It’s that time of the semester when essays are assigned! They say the most important sentence in your essay is your thesis statement. But how do you write a good thesis statement?
Why a thesis statement?
The thesis statement is a promise that you make to your readers by informing them what you’ll do in your essay and how you’re going to approach the subject.
Imagine this scenario when you’re doing research for your assignment: You find a long journal article and skim the thesis. Looks great! It seems to be related to your topic. You decide to read it, and two hours and 50 pages later, you realize that the writer didn’t write anything they said they would in their thesis! How frustrating is that!
Your own thesis statement should accurately represent your paper, be specific, and be supportable by the research in your assignment. This will prepare your readers for what they are about to read and help them decide whether they want to spend time reading your work.
Here are some tips when you are crafting a thesis statement:
When should you write the thesis statement?
A thesis statement should always be written *after* you have done your research. It’s fine to have some general idea about what you want to write before you start, but there is a danger to forming a thesis statement before you do research and then only looking for sources that prove your point. What if you were wrong? What if there were far more studies out there that support the opposite of what you believe? Learning is to consider other perspectives, and we must be open-minded when we do research.
When you start writing your paper, you can draft your thesis statement, but it doesn’t need to be set in stone. As you write, you might change your mind as your writing takes a different turn. Or you might find that you need to do additional research and add something else to your thesis. That’s perfectly fine! Often times, you’ll need to fine-tune your thesis statement, and you can go back and adjust it after you finish writing your essay.
Are you answering the question?
The first and most important thing to consider is whether you are addressing the question posed by your instructor. If you are asked to analyze whether YouTube stars are good role models for teenagers, it doesn’t help you if your thesis statement is about how celebrities are overpaid. If you are instructed to review which pedagogical theory best supports the merits of assigning homework, it doesn’t help to say you’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of homework. If you’re not meeting your assignment requirements, it might not help much even if you have a strong thesis statement.
Is your thesis statement specific?
Some students panic when they are asked to write a 3,000-word essay about, let’s say, the fast food industry. They're scared they won’t have enough content to fill the word count, and they grab every piece of information about all the health problems associated with the consumption of fast food. They end up with a thesis statement that promises the readers a discussion of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, tooth decay, and infertility.
Here’s the problem: Which country are we talking about? Which fast food industry are we talking about? Burgers, fried chicken, and pizza have different nutritional values and health impacts. And you are also forcing yourself to read up on six diseases simultaneously, each with varying effects and theories. That means you are forcing yourself to do more work.
To make your thesis more effective, you should narrow down the topic. Talk about a single country or even a single province. Pick one type of fast food. Pick one type of disease. Read widely on the arguments and perspectives of that single topic. I promise that’s a lot less work than reading about six different diseases. You'll be able to produce a better quality essay if you do a deep dive on a narrow, manageable topic than merely scratching the surface of six different things.
Is your thesis debatable?
When you claim that Napoleon Bonaparte was an important figure in history, no one’s really going to argue with you, except maybe your conspiracy-theory sprouting relative who thinks it was all just an elaborate hoax. When you come up with a thesis statement, it should take a side of a controversial enough issue that reasonably educated people might dispute.
For example, you might argue that: To avoid nepotism, the family members of any current politicians must not be allowed to hold public office. A reasonably educated person might disagree with you and ask. “What if a certain family member is actually more qualified than anyone else for the job? Wouldn’t it be discrimination to bar a perfect candidate from office just because they are related to so-and-so?” If your thesis statement can generate an intellectual debate where both sides can argue based on facts, it is a successful thesis statement.
Did you pick a side?
Real life rarely works in absolutes—you can love some aspects of, say, online learning and hate other things about it. But within the confines of a 1000-word assignment, you need to choose and take a stance. Why? Your essay is an exercise in persuasive writing, to analyze what you have learned, and support your views with research. Your argument will be logically stronger if you pick a side and commit to it.
For example, in your thesis, you may claim that murderers should receive a life sentence regardless of their intentions. In the second paragraph, you write that murderers make mistakes too, and if they didn't kill intentionally, they should be let out early. Your essay falls apart here because you didn’t commit to your side of the argument. If your arguments contradict your thesis statement, the quality of your essay suffers.
Of course, in real life, we cannot look at such a complex issue in black and white as there are so many factors to consider. But in your essay, you only have so much space to build a convincing argument. No one's expecting your 1000-word essay to represent absolutely everything that you believe. Remember, it is just an exercise to learn to build up one side of the argument and persuade the other side.
Is it supportable?
A thesis statement is an opinion, but how do we make sure it is supportable? If you claim soccer is the most entertaining sport in the world, you know the angry basketball and hockey fans are going to come down on you. You can’t prove that soccer is more entertaining than basketball and hockey. This argument is only based on your opinion, and you’re not likely to change the minds of the basketball and hockey fans either just by stating it.
You could, however, argue that advertising during soccer matches is the most effective marketing strategy by citing that the roughly 4 billion viewers around the world and fans who are willing to shell out US$10,000,000 of disposable income a year to buy their favourite team’s kit. You can back up your claims with facts and inform your readers why your position is correct. They can come back with other facts about the NBA or the Superbowl, and if this generates an intelligent discussion, your thesis statement has succeeded.
Need help? One-to-one consultations are available!
Remember, your thesis statement is a promise to your readers about what they are going to read. It should inform them of your main arguments and the approach that you are going to take. You can refine your thesis statement after you are finished with your writing and make sure it is accurate, narrow, debatable, and supportable.
If you need help with coming up with a strong thesis statement, or if you want to run it by a beta reader, feel free to book an online consultation with our peer educators at the SLC, or check out some of our online writing resources! You don't have to bring in a completed essay--just bring your assignment instructors, first draft/bullet points/brainstorming notes, and our peers will be happy to work with you! Good luck with your assignments!
This blog post was originally published on the Student Learning Commons blog from Simon Fraser University Library on January 27, 2021.