When developing a thesis, think of yourself as a juror, listening to an attorney who is making an opening argument. You’ll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the defendant is guilty or innocent, and how he plans to convince him. Readers of academic essays are like jurors: before they have read too much, they want to know what the essay argues and how the writer intends to present the argument. After reading the thesis statement, the reader should think: “This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I’m not convinced yet, but I’m interested to see how it could be.”
An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. A thesis is not a subject, nor a fact, nor an opinion. “The reasons for the fall of communism” is a theme. “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe” is a fact known to educated people. “The fall of communism is the best thing that has ever happened in Europe” is one opinion. (Superlatives like “the best” almost always bring problems. It is impossible to weigh up all the “things” that have happened in Europe. What about Hitler’s fall? Couldn’t that be “the best”?)
A good thesis has two parts. You must say what you intend to argue, and you must “telegraph” how you intend to argue, that is, what concrete support for your claim there will be in your essay.
Steps to prepare a thesis
First, analyze your primary sources. Look for stress, interest, ambiguity, controversy and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself? Has anything been said and then reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author’s argument? Figuring out the reason for one or more of these questions, or other related ones, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you’ve probably only made one observation — that there are, for example, many different metaphors in this or that poem — which is not a thesis.)
Once you have a working thesis, write it down.
There’s nothing more frustrating than coming up with a great idea for a thesis and then forgetting it when you lose concentration. In addition, when writing your thesis you will be forced to think about it in a clear, logical and concise way. You probably won’t be able to write a final version of your thesis the first time you try, but you’ll get on track by writing what you have.
Make your thesis prominently in your introduction.
A suitable and standard place for the thesis statement is the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter essays (5 to 15 pages). Readers are used to finding the thesis there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not mandatory in all academic essays, it is a good rule of order.
Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what can be said against it. This will help you refine your thesis and also make you think about the arguments you will have to refute later in your essay. (Every argument has a counterargument. If yours doesn’t have it, then it’s not an argument; it may be a fact or an opinion, but it’s not an argument).)
Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election because he did not campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention.
This statement is on its way to becoming a thesis. However, it is very easy to imagine possible counterarguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he had an image of “soft on crime.” If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counterargument, you will reinforce your argument, as shown in the next sentence.
Although Dukakis’ image of being “soft on crime” hurt his chances in the 1988 election, his inability to campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention had a greater responsibility in his defeat.
Some caveats and some examples
A thesis is never a question.
Readers of academic essays expect questions to be discussed, explored, or even answered. A question (“Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?”) is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.
A thesis is never a list.
“For political, economic, social, and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe” does a good job of “telegraphing” the reader what to expect in the essay: a section on political reasons, a section on economic reasons, a section on social reasons, and a section on cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social, and cultural reasons are practically the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and does not advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics and culture are important.
A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.
An ineffective thesis would be: “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is bad.” This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and rigorous. It can also provoke a defensive reaction from readers who sympathize with communism. If readers strongly disagree with you from the beginning, they may stop reading.
An effective thesis has a definable and argumentable claim.
“Although cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline” is an effective thesis phrase that “telegraphs”, so the reader expects the essay to have a section on cultural forces and another on the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definitive and debatable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, “Maybe what the author says is true, but it doesn’t convince me. I want to read on to see how the author argues this claim.”
A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible.
Avoid general terms and abstractions. For example, “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite’s inability to address the economic concerns of the people” is more forceful than “Communism collapsed because of society’s discontent.”
Develop a Thesis and Supporting Arguments
There’s one thing you need to know: Your college instructors have a hidden agenda. You may be alarmed to hear this, but achieving your “other” purpose may well be the most important part of your education. Because every drafting task has at least these two other purposes:
Teach yourself to present your arguments and to demonstrate them in a clear, adequate and lively way.
Teach to structure thought.
Consequently, all expository writing, in which a thesis is formulated and attempts are made to demonstrate it, is an opportunity to practice rigorous and focused habits of thought that can lead not only to better works, but to a greater capacity for analysis in general.
It is during these early stages of writing, particularly in identifying supporting arguments, that students are most likely to hesitate and procrastinate, and when the strength of a work’s thesis is frequently diluted by a lack of rigorous thinking. Here we will adapt Aristotle’s method of “discovering arguments” to help identify and develop a solid thesis. You can adapt this method to any nonfiction writing, including essays, research papers, book reports, or critical reviews.
Choose a theme
Suppose your teacher asks you to write an essay about a vacation experience. Within this general topic area, you choose a topic that interests you and about which you can easily get information: you were in downtown Chico on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day and witnessed unusual behavior: there was a riot that caused injuries to passers-by and property damage to nearby cars. You want to write about this.
Limiting your topic
What name will you give to your subject? It is clear that “student behavior” is too broad; student behavior would necessarily include the behavior of all types of students, everywhere and at all times, and this could well fill a book and require a master’s degree in psychology. Simply calling your subject “St. Patrick’s Day” would be misleading. You decide to limit the topic to “student behavior on St. Patrick’s Day.” After some thought, you decide that a better and more specific topic might be “the unruly behavior of college students like the one seen in front of La Salle in downtown Chico last St. Patrick’s Day.” (Note that this is not the title of your essay. You’ll title it much later).) Now you have limited your topic and are ready to prepare a thesis.
Preparation of the thesis
While the topic may be a substantive sentence like the previous one, the thesis should be a complete sentence that states what your position is on the subject. The statement of the thesis must almost always have the form of a declarative sentence. Suppose you think some of the students’ behavior in front of La Salle on St. Patrick’s Day was very bad; his thesis statement may be: “Student behavior as demonstrated in front of La Salle last St. Patrick’s Day is a disgrace to the university community.”
Or, conversely, you may think that the students’ behavior was only a little exaggerated, but not as bad as the newspaper did. Your thesis could be: “A college town has to expect a certain amount of student joy at parties like St. Patrick’s Day; broken car windows and a couple of bruises are a small price to pay for all the commerce that college students bring to the center.”
Identify supporting arguments
Now you must gather material, or find arguments that support your thesis statement. Aristotle taught his students to examine any claim by “discovering arguments.” You’ll use some of their techniques to formulate support for your claim. Brainstorm, adapting the questions below as a guide, and write down even the ideas that don’t seem very promising to you; you can order them later.
What is good behavior? Or what is bad behavior? What is the proper behavior on St. Patrick’s Day? What is the appropriate behavior in other contexts?
How did the behavior of last St. Patrick’s Day resemble the behavior of previous years? How was the behavior in front of La Salle similar to the behavior in other parts of the city center that day? How does this behavior resemble that of other university cities that day?
How did the behavior of last St. Patrick’s Day differ from the behavior of previous years? How did behavior in front of La Salle differ from behavior in other parts of the city center that day? How did this behavior differ from student behavior in other college cities that day?
To what extent was student behavior worse than in previous years? Or to what extent was the behavior worse than in other parts of the city center? To what extent was student behavior worse than in other university cities?
Relationship (cause and effect)
What causes good behavior? What are the results of good behavior? Or maybe what are the causes of bad behavior? What are the results of bad behavior? What were the specific behavioral outcomes on St. Patrick’s Day? What were the specific causes of the behavior on St. Patrick’s Day?
Has this kind of behaviour occurred in the past? Should this behavior be allowed in the future? What is possible, that is, in this case, is it possible for students to behave appropriately even if they are bored, drunk or provoked? Is it possible for shopkeepers in the centre and passers-by to absorb the costs of material damage?
What are others’ opinions on students’ behavior in front of La Salle’s on St. Patrick’s Day (e.g., students who participated, students who observed, students who were injured, students who completely avoided downtown Chico on St. Patrick’s Day, city council members , the chief of police, the owner of La Salle’s, the owner of the damaged car, the owners of nearby businesses)?
Would the results of the imposed good conduct be “good”? Would the results of the imposed good behavior cause unwanted or unforeseen problems? What’s fair to whom?
Is it wise to demand better behavior on the next St. Patrick’s Day? Should the authorities impose better behavior next year? Should St. Patrick’s Day celebrations be canceled? Should everyone relax over this incident and let the students celebrate? Should students be asked to voluntarily improve their behavior next year? Or should the Students’ Association conduct an education campaign on respect for others, offer alternative activities or additional patrols?
After brainstorming, you should have plenty of material to support a thesis statement.
Develop thematic phrases that support the thesis
From the ideas you’ve collected with Aristotle’s method, build three to five thematic phrases that support your claim. These thematic phrases will become the framework of the rest of the work. In addition, it will support each of them with examples and quotes from personal interviews, press articles or other appropriate references.
The tumult was not caused by the students themselves, but an elderly homeless person spat into a person’s shoe, causing the person to turn away abruptly, and there was a chain reaction in the queue waiting to enter La Salle (from Aristotle’s examination of the relationship and testimony).
The presence of more policemen would only increase tension in the city center, making altercations (from the examination of The Good and Aristotle’s Record) more likely.
Trying to keep university students away from the city centre on holidays like this would result in a loss of income for the centre’s merchants (from the examination of Aristotle’s Dossier).
As you write your work, you will, of course, revise these sentences as needed to more accurately reflect your ideas and the support you get for them. At this point you should already know your topic well and know where you want to go with it. You will now be able to find enough additional supporting material to complete your trial.
Review the thesis
Notice that in the previous sentence we used the phrase “a thesis statement” instead of “your thesis statement”. This is because, by examining your thesis statement using the Aristotelian method, you may discover that you were wrong. At that point, you should review your thesis or choose another topic and start over. Reviewing your opinion in the light of convincing evidence is the principle of wisdom. In addition, although it is possible to continue with the essay as you imagined it at the beginning, you will find it more difficult to defend a thesis that you have previously discredited in your notes.
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