the research you have done, and the knowledge base you are pulling from, stemming from critical thinking. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, and I say, “Marvel comics are the best,” they might as “Why?” and I might respond, “Because they’re the best!” That, unfortunately, is just pure opinion, and won’t do much to convince my friend of that point. In fact, that claim really isn’t arguing anything, it is just a flat statement. If I want to convince them, I need to argue; I need to present an argument in a way that will then allow me to readily back it up with facts, like: “I argue that Marvel is currently producing the best comic books on the market, because they exhibit a clear sense of social awareness and dedication to incorporating diversity in their publications.” From there, I can begin to elaborate on my points. Not only does that set me up to make my argument, but it makes discussion possible, which is necessary to a good argument. If I just state my raw opinion, there is no room for discussion; my friend would only be able to agree or disagree.
Alright, but why do I need one?
Organization, for both the reader and the writer. I like to think of the thesis statement as a kind of organizational tool or outline, built into the paper I’m writing. For the reader, it serves the purpose of saying, “Here is what I am going to tell you in this paper, here is how all the evidence I present is tied together, and here is what I want you to be paying attention to.” Without that sort of statement, the evidence you provide can seem random and disconnected, which can confuse the reader. The thesis statement should create a sort of focal point for the reader, and a sense of perspective to put the evidence against; it should guide them through the paper. For you, the writer, a strong thesis statement will have a similar effect, and will help you keep track of what you’re doing. As you go through your paper, you can refer back to your thesis statement and think “Okay, so, is it clear how the point I just made relates back to my thesis? Will the reader get the connection? Have I made the connection?” This will help you keep your paper from becoming jumbled or disorganized, which is definitely a good thing.
How do I develop one?
Again, think of it as an organizational tool. Ask yourself questions like, “What problem do I perceive in this evidence? What do I see connecting the evidence? What kind of solution can I provide?” That will get you started. Then you want to think about where you can take the argument, what sort of order you need for your evidence, and what the most central point is. Your thesis statement doesn’t need to say every single thing you will do in your paper; it needs to provide a jumping off point for your writing to follow from, and you want it to be easily linkable to the points you make in your paper at any given time.
When do I develop one?
This will depend, more or less, on your discipline of study. For example, in English, if you are writing about literature, your thesis can kind of shift and change as you work through your piece. It may not be finalized and solid until after your first draft; on the other hand, in philosophy, you might find it necessary to have your thesis statement more strongly developed from the beginning, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction as you work through your argument. Regardless, it is best to begin thinking about and attempting to formulate your thesis as you research your topic; doing so will, as above, allow you to keep everything organized better as you go through the writing process, which will not only make for a stronger paper, but will make it easier on you as you write. Try keeping a log of your reactions to the sources you read. Your reactions do not have to be fully hashed-out, but keep notes of problems you perceive, questions you have, and potential solutions. Thinking about your thesis up front will save you work later.
Whatever discipline you may be writing in, the next time you have a paper due, try thinking of your thesis statement as an organizational tool, and develop it along those lines: for ease of use. It could just make the writing process an overall smoother, more confident experience.