by Stewart Matzek
More often than I’d like to admit, I see theses that look something like this: “In society today, a lot has changed.” The student then turns to me and asks if their thesis is okay, and I have to look them in the eye and tell them I honestly didn’t know they had a thesis. This is a tough conversation to have—after all, a thesis is an extremely important part of any scholarly essay, but it is an easy issue to solve, and I find myself drawing upon a specific comparison to describe a thesis in essay writing.
Your thesis is like a roadmap. It needs proper signposts and markings to let people know how to get to their destination, and in the event that it is unable to provide these signposts, people can get lost. Your thesis is exactly the same way. If your thesis can’t guide me through your argument, the nuance and logic of your essay can be lost, just like a person who doesn’t have a roadmap or directions. We need these signposts, as readers, to get through the paper without a hitch.
Think about it like this: If I were using Google Maps and I wanted to get to my friend’s house, those directions should be specific enough so that I know where to turn and where to go. If I typed the streets into the Maps application and it came up with directions that said “go left at the place” or “turn right near a building,” I would have no idea how to get to his house.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp, especially for students who don’t want to be too specific and reveal their argument too early. There’s a fine line, one that comes with practice, between not giving everything away and being too vague. The best way to illustrate this is through example. Take, for instance, this prompt:
“Write an argumentative paper in which you take a stand on an issue prevalent to modern society’s sensibilities.”
Fairly open-ended, right? You could write about anything. Say I choose legalization of marijuana, and say that my points are that marijuana persecution crowds jails, that marijuana can make a large profit, and that it has medical benefits. A starting thesis might sound something like this:
“I believe marijuana should be legalized because it isn’t bad.”
This is, for all intents and purposes, an awful sentence. What’s bad about this thesis? It lacks specificity. It doesn’t say anything about the issue or about my actual argument; instead, it relies on the vague concept of “badness” and doesn’t address the discussion fully. So let’s delve into why it “isn’t bad.”
“I believe marijuana should be legalized because it has health benefits.”
Getting closer. We still don’t know what these benefits are, but we can leave that for the rest of the paper. Let’s refine some more, and add some nuance to our point.
“I believe marijuana should be legalized because of its health benefits and because America can profit off the sale and taxation of the drug.”
At this point we’re getting into making this thesis more complex. Our third point, that the drug crowds jails unnecessarily, is one that doesn’t quite fit with the scheme of our thesis so far. When new information is put into the thesis that doesn’t necessarily gel with the points we’ve already made, or that is somewhat different, we need to differentiate this information. We can use a two-pronged approach, by adding a comma and a new clause, to illustrate that the information after the comma complicates or makes our argument more complex.
“I believe marijuana should be legalized because of its health benefits and because America can profit off the sale and taxation of the drug, and legalization will help lower overcrowding of our nation’s jails.”
Now, this still isn’t the best thesis in the world. It’s a little long, and some of the language is rudimentary. It still isn’t entirely clear that we know what we’re talking about. But the most important fact about this thesis is that it gives us a far better understanding of the argument and the points that need to be made. The first thesis was vague where this one is specific.
If I were going to give any curt advice, I would say this: Treat your thesis like it’s an outline for your paper and use it to touch on each point you’re going to be addressing. Don’t give away your reasoning for these points, or your thinking behind these points—that’s for your paper—but give us an idea, and an accurate one, of what you’re going to be arguing, what you’re going to be discussing, and what we can expect from the paper. Draw us the roadmap so that we don’t get lost.