how to write an essay
Step 4: Thesis

After researching, analyzing, and brainstorming, you should have an worthwhile insight to write about. Now it's time to convert that worthwhile insight into a polished thesis statement, which will then guide and shape the rest of the essay.

The thesis acts as the main claim of your paper, and typically appears near the end of the introduction. Unless you have a compelling reason to relocate the thesis from the traditional place, put it at the end of your introductory paragraph. Readers anticipate and read closely your thesis, and they want to find a polished statement there. The thesis expresses in one concise sentence the point and purpose of your essay.

Make it arguable

Your thesis must make an arguable assertion. To test whether your assertion is arguable, ask yourself whether it would be possible to argue the opposite. If not, then it's not a thesis -- it's more of a fact. For example:

  • Not Arguable: "Computers are becoming an efficient mechanism for managing and transmitting information in large businesses." (Who's going to dispute this? It's not an arguable assertion -- it's a fact.)
  • Arguable: "Heavy use of computers may disrupt family cohesion and increase divorce in society." (This is arguable because many people may not believe it. It would make a good thesis!)

Be specific

The thesis must also be specific. Avoid broad, vague generalizations. Your thesis should include detail and specificity, offering the reader the why behind your reasoning.

  • Poor Specificity: "We should not pass the microchip bill." (Hey, not specific enough! It's just a value statement and doesn't provide enough reasoning for the reader.)
  • Good Specificity: "Because the microchip insert causes serious health hazards such as cancer and brain tumors to those who use it, the microchip should not be passed." (Now the thesis is much more specific, and the reader gets a clear idea of what the essay is going to be about.)

Avoid lists

If your thesis consists of a long list of points, your essay will most likely be superficial. Suppose you had six reasons why WebCT should be adopted in college courses. Instead of trying to cover so much ground in your essay, narrow your focus more to give greater depth to fewer ideas, maybe discussing two or three points instead.

Long lists result in shallow essays because you don't have space to fully explore an idea. If you don't know what else to say about a point, do more brainstorming and research. However, if you're arguing a longer paper, and really need to cover this much ground, still avoid the list in your thesis -- just give the reader a general idea of your position, without being so specific.

  • Example of a list: "The microchip bill biologically damages the health of children, invades the privacy of independent teenagers, increases crime, turns children against their parents, induces a sense of robotry about the individual, and finally, may result in the possible takeover of the government." (Wow, what a list! In a 1,000 word essay, each of these topics will only be explored superficially.)
  • Narrower focus: "By surgically inserting circuitry similar to cell phone devices that has been known to cause headaches and fatigue, the microchip biologically endangers the health of children." (I've narrowed my focus to just one point -- health hazards -- instead of the six. Now my job will be to explore this assertion in depth. Academic writing almost always prefers depth over breadth.)

Follow an "although . . . actually" format

The "although . . . actually" format is one of the most effective ways of finding something original and controversial to say. In effect, you are telling someone that what he or she thought to be previously true really isn't. You're saying, Hey, you thought X? Well, you're wrong. Really, it's Y! Whenever you look beyond the obvious and give readers something new to consider, you're going to get their attention. Nothing works better than this "although . . . actually" format to set you up in delivering an insight.

  • Example: Although it appears that computers may help students learn to write, actually they can become a detriment to the generation of what what creative writers call "flow."
  • Example: Although many people believe that extraterrestials and crop circles are a figment of the imagination, actually there is strong evidence suggested by collective, distinct anecdotes that alien encounters are real.
  • Example: Although some philosophers profess to lead more pure, thoughtful lives, actually philosophers are no different than other publication-hungry academics.

(Note: "actually" isn't always necessary. It is often implied with the clause "although.")

Practice with thesis

Tom Johnson. Last updated May 2004.