Writing Effective Thesis Statements

Writing Effective Thesis Statements

An essay is composed of many parts; a successful essay is composed of many successful parts. Perhaps the most important aspect of any essay is its statement of argument or thesis statement. There are many approaches to composing a thesis statement, but this handout aims to identify the basic elements of a good thesis statement for critical essays in English literature.

As one resource provided below states, “when written well, the thesis expresses your argument so clearly that it is not necessary to read the rest of your essay to understand what you believe.” Thus crafting a thesis statement takes a lot of work. The payoff is worth it: the more care you put into this essential aspect of your paper, the better structured and organized your essay will be. And your reader–never forget that you are writing for a reader–will appreciate that immensely.

1. What are the general qualities a good thesis statement?

Traditionally (because most effectively) found at the end of your introduction
A concise and precise statement of your critical position concerning a text/texts (usually 1-2 sentences long)
A detailed map or outline of the content of your essay
Communicates a compelling, thoughtful, not-so-obvious critical insight into a text/texts

2. Can you be more specific? What does a good thesis statement actually consist of?

A thesis statement is comprised of two interrelated elements: observation and analysis. Both are required to make an interesting argument about a text and compose an effective thesis statement.

i) Observation
First: read the text to see what it’s doing and how it’s working (or not working) in a way that you find remarkable. You may notice that an author habitually employs a certain word or textual element, or that the text possesses an unfamiliar, innovative, or vaguely weird formal approach. You find yourself underlining, or writing comments in the margin, or saying something like “huh, that’s neat” (or different/boring/etc). By the end of this stage you will probably have a few observations about the text that you might pursue as potential essay topics. For example:

Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me” is structured in two parts, the second distinguished from the first by parentheses.

Right now, your observations may feel somewhat simple or obvious––that’s fine. In order to say something interesting about a text you need to start with an observation. BUT DON’T STOP HERE. Just think: if you were to use one of these observations as your essay’s thesis statement, the first thing your reader would say is…so what?

ii) Analysis
To avoid the “so what?” response, you need to provide an analysis of your observation. On one hand, analysis is the act of breaking something down into its component parts; on the other, it also involves the intellectual task of identifying relationships that exist between those parts. In the case of writing a thesis statement, your analysis should give a sense of how and/or why the observation you have made is actually related to another larger or separate issue that the text is concerned with. This is where you can make surprising or interesting connections within the text (and, if relevant, to other texts as well). At this stage, don’t be afraid to write down the full range of your ideas: remember, your objective is to anticipate the “so what?” response of an imaginary sceptical reader. For example:

Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me” is structured in two parts, the second distinguished from the first by parentheses. Most basically, the two parts are characterized by two different clarifying processes. The first process starts with the indecipherability of the “smeared,” “blurred,” and “blended” image and ends with the clarifying of the image in the “house” and the “lake” and the “hills.” The second process begins with the “smearing” fact of the death and ends with the clarifying promise that, if one looks long enough, one “will be able to see” the dead. This is a fair description of the two clarifying processes, yet it does not address the figure at root of these processes: the “you”/reader. The “you”/reader is first put in the position of an objective, outside viewer before, in the second stanza, being slipped into the position of the dead speaker. The “you”/reader is transported from the fact of the death to the last moments of the drowned speaker’s life, plunged “just under the surface” and looking up at “the effect of water / on light,” a position that if occupied “long enough” will bring the “you”/reader into contact with the dead.

iii) Crafting the thesis statement
Rethink, rewrite, reconsider, rephrase: now you want to whittle your observations and analysis down to a concise and precise statement of your argument. This might take several writing sessions to achieve but, as mentioned earlier, it’s worth it. Ensure that your finalized thesis statement fulfills the general objectives listed above, and you will have composed an effective statement of argument:

More than simply presenting two views on the same photograph, Margaret Atwood’s poem “This Is a Photograph of Me” composes the position of two different witnesses: the “ignorant,” distant viewer, and the immersed, active participant. Through her use of verbs, punctuation, and a changing range of reference, Atwood first guides the “you” from the “blurred” material of the image to the stable, natural subject of the photo’s scene, before introducing the fact of the speaker’s death and plunging the “you” into the depths beneath the surface the speaker last looked up upon to see “the effect of the water / on light.”

Useful resources:
As a student at The University of Toronto, you have unfettered access to an outstanding resource: the university’s writing centre (http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/home). Take a few minutes to book an appointment at any of the three campuses for further assistance with essay composition.

Other thesis-statement-specific online resources:
http://www.docstoc.com/docs/5274130/Writing-Effective-Thesis-Statements (Ryerson)
http://www.uiowa.edu/~writingc/writers/handouts/ThesisStatements.shtml (Iowa)
http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/thesis_statement.shtml (Indiana)