A good thesis is a continuation of a good topic. It individualizes your essay. Your thesis is you speaking, offering the argument or results you have come to after research and thought. From the thesis, the rest of your essay will develop, supporting your thesis and showing how and why your thesis is valid.
Generating a Good Thesis
After preliminary research, ask questions to find a thesis.
If your topic is the Vietnam War, you can narrow it by focusing on American involvement. You can analyze this further by asking what was the most important cause of this increased involvement. Your thesis might then be "The escalation of the Vietnam War during the 1960s was caused primarily by America’s anti-Communist foreign policy."
The topic outlines the subject. The thesis declares the writer's position. Note the process, how each step gets closer to a thesis.
Consider the following topics, questions arising from the topics, and thesis statements.
Topic: Diefenbaker and the Cuban missile crisis.
Question: What were the results of Diefenbaker’s response to the Cuban missile crisis?
Thesis Statement: Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness during the Cuban missile crisis damaged his chances of re-election and hurt Canada’s image abroad.
The question narrows the topic and indicates the focus. The thesis is the writer’s argument and answers the question. The specifics — Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness, re-election, and Canada’s image — are the material covered in the essay.
Topic: The importance of the setting of Margaret Atwood's novel
Question: Is there some aspect of this nove and its setting I feel strongly about?
Answer: I think the setting is clearly meant to be symbolic of Canadian identity but I don't think it really works anymore
Thesis Statement: While the setting of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing is presented as and was once understood to be an iconic symbol of Canadian identity, this is no longer the case in the twenty-first century, and this affects the twenty-first century experience and interpretation of the novel.
Questions you can ask to help you develop a thesis
Get into the habit of asking all kinds of questions of your topic when you are trying to develop a thesis. Just remember, though, that a thesis is not a question but the answer to a question.
Why? Why did an event occur? For example, why did Canada not apologize sooner for residential schools?
How? How did a particular cultural practice evolved, or how does a bee communicate, or how are decisions made in Parliament?
What? What did a historical figure do that was of lasting importance; what are the important parts of a theory; what is the role of Peggy in Madmen?
Make sure your “what” question is not simplistic. An essay is not a plot summary or catalogue of events (instead of “What number of students use Twitter?” try a more probing “What accounts for Twitter's popularity?”).
What was the cause of something? What was the effect of something? What is the effect of oral rehydration therapy in Ethiopia? What will be the effect of capitalism on sustainability?
What is similar between two things? What is different? Comparison questions can move your ideas forward and help generate a thesis. What are the similarities and differences between two theories of chivalry, the humour of Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain, or two sources of electricity?
What are the strength and weaknesses of something? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's health policy, or of the use of setting as symbol in Atwood's Surfacing?
What are the pros and cons of an issue? Does your material lend itself to an examination of pros and cons? For example, what are the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana? You should still have a clear thesis and take a stand in such an essay.
Is there a story or a chronological development I can trace with this topic? Can you trace a development in your material? Examples of this type of question might be: how does this character develop in this novel or how did primates evolve? Be careful with this kind of question; your answer must not degenerate into a recitation of information without interpretation. Go beyond listing facts; focus not just on the how but the why.
How Long Should a Thesis Statement Be?
A thesis statement should be unified and coherent; in other words, it shouldn't point in more than one direction. Often one sentence is enough, but not always. You may need two or three sentences to articulate your argument or results, particularly as you move into your third and fourth years and start writing longer and more complex essays.
However, anything longer than three sentences might mean you haven't focused your thoughts enough. A strong thesis helps an essay proceed with deliberate purpose. It prevents befuddled wandering and mechanical, superficial development. The thesis statement is your bullseye. Everything in your essay must nail this target.
Give yourself time to mull over ideas, then start with a tentative thesis. Once your first draft is done, go back and tweak your thesis as necessary. A more compelling focus or a slightly different one often appears after you have written a first draft.
Exercise Two: From Topic to Thesis Statement
Exercise Three: Evaluating Thesis Statements
Checklist: Thesis Statements
Back to From Topic to Thesis
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