The hardest part of writing an essay or composition is finding the thesis. This is true for reasons that have little do to with grammar, style, or even organizational techniques. You, as the student, have to be clear on your subject, knowledgeable, and sophisticated enough to present an argument that will be at least somewhat original and persuasive to a tutor who has already read a thousand essays, more or less, on your topic.
Obviously this is a tall order for you, and, as you might not realize, a very difficult matter for a tutor. It is easy for a tutor to correct a spelling error or help you out with faulty parallelism, but it is hard to explain to you just why your paper is not focussed.
Fortunately, a few basic techniques can help you succeed. We'll start with examples from a few real papers. The examples here come from an English course, but the principles can be applied to other courses or fields.
Here is the first paragraph of a paper attempting to define "dialogue":
What is dialogue? What can dialogue reveal about a character? Can dialogue disclose the depth of a character? How is the language a person uses the sign of his intelligence and education? How are people able to conceal their real feelings from each other while still answering direct questions?
Here we have four or five possible thesis statements, since answering each question would require an essay. The reader also has no idea which question is the most important, or whether there is a single underlying idea.
You might, therefore, be very wary about starting your essay with questions, although a single, well-focussed question might work for you. And, if you are having difficulty establishing a thesis, you might as well err on the side of being too obvious and literal at the beginning of your essay. For example:
My essay will explore the use of diction in short stories. My thesis is that the language a person uses will display his character, intelligence, and education. My examples will be taken from the following four stories:
That is pretty bleak and unappetizing, but it is undeniably focussed.
Let's look at another example, from a comparison essay:
Through reading Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," and William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," the reader finds that there are many forms of love.
"There are many forms of love." True enough, but too generalized. Here is a somewhat improved version:
Through reading Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," and William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," the reader finds many different kinds of love. In the Malamud story love can have a commercial price; in Faulkner, however, love must give way to ethics.
Another comparison example:
After reading "Looking for Mr. Green," "The Magic Barrel," and "Barn Burning," I noticed that each story has a hero. The main character in each story is trying to show care and love. Their tasks vary, but they all appear to act in a moralistic way. After comparing the three characters and their tasks, I offer some interesting comments.
The phrase "some interesting comments" is trying to be a thesis. Remember that you have to spell out your thesis at the beginning of the essay. In this case, the student did indeed have some interesting comments to make, and, in fact, had a thesis buried towards the end of the essay:
While Mr. Green and the others act out of self-interest and according to their prejudices, Sarty is truly remarkable in that he acts out of the social good and gets beyond his class background.
That line should have gone at the beginning. Never worry about giving away your thesis at the beginning of your essay because you want mystery and surprise; a good thesis gives you lots of room for subtle development, and the more the reader knows about what you are up to, the better.
Another example, from an essay on Conrad:
In Conrad's Heart of Darkness , Marlow tells a bizarre tale of his encounter with Mr. Kurtz, a white man turned to satanic practices deep in the Congo's interior. A strong bond between the two men leads Marlow to go against his personal values in order to protect Kurtz's reputation. Why would Marlow side with such a man? To fully understand his alliance with Kurtz, one must follow Marlow on his journey into the heart of Africa, starting from its beginning in London, because "to understand the effect of it on me, you ought to know how I got there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap."
This is a very nice beginning from a writing point of view, but unfortunately, as often happens, the student went on to recount the plot: how Marlow got there and what he saw. Instead of an essay, there was a plot summary.
What the writer needed to do was limit his approach and indicate a pattern of discussion:
In Conrad's Heart of Darkness , Marlow tells a bizarre tale of his encounter with Mr. Kurtz, a white man turned to satanic practices deep in the Congo's interior. A strong bond between the two men leads Marlow to go against his personal values in order to protect Kurtz's reputation. Why would Marlow side with such a man? To fully understand his alliance with Kurtz, one must look carefully at Marlow's feelings about the enterprise at the outset and at the impact of several significant situations and two individuals he encounters before reaching Kurtz.
While this introduction is still fairly general, it does narrow the focus; the writer promises a close look at selected features in the text in order to answer the question, "Why should Marlow side with such a man?"
Remember, the tutor knows the plot; what he or she wants to hear is what it all means.
In general, a good thesis statement is specific and unified, but not self-evident. A specific thesis statement not only indicates the main point of the paper, but it also avoids vague generalities. Here are a few examples of thesis problems and possible solutions:
|Overly General Thesis||Improved|
|There are images of death everywhere in Heart of Darkness .||The images of death, which appear everywhere in Heart of Darkness , provide a symbolic background to the theme of colonial exploration and corruption.|
|Marlow's journey into the Congo is a hellish one.||Images and symbols associated with the traditional journey into Hades suggest that Marlow's journey is not a journey into the Congo, but into Hell.|
|I am fascinated by Marlow as a character, and am also fascinated by the fact that he is a seafaring man.||I find Marlow particularly fascinating because he is, in part, a character type: the strong, silent man of the sea.|
|Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a thought-provoking narrative.||Conrad's Heart of Darkness forces its readers to consider carefully what happens to human nature when it operates without the constraints and checks of society.|
|The frame of Heart of Darkness begins and ends the story.||The frame of Heart of Darkness contains the essential elements of theme, of setting, and of imagery, which Conrad uses to develop Marlow's story - and to end it.|
Is there a single sentence that expresses my thesis?
You should be able to reduce your argument to one (or two at the most) sentences. Remember the fabled phrase that started the entire police detective TV series, Miami Vice, not to mention the hero Don Johnson's stubble look:
"Rock videos and cops."
This phrase might provide the heart of a thesis: "What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Miami Vice as a crime drama is the young audience's current passion for rock videos and the general audience's long-standing passion for cops."
Is my thesis in the first paragraph (or paragraphs) of the essay?
Your thesis statement should be in the first paragraph or two; you would be amazed how quickly people start to wonder what the point is.
Is my thesis too narrow or narrow enough?
It is possible to be too narrow. For example:
My essay will demonstrate, with examples from the text, that Bartleby was not a reliable scrivener.
Such a thesis denies any interest in Bartleby as a character and the question being answered does not advance our critical understanding of the story.
However, very few essays err in the direction of being too circumscribed.
Do I have enough examples to support my thesis?
Or, to put it another way, do you have any examples? Remember that you have to prove something. Someone has to be convinced. You must provide details from the literary texts to back up your general statements.
Has my thesis statement accidentally been delayed until the last paragraph?
A remarkable number of students start out with a vague generalization in the first paragraph, work through their examples, and by the end develop quite an intelligent appraisal. The tutor, scratching his head throughout, suddenly finds out in the last lines what the student was trying to show.
If such is the case in your essay, rewrite your opening paragraph to include the thesis statement. You don't have to give everything away right at the beginning, but you certainly have to reveal the direction you are headed. (And, look at that last paragraph again to see that it draws a conclusion, rather than repeating the introduction.)
Here it is in short form: Put this by your typewriter, pen, or word processor, and check it off before you mail an assignment:
Is my thesis
- Stated in a single sentence?
- Stated at the beginning?
- Sufficiently narrow?
- Backed up by examples?
- Not revealed only at the end?
Note that numbers 2 and 5 are much the same, but we want to reinforce this major point: get a clear thesis at the beginning and worry about elegant literary values later.
There are many grammar and style books around with advice about how to compose a thesis statement. See, for example, the book called The Practical Stylist, by Sheridan Baker.