An essay’s thesis is paramount in most of academia, and I have yet to meet a teacher—from English to biology to economics to psychology, etc.—who doesn’t require his/her students to have a thesis. The thesis sets the tone for a paper, and without a solid one, your chance of getting an “A” on that essay is about as slim as finding Bigfoot poop. So, without further ado, here are some tips for crafting an “A”-worthy thesis.
1. Stick the thesis near the start of your paper unless your teacher states otherwise. First of all, do what your teacher says because he’s the one grading you. If he says to stick your thesis at the end of the paper, then stick it at the end of your paper. If he says to stick your thesis in the title, then stick it in the title. If he says to stick it in the second line of your sixth paragraph, then stick it in the second line of your sixth paragraph. If he says nothing and has no real preference on the matter, then you have a few options. Some people say either in the first or second paragraph of an essay. Some teachers have students put their theses in the very first sentence of the first paragraph. Personally, I’m more of a last-sentence-of-the-first-paragraph kind of gal. I feel like this placement allows my first paragraph to act as a drumroll and my thesis then ends with the crashing of metaphorical cymbals—a sort of “ta da” moment. Your thesis can also be more than one sentence, but be careful if it is. More than one sentence may indicate that you’ve taken on too much or that you’re being wordy.
2. Make sure that your thesis has an argument. An argument requires that you take a stand on something. Stating that “saving the environment is good” is a very, very weak argument, and it’s not (in this author’s opinion) “A”-worthy because it’s too broad. Stating that “preserving and protecting America’s environmental resources is desirable, and therefore the EPA should receive additional funding since it is the federal government’s main environmental protection group” is a better argument because it’s specific. An argument (and thus a thesis) should undoubtedly raise some “nuh-uhs” from people. If you don’t think that you’ll get at least a little push back (hence the “nuh-uh”), then you probably don’t have a strong argument or a strong thesis.
3. What if there is no argument? Oh ho, my dear reader, there is always an argument! The argument may not be horrendously controversial like, “Bigfoot doesn’t exist because no one has reported any legitimate evidence of his scat.” The argument can be semi-benign such as, “Despite John McPhee and Mary Clearman Blew’s dissimilar topics, both authors employ the stylistic techniques of interjection and parallelism in their narratives, and, via their uses of interjection and parallelism, create examples of ‘fine writing.’” The last thesis statement doesn’t seem that controversial, but don’t be deceived. The thesis contains several arguments: 1) that the two authors employ interjection, 2) that the two authors utilize parallelism, and 3) that their uses of the two literary tools create examples of “fine writing.”
4. Be able to support every part of your thesis. Let’s return to my above example with McPhee and Blew. I have to provide evidence in my paper to support each one of the arguments that I listed. The third argument requires that I demonstrate how the writers’ uses of parallelism and interjection create examples of “fine writing.” Normally, that means that I would have to explain the characteristics of “fine writing” and then provide compelling reasoning and evidence to support why those are attributes of “fine writing.” That’s a lot to do. Therefore, I’d probably forgo the “fine writing” bit because it’d be too difficult (not to mention long) to argue. Luckily, my teacher provided me with the defining characteristics of “fine writing” and required me to include that in my paper. But, long story short, if you don’t think that you can support a certain argument, or that it would take too much time to support it thoroughly, then drop it like a used tissue that’s on fire.
5. Make sure that your thesis addresses the “what” and “how.” What are you arguing? What makes you so sure that you’re right? How do you know that you’re right? This translates to stating your argument and then briefly listing the reasons that you will be exploring in your essay that support your argument.
6. Don’t start with “I” unless your teacher tells you to. “I believe” and “I think” are great for learning how to develop a thesis. However, unless your teacher wants to see those words, let them go. (Do not start singing that song. No. Don’t do it.) You can still have the vibe of “I believe [insert argument] because of [insert supporting reasons],” but elevate the language. After all, you’re a college student. You can do better than “I believe.”
7. Avoid absolute phrases. Let’s go back to my Bigfoot thesis: “Bigfoot doesn’t exist because no one has reported any legitimate evidence of his scat.” If I’m a hardcore Bigfoot believer, I’m probably going to say “Nuh-uh, some people have reported evidence of his scat, and just because the scientific community doesn’t think that it’s ‘legitimate’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t.” See, I’m getting myself into holes that I can’t argue myself out of. You want get some “nuh-uh”s from your audience, but you don’t want to make your job harder than it has to be. This is where softening is useful. Let’s soften the Bigfoot thesis to: “Bigfoot’s existence is unlikely because there is little testable evidence regarding his scat, which is key to supporting the existence of a creature.” I still keep my content with this version, but it’s not as harsh as the first Bigfoot thesis.
8. Write your thesis in an understandable manner. Clarity is king in writing. If I can’t tell what you’re arguing because your writing is so filled with junk, then how can you expect an “A” paper? Don’t try to use big words to sound smart. Your intellect comes through in your content, not necessarily in your word choice. Am I saying that all of your theses should sound like, “Spot likes to run”? No. I’m saying that simplicity and clarity trump junky language. For example, let’s consider the following two theses.
- Modern movies have shown decline with regard to actors’ talents, movies’ plots, and the dialogs’ choices of language.
- Modern cinema has exhibited a serious and disconcerting degeneration, particularly in the manifestations of the thespians’ capacity for acting, the storylines and narratives of the movies themselves, and the manners of the verbal exchanges between the actors on screen.
With #1, I can easily point out the argument and the three areas that I’m going to address to support my argument—actors, plots, and dialog. With #2, I have to wade through junk to get to the heart of the sentence. No one wants to wade through junk, including your teacher. Therefore, simplify when you can.
9. Treat your thesis as a roadmap for the rest of your paper. Let’s again go back to the McPhee and Blew example. If I’m going to talk about interjection and parallelism, then I should discuss interjection first in my paper and then parallelism. Getting the order of your arguments in the body of the paper to match up with the order in your thesis seems easy, and it is. So, don’t miss those points.
10. Work backward if you’re really struggling. Sometimes, a thesis just will not come to you. You can bang your head against your computer all you want, but that thesis may still stay as elusive as, well . . . Bigfoot. Instead of wasting your time, write the rest of your paper with an idea of what you want to do and to argue. Then, develop your thesis from what you’ve already written.
In sum, thesis = argument + list of supporting evidence. If you have a strong, clear, specific thesis, then you have a good foundation for your paper.