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How to Write Your Thesis Statement, Or "Thes-is So Difficult!" and Other Bad Puns

If you’re anything like I was four years ago, the mention of a thesis statement has you questioning everything you thought you knew about what it means to be a competent human being. Oh, sure, you know what a thesis statement is. Of course. People have been telling you that you need one, analyzing what you’ve put down, and maybe even throwing words at you like, “That’s a weak thesis,” or “Your thesis statement is so clear—so well-formulated.”

(This was me. Source)

But you didn’t really know what you were doing, did you? You smiled and took the grade and moved on. It happened to me as it probably has or, in all certainty, will happen to you. Finally someone looked me in the eye and asked me what a thesis statement was, and (mind you, this was two years into college) I had to reconcile with the dire, unavoidable fact that I had no idea what a thesis statement actually was.

So, what is it, then?

Imagine a hypothetical situation with me for a second: you’re sitting in front of your friend, complaining about this God-awful paper you have to write, and she asks with furrowed brow, “Well, what’s it about?”

In short, whatever you answer is your thesis.

Of course, things get more complicated than that, but this is the example I use with my students all the time. Your thesis statement should ideally serve as a sort of one-sentence summation of the purpose of your paper. So if you’re writing a paper about the presidential history of Abraham Lincoln, your thesis statement could be as simple as:

As the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln witnessed and directly affected some of the greatest moments in our nation’s history.

It tells us A) that you’re writing a paper about Abraham Lincoln and B) that you’ll most likely be talking about some important events that occurred during his presidency. Badda-bing, badda-boom.

Why do I need one?

(Good question. Source)

Let me answer your question with one of my own: why do you need a steering wheel in a car?

This is an important metaphor, kids—and let me tell ya, not many people would take a ride in your Jaguar without a steering wheel attached, even if it is a Jaguar. It’s the same thing with a paper. A direct, honest statement at the beginning gives the reader the confidence to know you’re in control of this coin-operated fiasco. (This is why the thesis statement is nearly always the very last sentence of your introductory paragraph.) We want to know you have a method to your madness before we waste fifteen of our five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes on your paper.

There are exceptions. You could write a very good one-pager that has no thesis statement at all. But the point here is that a one-page response probably doesn’t have much to go on anyway—like a skateboard, we don’t need a wheel for that.

Alright, so I know what it is and I know I need it, but I still don’t get how to write one!

When students come to me with this issue, they are most commonly afflicted with a lack of purpose. Recall my definition of a thesis statement: “Yadda-yadda fancy college words purpose of your paper.” You can’t have a thesis statement without purpose.

So, get it together.

Figure out what you’re writing about. Ask yourself what topics you’ll be covering in the next one thousand words. I tell students to forget about the thesis until their paper is done, and then mold the thesis to fit what they talked about. Or do it the other way around if you want more structure. Just remember that if you read your thesis statement and it doesn’t match up with what you told your friend in that aforementioned hypothetical situation, you probably need to revamp your statement.

In Conclusion

(I’m just kidding. Never say, “In conclusion.”)

There’s something you have to understand about a thesis statement: no two are alike. I’d put in a snowflake analogy here, but I think I’m expending my metaphor allowance. Some are more than a single sentence long. Some are expository, argumentative, or analytical (more on that in another post). Whatever you decide to go with, as my parting note, I’ll advise you to stay clear of statements that sound like this:

The Three-Pointer
The fall of Ancient Rome was due to political turmoil, social strife, and unforeseen attacks from weaker empires.
Better: The inner strength of Ancient Rome was already weakened by political turmoil and social strife, but unforeseen attacks from weaker empires dealt the final blow.

All three points are still included (so continue your five-paragraph essay unimpeded, cough cough), but they’re arranged in a much more creative (and therefore interesting) way. Also, more emphasis Is put on the outside attacks, which just might be your essay’s knock-out point.
The Captain Obvious
In this paper I will discuss the dangers of high cholesterol.
Better: As numerous medical studies show, the dangers of high cholesterol can’t be ignored.

You don’t have to tell your audience that you’re writing a paper—we’re reading it; we know. Instead, take the opportunity to mention something specific about your essay, like, say, medical research you might have gathered.

The Jell-O

In my opinion, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye could be a story of one boy’s coming-to-terms with his adulthood, although others may disagree.

Better:  J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a story of one boy’s coming-to-terms with his adulthood.

Cut out the wishy-washy stuff and get right to the point. All I did here was take out “in my opinion”, “could be” and “although others may disagree”.  
Genevieve G
Writing/English Tutor
University of North Georgia
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