Earlier pieces note that essays exist to advance ideas, and those ideas are often arrived at through answering a series of questions. The chief idea that an essay will advance is its thesis, and the statement of a thesis is the most important statement in an essay. Indeed, the whole rest of the essay exists to serve that thesis. The reader is led to the thesis, the thesis is supported, and the reader is led back into the world armed with a new idea and a new perspective because of the idea. In each case, the thesis is the focus of attention.
It will behoove a prospective essay writer to develop a thesis early on and to work first to refine it before striving to write an essay for me about it–a well crafted idea is more likely to pass any tests. There are fortunately some qualities common to good theses (the plural of “thesis” is “theses”), and they are fairly easy to develop with attention and a bit of practice.
What a Thesis Is
One important thing to remember about a thesis is that it is an opinion. It is not a fact, but is instead a position held by the essay writer based on the writer’s interpretation of the facts available, filtered through the writer’s background (education, experience, social and cultural position, and the like). If the essayist has done well, the thesis is amply supported by relevant evidence and extensive explanation of that evidence. The opinion will be supported by the facts and an explicitly laid-out explanation of how those facts actually support the opinion.
That the thesis will be shown to be valid, to have a reason to be advanced, in a well written essay does not mean that the thesis has become a fact. It is still subject to interpretation and investigation, and so it can be proven invalid later. Other people may find information, unknown to the essayist, that belies the thesis entirely. Some might look at the essay and find that the testing of the thesis was not rigorous enough, or that it was somehow flawed. From time to time, the essayist may well recant. But when it is the linchpin of a well crafted essay, the thesis is a useful and valid interpretation of evidence which others can use to support and inform their own. It is an opinion which is shown to be reliable and which can therefore be taken as evidence in support of other ideas.
It is also the first thing that should be put together in an essay, since it guides the rest of the essay. Ideally, it will proceed in a raw form from the questions discussed in an earlier hub (linked above). A raw form, however, is not enough craft a good essay. Just as iron must be refined before it can be made into useful things, a raw thesis must be worked over before it can be made the guidepost of an essay. It must be clarified and expressed at its best before it can be tested through the process of drafting an essay.
Putting Together and Polishing the Thesis
As noted, the thesis is the answer to a question, usually a question such as “What do I want to say about this thing I really like?” or “What can I say to answer the task put before me?” Framing the questions and coming up with an initial answer–prewriting, as it is often called–usually yields a rough idea. Before that idea can be used to guide an essay as a thesis, it will need to be carefully considered and reshaped.
At times, this will involve narrowing the thesis further. How narrow will depend on the scope of the writing task. A piece of writing with an upper limit of 300 words will need to be narrower than one with an upper limit of 300 pages. But however large the task may be, it will benefit from a more exact focus in its guiding idea. As I have explained it to students and people I have tutored, in a knife fight, the enemy will lose more quickly if stabbed deeply a few times than if hit with many shallow cuts. A thesis works similarly; a narrower idea will go deeper and will reveal more than a broader idea. As in the initial generation of the idea, questions will help to narrow the thesis when such narrowing is needed; “What is the important part of this?” is a useful starting point.
More frequently, the initial idea is pallid. An example seen entirely too often is “X and Y are similar in many ways, but they are also different.” Another is “Z can mean many things to many people.” Phillip Lopate is correct in “The Essay, An Exercise in Doubt” that writers do need to avoid being shrill and unwavering, that they need to consider divergent opinions and ideas, but he is also correct that being able to stake out and advance a single position is entirely necessary. And if an essay does bring up points of doubt and contention, it is also likely to put forth some kind of resolution of them. At the very least, it will move beyond the flat regurgitation of ideas such as two things sharing some qualities but not others, or people having divergent opinions.
If an essay is to advance a new idea, it must proceed from a strong thesis. An idea that equivocates–“X and Y are similar in many ways, but they are also different”–cannot be strong, as it tries to do two things at once. The perils of such a course are amply attested; Shakespeare’s Claudius in Hamlet remarks that being bound to two concerns causes neglect of both (3.3), and Abraham Lincoln famously spoke of the danger of enduring internal disagreement. Similarly, an idea that fails to move beyond what appears on the surface–“Z can mean many things to many people”–cannot be strong, as strength proceeds from depth. It is necessary, then, for a good thesis to make a decisive claim that penetrates deeply.
Questions again help to find what is needed. For such a thing as the too-common “X and Y are similar in many ways, but they are also different,” what do the similarities or the differences mean? (Note the “or”; the essay will be stronger considering only one.) For the also-too-common “Z can mean many things to many people,” the meaning that matters is the meaning to the writer. Other people already have their meanings, and they can read the meanings that others have written. What they cannot get is the writer’s perspective on the matter–unless the writer gives it to them.
In both cases, another issue is addressed that is all too common among less practiced writers. An effective thesis will address a single idea in detail. The idea can be complex, certainly. For example, my dissertation works with the idea that three factors working on seven versions of a text make something happen; it is hardly a simple thing to consider. But the root idea is “The cause of this thing is the way the factors work in the editions,” and that is a single, discrete idea, even if it is complicated to support.
The examples deployed above all lack things that many novice writers attach to their theses needlessly: “I think,” “In my opinion,” “I believe,” and the like. The thesis is inherently an opinion, and it is supposed to be the opinion of the essayist. (If it is not, there is usually something wrong–or the writer is engaging in a useful thought exercise: arguing against the self. Lopate is correct in pointing out its utility.) Readers operate under the assumption that the essays they read represent the belief of the writers (at least at the time the essays are written). Only when they are directly set in opposition to or conflict with the reported beliefs of others is it useful for the writer to use such devices as “In my opinion,” and then they will find it helpful to emphasize the “I” or “my” so as to point out the contrast. Otherwise, saying “In my opinion” is redundant, a waste of time and effort that necessarily weakens the thesis. Writing “It is” is far stronger than “I believe it is,” and it leaves more room for other, stronger supporting content, as well.
“In my opinion, I believe” (which I have seen on student papers) is simply silly. It is not at all likely to help outside of a mock-essay or a piece of satire.
In brief, a thesis should make a decisive claim about a single thing, and it should do so with as little redundancy as can be managed. Then it may be able to guide the essay through which it is tested–and hopefully found worthwhile.