The Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is that sentence or two in your text that contains the focus of your essay and tells your reader what the essay is going to be about. It provides a focus for your writing. Many writers think of a thesis statement as an umbrella: everything that you carry along in your essay has to fit under this umbrella, and if you try to take on packages that don’t fit, you will either have to get a bigger umbrella or something’s going to get wet.
The thesis statement is also a good test for the scope of your intent. The principle to remember is that when you try to do too much, you end up doing less or nothing at all. Can we write a good paper about problems in higher education in Canada? At best, such a paper would be vague and scattered in its approach. Can we write a good paper about problems in higher education in Ontario? Well, we’re getting there, but that’s still an awfully big topic, something we might be able to handle in a book or a Ph.D. dissertation, but certainly not in a paper meant for a Communication course. Can we write a paper about problems within the college system in Ontario? Now we’re narrowing down to something useful, but once we start writing such a paper, we would find that we’re leaving out so much information, so many ideas that even most casual brainstorming would produce, that we’re not accomplishing much. What if we wrote about the problem of colleges in Ontario being so close together geographically that they tend to duplicate programs unnecessarily and impinge on each other’s turf? Now we have a focus that we can probably write about in a few pages and it would have a good argumentative edge to it. To back up such a thesis statement would require a good deal of work, however, and we might be better off if we limited the discussion to an example of how two particular colleges tend to work in conflict with each other. It’s not a matter of being lazy; it’s a matter of limiting our discussion to the work that can be accomplished within a certain number of pages.
The thesis statement should remain flexible until the paper is actually finished. It ought to be one of the last things that we fuss with in the rewriting process. If we discover new information in the process of writing our paper that ought to be included in the thesis statement, then we’ll have to rewrite our thesis statement. On the other hand, if we discover that our paper has done adequate work but the thesis statement appears to include things that we haven’t actually addressed, then we need to limit that thesis statement. If the thesis statement is something that we needed prior approval for, changing it might require the permission of the instructor, but it is better to seek such permission than to write a paper that tries to do too much or claims to do less than it actually accomplishes.
The thesis statement usually appears near the beginning of a paper. It can be the first sentence of an essay, but that often feels like a simplistic, unexciting beginning. It more frequently appears at or near the end of the first paragraph. Here is the first paragraph of an essay on the reception of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Notice how everything drives the reader toward the thesis statement (bolded), and how the paragraph’s last sentence clearly signals what the rest of this essay is going to do.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in the mid-1980s to a strong but varied reception. Historically, the novel has been both phenomenally popular and phenomenally controversial: it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 23 weeks, and yet it also ranks on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s. This mixed reaction can be attributed, at least in part, to the relationship between the novel’s subject matter and the conservative political climate in which it was received. The Handmaid’s Tale chronicles a religious theocracy born of the radical right, and the novel functions as a caution against dangerous political trends and political apathy in contemporary society. Ironically, however, negative reception of The Handmaid’s Tale frequently does not undermine or disprove Atwood’s cautionary tale so much as reinforce it. This can be seen through an examination of three aspects of the book’s reception: first, an unenthusiastic response by male reviewers as compared to female reviewers, which resembles Atwood’s portrayal of a lack of male sympathy towards female plight; second, the objection by some critics that the book lacks credibility, which evokes the political apathy and passivity that allows the Republic of Gilead to flourish; and third, frequent censorship of the novel, which echoes the very measures taken by the Republic of Gilead to prevent a flow of knowledge and ideas.
The first paragraph serves as kind of a funnel opening to the essay which draws and invites readers into the discussion, which is then focused by the thesis statement before the work of the essay actually begins. You will discover that some writers will delay the articulation of the paper’s focus, its thesis, until the very end of the paper. That is possible if it is clear to thoughtful readers throughout the paper what the business of the essay truly is; frankly, it’s probably not a good idea for beginning writers.
When drafting a thesis statement, remember that it should:
- Be Clear: Avoid awkward or confusing words or structure so your reader knows precisely what you’re writing about
- Be Specific: Narrow your focus enough to fit the parameters of the assignment. Ask yourself whether you can realistically cover the topic in the number of pages you are tasked with writing.
- Be Parallel: Thesis statements typically put forth a series of points to be argued or supporting by the body of the essay. Make sure you present these points to the reader in parallel structure.
- Take a Stand: Most academic papers require you to argue a point or take a stand on a topic as opposed to simply reporting on it. Make sure your thesis statement clearly identifies your argument so the reader knows where you stand on the issue or topic.
Things to Avoid
Avoid announcing the thesis statement as if it were a thesis statement. In other words, avoid using phrases such as “The purpose of this paper is . . . . ” or “In this paper, I will attempt to . . . .” Such phrases betray this paper to be the work of an amateur. If necessary, write the thesis statement that way the first time; it might help you determine, in fact, that this is your thesis statement. But when you rewrite your paper, eliminate the bald assertion that this is your thesis statement and write the statement itself without that annoying, unnecessary preface.