What is a Thesis Statement?
Before we can talk about how to write a great thesis statement, you need to be able to identify a great thesis when you see one. Contrary to what you may have been taught, a thesis is so much more than just the last sentence of the opening paragraph of an essay.
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The Thesis Explained - Common Misconceptions
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. A thesis statement is not always the last sentence in the first paragraph! Often it is, but sometimes it isn’t. So, just pointing to the last sentence of the introductory paragraph is not a surefire way to identify a thesis statement. A thesis doesn’t necessarily even show up in the first paragraph (although it usually does). And while theses more often than not consist of a single sentence, sometimes a thesis statement takes up two sentences or more.
So let’s ask a different question: what does make a thesis a thesis? It’s pretty simple, actually.
A thesis :
Sets the reader’s expectations for the essay (what the essay is going to be about)
Sets up the primary argument you’re going to make in the essay that others may disagree with
Answers a question
This is the biggest, most important thing that the thesis does. So, if the prompt says, ‘Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Explain why or why not’, then the thesis, in the first paragraph, should answer this directly. For example, ‘I believe in the Loch Ness Monster based on supporting historical evidence, but largely because I watched it eat my grandfather’s hat.’ That’s a thesis statement.
When there isn’t a prompt involved, the thesis is answering the writer’s own question that she poses for herself, which she turns into an argument for the reader (which is to say, if you decided to write an essay about why you believe in the Loch Ness Monster, the answer to the question of whether you believe in it is already embedded in your thesis).
Do All Essays Need a Thesis Statement?
Actually, I’ll tell you. Not all essays require thesis statements. Did I just blow your mind? Seriously, though, an essay is a just a short-form piece of writing, and not every piece of writing is designed to lay out a specific argument. But most are, and therefore most require thesis statements. Let’s take a look at the kinds of essays that do and those that don’t.
Analytical essays provide an analysis of an issue or issues, breaking them down into their individual parts and presenting that analysis to the reader. Here’s an example of the kind of assignment that would prompt you to write an analytical paper:
Analyze the relationship between the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.
An essay prompt would demand a thesis that answered the question of what the relationship between the witch and her monkeys was - a breakdown of that relationship’s psychological complexities, what the symbolism is as it relates to the story, whether she cuddles them at night, et cetera.
Argumentative and Expository Essays
Argumentative and expository essays are two types of essays that explain, expand upon and persuade the reader about a given topic. Prompts for expository essays follow the format you most often see in school assignments and standardized tests like the CLEP. This type of essay will ask you to explain why one thing leads to another. Alternately, it may ask you to compare and contrast two or more elements, explain how they interact with each other and have you take a position on that interaction.
Argumentative essays are similar but are more likely to be long-form, are more complex, include in-depth research and may include the writer’s own thorough research and observations. Argumentative essays are more often the essay assignments you’ll have several weeks or even a semester to write, while expository essays are shorter and better suited to an in-class assignment or time-limited exam. Both usually have a strong, defining thesis up front, probably in the first paragraph.
Here’s an example of an expository essay prompt:
‘Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else,’ actor Will Rogers is often quoted as having said. Do you agree or disagree? Using specific examples, write an essay explaining your position, drawing on your personal experience, observations or books you might have read for support.
A prompt like this will have a thesis that answers the main question first and foremost, agreeing or disagreeing with Rogers’ quote and hinting as to the reasons why. Such a thesis might read:
Despite Rogers’s claim, everything is not necessarily funny as long as it’s happening to somebody else, but the spirit of his statement is true: Namely, that that which others find funny about you is rarely funny to yourself.
Remember how I said not all essays need a thesis statement? Narrative essays are the primary example of an essay that may not require a thesis statement. This is because in a narrative essay, the writer is using a story or stories to illustrate whatever greater point he or she wants to make. Take the example that follows, from a narrative essay by writer A.A. Milne (who you might know as the creator of Winnie the Pooh):
Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say. On one such occasion I left it to Fate, which decided, by means of a dictionary opened at random, that I should deliver myself of a few thoughts about goldfish. (You will find this article later on in the book.) But to-day I do not need to bother about a subject. To-day I am without a care. Nothing less has happened than that I have a new nib in my pen.
Where is the thesis? What is this essay going to be about? You can’t tell from the opening paragraph, except that we know it’s not going to be about goldfish (that comes later, the writer tells us). We know he has a ‘new nib’ in his pen (a nib is the pointy part at the end of a fountain pen for those of you who have no idea what he’s talking about).
The essay is called ‘The Pleasure of Writing,’ and it’s a pleasant, rambling narrative full of little anecdotes and stories about what makes writing a happy experience for the writer that ends with his conclusion about what the true pleasure of writing is (the act of writing is its own pleasure, he believes). But you’ll understand more about the ‘thesis’ of the essay from the title than by looking for a simple thesis statement. And that’s okay!
Let’s review. Remember that a thesis:
Answers the question posed by the essay prompt (or that you set for yourself)
Sets the reader’s expectations for the essay
Sets up the primary argument you’re going to make
An analytical essay has a thesis that promises to analyze parts of a subject for the reader. Argumentative or expository essays have a thesis that takes a position on an issue or issues. Narrative essays may or may not have a thesis.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
Define thesis and understand when one is needed in an essay
Identify and describe the different types of essays
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