Page updated: 11-FEB-2013

By the end of this week, you should comprehend what a thesis statement is, how to identify a thesis, and how to write one.  Likewise, you should be fluent in the following writing vocabulary terms:

  • claim
  • assertion
  • hook
  • establishing a subject
  • generalized thesis
  • mapped thesis

The Thesis Statement

The fundamental question you must ask yourself is "how does a thesis statement differ from a 'normal' sentence?"  Thesis statements by their very nature are unique sentences because the bear the job of tying together the whole essay.  If it were not for the thesis, the essay would not have any direction, it would not have any focus, and readers would not know the purpose of the essay.  Needless to say, the thesis is the single-most important, necessary set of words in any given essay.  It is so important that without a thesis, I could not give your essay a passing grade, for it is the fundamental building block of a piece of prose.

Thesis statements don't just jump out at us and advertise themselves, but they are pretty easy to locate if you keep a few things in mind.  First, remember that a thesis expresses an opinion or claim, or main point about the essay as a whole.  Think of the thesis as the brain of the essay, the central nervous system.  This claim or assertion that the thesis makes is not a small one.  No.  It actually states a claim that is broad enough to cover all the material you mention in the essay.  If you prefer to think imagistically, picture the tentacles of an octopus reaching out from the center of the body.  No matter what that octopus does, those tentacles always lead back to the brain of the sea creature.  Likewise every word in your essay must have some direct or indirect connection to the claim in the thesis.  If you can't demonstrate how the sentences relate back to the thesis, then the essay probably has digressed somewhere and that's why the sentences don't have any connection to the thesis.

Sample Introduction with Thesis Statement

You will want to start off every essay with a well developed introductory paragraph.  Remember the criteria we discussed a couple classes ago on the structure of a well-written essay.  To achieve it's function, the introductory paragraph must hook the reader (or engage her in some way); it must establish the subject matter; it should convey the purpose of the essay; and it should introduce the thesis statement in the very last sentence of the paragraph.  For the essay assignment you will be writing, you will need to write a declarative thesis.  This is a thesis that you can prove or support with clear, concrete examples.  Unlike the "soft" controlling ideas that you might have been taught to use in a narrative/description essay, this exemplification essay will contain a thesis statement that asserts a main claim that you'll need to develop or prove with multiple paragraphs throughout your essay.  Consider the following introductory paragraph example that contains the thesis statement in red:

        Though it is a sad truth, most people in the U.S. willingly spend their hard-earned cash by investing in retarded technology.  In Robert Samuelson's essay, "Technology in Reverse", he claims that certain inventions in our modern world are "retarded."   They are not retarded in the conventional sense we think of to describe humans who are genetically challenged, like people with Downs Syndrome.  Instead, Samuelson uses the term "retarded" in a more literal sense to mean that an invention has not evolved beyond the one it is replacing.  He claims that "retarded technology creates new and expensive ways of doing things that were once done simply and inexpensively" (124).  Samuelson is correct in his observation that our world is inundated with retarded technology. In addition to the examples he points out in his 1992 essay, other examples of "technology racing backwards" (125) have been invented in the last 10 years.

Let's break down what is going on in this paragraph.  In the first sentence of the paragraph, examine how the word "retarded" is used.  The sentence makes somewhat of a startling statement.  Technology and "retarded" seem to be opposites, right?  Hopefully, a careful reader will notice the unconventional arrangement of these words and be curious enough to read on.  Now, not every reader will be hooked, but what you are aiming for are the reasonable readers in your audience, the ones who can recognize the hook you are trying to use whether they are drawn in by it or not.  The next several sentences work to establish the subject of the essay.  Presuming that most readers will not know what "retarded technology" means, the paragraph proceeds to define the term.  It even pulls in a quotation from a source that is used: an essay by Robert Samuelson called "Technology in Reverse".  The purpose of the essay is not really to persuade readers that "retarded technology" exists, but rather to illustrate additional forms of retarded technology that have appeared in our world since Samuelson's essay was published in 1992, ten years ago.  As you may have guessed, the essay's purpose can sometimes be communicated in the thesis.  When we get to the thesis statement, notice that it makes an assertion that can be proven.  Once the reader finds out what exactly those examples are, he can agree or disagree with whether they are indeed retarded forms of technology.  What you don't see are the other paragraphs in the main body.  But each paragraph takes a different form of technology and explains why and exactly how it is "racing backwards" to use Samuelson's words.

You might be wondering what makes a good thesis statement.  First it must be very precise.  Words are carefully chosen (this is called diction) to convey the essay's main point clearly.  Because the thesis is the most important sentence in the entire essay, you want to spend some time on it, honing it, carving it out so that its diction is sharp, piercing.  The one above is a generalized thesis because it does not map out the 4 forms of retarded technology (remember the class lecture about mapped versus generalized thesis statements).  You can use either a mapped thesis or a generalized thesis in your exemplification essay.

Bad thesis statements will be vague and not express an assertion or a claim.  Bad thesis statement will also announce the essay.  Never write a thesis that announces an essay.  That's one of the differences between high school essays and college essays.  Consider these thesis statements that announce the essay:

  1. In my essay, I will give 4 kinds of retarded technology.
  2. In this essay, we will discuss retarded technology that is worthless.
  3. I agree with Samuelson that there are other kinds of technology that are retarded and my essay will talk about 4 more kinds.

As you can see, all of these "thesis statements" announce what the essay will be about.  This method creates a very casual, informal tone in the essay.  While you don't want your writing to sound stuffy, you do want your language to speak with authority, and you want it to sound professional.  When you compare these 3 examples with to the one above, you can see the obvious contrast between them and the one listed in the thesis statement in the indented paragraph above.

Overall, carving out a well crafted, carefully constructed thesis is well worth your time invested.  Though you always should think of it as a tentative thesis or claim because you want to allow yourself the freedom to adjust it throughout the writing process as your draft develops and evolves.  It's okay to tweak your words in the thesis to fit new thoughts or directions your main body paragraphs are taking you.  Keeping your thesis in focus this way can only help you write a better essay.