Thinking about thesis statements

Thesis statements. I am assuming you’ve heard that you need one, and maybe you have the idea that it’s supposed to be your “main idea,” but that’s a little vague, actually. Your “main idea” about what? And what are you supposed to do, just say, “Look, I have an idea” and leave it at that?

I should also say that not every kind of writing needs a thesis statement–and there is a little bit of a difference between a thesis statement and a statement of purpose. Thesis statements are a requirement for what is called the “argument” or “persuasive” essay: it’s a piece of writing in which your task is to get your readers to see something the way you see it. It resolves an argument, or clarifies an issue, or presents a case, sort of like lawyers do in court. And as a rule, it should come at the end of your introductory paragraph.

But here’s what most people don’t know about thesis statements.

  1. Theyre really hard to come up with, and to make sound good.
  2. They have to guide your writing–but your writing has to guide the thesis statement, too, so
  3. They must be subject to change as you work out your argument.

My advice is that you start with a thesis-ish statement, something that works just for you to start out with–and when you start out with your thesis-ish thingy, it can be informal and rough, not what you’ll end up with in your essay, like, “I think Hamlet’s biggest problem is not that he’s unsure of himself but that he really is worried that he has to live up to his father and doesn’t think he can.” (Note that I’m not saying that’s a thesis you should run out and use in your essay about Hamlet. In fact, I’d advise against it.) Or, for an essay about a real-world topic, your thesis-esque start might be, “I think recycling is really not important at all, and that what people really need to do if they’re concerned about the environment is to buy less stuff.” (Again, don’t run off and use that one.)

What you’ll observe about these is that both of them are open to debate: someone could argue a different point of view–and that’s the key to a good thesis. It must be something open to debate. And even though each starts with “I think,” it’s not an unfounded, personal opinion–like that unsalted butter tastes better than salted, or that the Seahawks are the best football team.

So that’s where you start. I’ll talk in other posts about what you do once you have a thesis-ish thingy to work with, but remember the three points given above.