The thesis statement is the one sentence in academia that generates the most angst among students. It is the axis on which the entire essay revolves, and it must be in sync with the rest of the paper, or else the entire endeavor falls apart. This article addresses the most common mistakes made in crafting a thesis statement.
What Is a Thesis Statement?
Put simply, the thesis statement is the dek of your essay. It’s your entire argument, condensed into a single sentence. The rest of your paper is an expansion of the thesis statement, providing detail and nuance to a very brief declaration.
Your thesis statement is like your elevator pitch. It should never withhold information. Too often, students try to buck the system by being vague until their conclusions, where they intend to “wow” the reader with stunning revelations.
Let me make this perfectly clear: your thesis statement is not a lede, your paper is not a novel, and your conclusion is not a plot twist.
Additionally, having a well-crafted thesis statement is not – as one former classmate attempted to argue – limiting, diminishing, or insulting your argument in any way. The ability to condense your argument into one sentence is not a symptom of simplicity, but it is evidence of your understanding of your subject matter; if you can’t condense your argument into 35 words, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.
Identifying Your Argument
For those of you already protesting, “But my paper doesn’t have an argument!” Yes, it does. You just need to find it.
To help you, here are three sentences that are definitely not thesis statements:
But what did Shakespeare really mean by “To be or not to be”?
This is not a thesis statement because it provides no argument. Everyone who has studied Hamlet knows exactly what the eponymous hero is talking about in that speech, so unless you’ve found some previously undiscovered journal that overturns both academic consensus and basic logic, you’re better off finding a different passage to unpack.
Although the above question has a very obvious answer, don’t worry if you are at a similar stage in the development process. Finding the question you want your paper to answer can often lead you directly to your thesis statement, which is the direct answer to that question.
Janie Crawford is a lot like Mary Jane Paul.
Owning your argument is essential to crafting an effective thesis statement. Do you see how waffle-y this sentence is? It’s like you’re saying, “Well, Janie is a lot like Mary Jane, but they aren’t exactly the same. It’s more of a similarity, really. Oh, nevermind.” Your thesis statement needs to be declarative, not wishy-washy.
Additionally, since Janie Crawford – of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – predates Mary Jane Paul – of B.E.T.’s Being Mary Jane – you can’t say that she resembles the junior character. If anything, Mary Jane Paul resembles Janie Crawford and never the other way around.
Most importantly, the above sentence provides no insight as to how the writer is drawing her conclusion. What is it about these two women that the writer finds so similar? Have other scholars identified the same traits and events? An effective thesis statement will answer these questions.
The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel.
If you’re going to make an outrageous claim – such as having found the Great American Novel – you’d best be able to back up your thesis statement with a strong argument. If you aren’t prepared to do so, you need to find another topic.
This sentence has problems outside of being largely inarguable, however. As we’ve seen before, your thesis statement should provide some evidence as to how you’ve come to your conclusion. In this case, you would begin by setting your parameters: what qualities should the Great American Novel have? Who defined these qualities? Do you agree with them? All this information need not be in your thesis statement, but it should be included in your introductory paragraph.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about…
Thesis Statement Placement
In any essay, your thesis statement should come at the end of your introduction. There’s no need to stress too hard about this. Unless you’re writing a 10+ page paper, your thesis statement will come at the end of your first paragraph. In longer essays, it isn’t uncommon to have a thesis statement appear only after several pages.
I’ll use my undergraduate capstone project as an example. In the 26-page essay, my thesis statement didn’t appear until page four. But in the eight-page version, it comes at the end of the second paragraph. Just remember: if you’ve started unpacking without telling us your thesis statement, you’ve gone too far.
Thesis Statement Structure
Your introduction should explain everything needed to understand your thesis statement. Taken out of context, your thesis will lack the clarity it has when properly introduced. It will still mean something, but it take a lot more work to understand.
Keep in mind: your thesis statement shouldn’t be vague, but it also shouldn’t be redundant. Don’t repeat things from your introduction: reference them.
This is the thesis statement from a paper I have published at The Artifice:
Using these articles to examine Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems, I then apply the Poems as a lens to examine anti-woman abuse in 2014 and to prove that these vile actions are not only romanticized, but are also Romantic.
Notice what has happened here. You, as a reader, know that 1) I am using specific scholarship to 2) make a lens out of a particular text, and then 3) using that lens to examine specific current events in order to 4) prove that those events have Romantic themes.
Remember: your thesis statement is a project overview. You aren’t just giving readers a peek into your toolbox. You’re also showing them exactly how you plan to use each resource.
Thesis Statement Revision
Sometimes, in the course of writing your paper, you may realize that the thesis statement you put down in the beginning doesn’t match what you wound up writing. Don’t despair! Even the best planners must sometimes make revisions to project structure.
You might discover your original thesis statement wasn’t strong enough to carry your paper. Sometimes you end up with enough material for two papers instead of one. Maybe you found a better argument as you dug deeper into your sources. Trust me: in all the times I’ve had to do this – and that number is pretty close to the total number of papers I’ve written – not once have I regretted it.
Still have questions about thesis statements? Let’s figure it out together!