information on Form, Introductions, and Conclusions)
of a Thesis
A thesis is the
main idea that you are trying to convey in your work. It states plainly
what you are trying to persuade your reader to believe. Therefore,
a thesis cannot be a simple statement of fact, because a statement of
fact does not require persuasive argument. However, all facts
require interpretation if one wants to derive meaning from them.
number of cases of skin cancer per thousand U.S. citizens has increased
steadily since the 1920s.”
could not be a thesis unless you were presenting a scientific essay
on skin cancer rates. In such an essay you would need to defend
your methodology for determining the rate of skin cancer.
rates of skin cancer have increased steadily since the 1920s reveals
the danger of the American obsession with getting a ‘healthy’
is a thesis because it requires argument and support. Note
that alternative theses are possible: “The increase
in the rate of skin cancer since the 1920s derives more from Americans’
longer average lifespan than from the popularity of tanning”;
“The thinning of the ozone layer has potentially devastating
long-term effects on the public health, as shown by the increase
in the rate of skin cancer”; etc.
thesis is also neither a mere statement of topic or outline, nor a general
description or characterization, such as one accomplished with merely
of a purpose statement:
essay will examine the system of alliances that led to the outbreak
of the First World War.”
essay will begin by examining how the German commitment to the Hapsburg
Empire and Russian commitment to Serbia turned the assassination
of two people into a European War, and then consider what alternatives
These are called purpose statements because they announce
the writer’s intention in writing the essay, but they do not
actually provide a thesis. They often reveal that the
essay was originally intended as a spoken lecture. In those
cases, outlining one’s presentation at the outset for
audience can be helpful.
Purpose statements are common in scientific papers, but seem stiff
in the humanities.
of a general description or characterization:
system of alliances that brought about the First World War was foolish.”
this statement needs an accompanying explanation: “The system
of alliances that brought about the First World War was foolish because
. . . ”
Statements for Essays Examining Literary Works
that examine works of literature also cannot merely consist of facts.
These essays are always presumably written for people who have read
the work in question. For example, we can assume that relatively
few people are going to read an essay about Madame Bovary without
having read the book. These readers know what happens in the story,
novel, or play, or what the poem says on a literal level, so they are
not going to be interested in reading an essay merely summarizing the
plot or even the overall theme of a work. Nor are they looking
for background information on the author’s life. Even if
they were to enjoy that, knowing more about an author personally would
not by itself help them understand the work better, which is what we
should presume they want.
below the differences between a fact and an arguable point:
of a fact in a literary essay:
The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne struggles to understand
her daughter Pearl’s strange behavior.”
of the novel knows that this is true. While you could fill
an essay with quotations from scenes that show Hester struggling
to understand Pearl, it would not be necessary.
of a thesis in a literary essay:
The Scarlet Letter, Pearl may appear to a living embodiment
of Hester’s sin, but her ultimate fate suggests that she is
an embodiment of true love, and that her flaws are caused only by
her father’s refusal to claim her.”
statement is a thesis because the claim that Pearl is “an
embodiment of true love” requires support. The novel
never says that directly. The writer can only persuade the
reader to accept this thesis by quoting the text and then explaining
how and why this interpretation makes sense.
and Potential Pitfalls to Writing a Good Thesis
Think of an essay
as the answer to a question that someone might have about the topic.
In fact, one of the first steps you should take in approaching any
paper is to define what question your essay will answer. (Early
in your college careers some professors give you the question, but
that happens less and less as you progress to higher level classes.)
A thesis is usually more effective and will lead to a better essay
if it answers how or why questions, not who,
what, when, or where questions, or at least
if the answers to the who, what, when,
or where question require exploring how or
The thesis is
the statement that the rest of the essay supports; a thesis never
provides its own support. It makes no sense to say a thesis
is poor because it is unsupported or lacks evidence; the support or
evidence comes elsewhere. A thesis that supported itself would
be self-evident — a fact — and could not then serve as
the basis for an essay. Of course, an essay may be poor because
the author never supports the thesis persuasively, but that is the
problem of the essay as a whole, not the thesis itself.
of absolutes: The problem with a thesis such as “George
Marshall was the greatest Secretary of State in U.S. history”
is that you would have to compare him to all the others, or at least
all those who are generally admired. This is possible to do, but probably
not in an essay assigned to an undergraduate course, which would not
be long enough to accomplish that task. The same applies to a
thesis such as “King Lear is Shakespeare’s most tragic character.”
On the other hand, one can argue an absolute if one sufficiently limits
the context: “Of the four most renowned silent film comedians,
Buster Keaton was the most innovative film-maker” is an acceptable
thesis because one might reasonably compare four film-makers in a college
and artistic works never prove anything about the real world.
Art creates its own worlds with their own rules. Thus, a novel
that presumes our lives have meaning and purpose and another one that
presumes that life is random and meaningless can both be great.
A movie that suggests romantic love is the most fundamental part of
our lives (Annie Hall) and a movie that claims that “the
problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans
in this crazy world” (Casablanca) can both be considered
masterpieces. On the other hand, literary and artistic works can
prove something about literature and art: “By conventional
standards, Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo is a more admirable man
than Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine; thus Casablanca demonstrates
that the most effective American cinematic hero is often an anti-hero.”
specific: A good thesis is both specific and divided. Specific
means that you avoid general arguments ––– for example,
that something is either simply good or bad. Divided
means that you provide an indication of the basis for your argument
in the thesis. Note that sometimes this may require that the thesis
be more than one sentence long.
too-general thesis: “The
character of Ben in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman
serves a complex dramatic function.” This is a potentially
useful area of focus for an essay on the play, but at this point
it is not a thesis because it is not saying anything specific.
Nor is it an interesting point by itself. The author needs
to explain what exactly “a complex dramatic function”
means in this case.
statement of focus that is then divided and developed into an
actual thesis: “The
character of Ben in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman
serves a complex dramatic function. He is Willy Loman’s
real brother, the idealized memory of that brother, and an aspect
of Willy’s own personality, and these distinct functions
are sometimes simultaneous. Through his aggressive actions
and vibrant speech, Miller gives the audience a strong contrast
to Willy’s self-doubt and self-contradiction. In addition,
the encounters between Ben and Willy serve as an extended examination
of professional and familial morality. Finally, Ben personifies
the defeat of Willy’s hopes in regards to both material
success and the proper role of a father. For both Willy
and the audience, therefore, Ben represents the ideal Willy can
never achieve and the burden he can never escape.”
The reader now knows specifically what the author of the essay
means by the judgment that Ben “serves a complex dramatic
use the first person in your thesis, even if your professor permits
it elsewhere. Your
name is on the essay, so we know who is making the argument. Thus, a
thesis that begins with something like “I would argue that”
merely wastes time. Besides, you want to make your thesis as strong
and convincing as possible; phrasing it as a matter of personal opinion
phrase your thesis in the passive voice. While
sometimes useful, the passive voice is generally weaker and sounds less
confident than an active voice sentence.
Never attribute your thesis to someone else, or
to general opinion. A thesis that says “Many people
believe” or that some famous scholar or critic believes something
is necessarily about “many people” or the famous scholar
or critic, not about the point being made, or more importantly the point
you are trying to make.
Beware the “alternative universe” thesis.
In literary essays,
you must deal with the world the author has created as it is, not as
you might like it to be.
alternative universe literary thesis:
Bovary should never have trusted Rodolphe, and would have been happy
if she had met someone else first.”
but if she had not fallen for Rodolphe, she would not be Emma Bovary. You
want her not to fall for Rodolphe? Write your own damned novel!
you have slightly more latitude to speculate in social science papers.
Even there, however, any speculation must be both specific and
alternative universe social science (history) thesis:
Hannibal had only attacked Rome immediately after Canae, he would
have won the war.”
might be able to argue this claim persuasively because it is based
on one narrow change, in this case one decision made by a single
the further you attempt to imagine the consequences of that one
change, the less convincing your argument will become. “Carthage
would have then become the dominant Mediterranean power” is
less convincing, though possibly defensible. If you then
try to argue “Carthage would have had the same influence on
western civilization that Rome has had,” the problem is not
that someone could prove you wrong, but that little persuasive evidence
either way is possible.
of thesis (closed-form and open-form)
what you may have been told, a thesis can appear in many places in an
essay. If it appears in the first paragraph (usually at the end
of the paragraph), the essay is closed-form. Each paragraph
then offers evidence to support the thesis, and the conclusion re-states
the thesis and hopefully adds something to it so it isn’t merely
repetitious. The essay takes on the tone of a legal case.
The advantages are that the argument of the essay is immediately clear,
and that the reader can connect every piece of evidence you present
along the way to the thesis immediately. The disadvantage is that
the tone can be somewhat didactic and confrontational. Also, it
can be difficult to write a conclusion to a closed-form essay that is
not merely repetitive. If your introduction and conclusion could
swap positions in your essay with no loss of comprehensibility, you
have written a bad conclusion.
In an open-form essay, in contrast, the thesis appears near
the end. The introduction establishes the issue under consideration,
whether by a statement of the issue or by way of a rhetorical question.
The issue or question is left “open” at that point, as is
the reader’s mind; your reader should not be able to guess your
answer by the way you have raised the issue or phrased the question.
The essay is thus potentially more inviting because you are offering
the reader the chance to explore an issue with you. It is as if
you and the reader are thinking through the issue together, though in
reality you are guiding the reader’s thoughts in the direction
you want them to go. Also, the conclusion will automatically differ
from the introduction, which eliminates a common problem of closed-form
essays: the dreaded summary conclusion (see below).
However, the disadvantage is that readers can easily become impatient
if they think you are not doing enough of the work.
sure you define the issue in an open-form essay clearly at the outset.
Usually this involves describing an area of controversy, and sometimes
you might even mention possible alternative interpretations that can
be drawn about the controversy, but in no way should you indicate which
answer your favor at this point. For example, one could introduce
an essay about Hamlet with the following introduction:
Act 5, Hamlet repeatedly criticizes himself for unnecessarily delaying
the revenge his father’s ghost demands, yet he simultaneously
takes several determined and even risky steps toward accomplishing
his goal. He feigns madness, stages a play to elicit evidence
against his uncle, and stabs one man to death. Meanwhile,
when speaking to his enemies, he repeatedly makes puns that reveal
his sanity, his thinking, and even his intentions, or would if any
of the people arrayed against him were clever enough to unravel
them. This apparent contradiction is the central paradox of
the play, and a reader’s judgment of both the character and
the play’s ultimate passages depends upon how one resolves
may also set up the issue directly by asking a rhetorical question.
Once again, how and why questions (or questions that
obviously require or imply a how or why explanation)
work better than simpler who, what, when,
or where questions, and better than yes/no or either/or
questions. Warning: you cannot set-up an open-form essay
effectively merely by turning the thesis into a question. When
you do that, the answer is almost always obvious, which defeats the
whole purpose of writing in open-form. Think of it this way:
if your answer to a question is “I went to the movies last night
with my friends Emily and Kevin,” the question could not have
been “Did you go to the movies last night with your friends Emily
and Kevin?” If that had been the question, your answer could
simply have been “Yes.” Instead, the question might
have been “Have you been to the movies recently?” or “Have
you done anything fun lately?” or “When was the last time
you saw any of your friends?” or maybe even “Don’t
you ever do anything but study?”
A “delayed thesis” essay starts out open-form, and switches
to closed-form partway along. This form is most effective in somewhat
longer essays; in essays of under ten pages it often causes structural
closed-form and open-form refer only to the way you
structure the essay for the reader, not to the way you go about researching
the essay and deciding what to say. That process is presumably
always initially open, in that you keep an open-mind while gathering
your data. Then you create a thesis, which you modify as your
think through your argument.
note and a warning: Although open-form essays are a standard approach
that goes back more than four-hundred years to the father of the modern
essay, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, you should check with your professor
before submitting an essay in open-form. Some (a minority, but
some) professors, especially in disciplines other than English, are
accustomed to closed-form essays and simply expect to see the thesis
statement at the end of the introductory paragraph.
and open-form paragraphs
Like essays, paragraphs need not be closed-form either. A closed-form
paragraph begins with the main point of the paragraph; an open-form
paragraph begins by stating the issue you are examining or by asking
a question and settling or answering it in the final sentence; a delayed
topic-sentence paragraph places the topic sentence somewhere after the
beginning of the paragraph. The best essays blend open- and closed-form.
If your overall structure is closed-form, some open-form or delayed
topic-sentence paragraphs along the way make the essay more involving.
If your overall structure is open-form, you absolutely need to give
readers closed-form paragraphs along the way so that they know they
are in good hands.
that no one objects to open-form or delayed thesis paragraphs, so even
if a professor asks you to put the thesis at the end of the introduction,
you are still free to vary your paragraph structure throughout the essay.
An essay needs an introduction of some kind. It is not effective
to leap immediately into the details of whatever argument you are
making: the reader will be confused, as if he or she just walked
in on a conversation in progress. A good introduction in an
essay is like making a good first impression in person: it encourages
the reader to stick around and listen to what you have to say.
A bad introduction will usually result in a reader deciding his or
her time would be better spent reading or doing something else.
Most people understand
that an essay needs an introduction, but they often have a poor sense
of audience and purpose — who will be reading their essay and
why. As a result, one common problem in essays is that the introduction
starts out too generally. You should usually assume your reader
has at least a general interest in your topic, and perhaps more.
After all, few people would pick up an essay about William Faulkner’s
As I Lay Dying without having read the book. Therefore,
you should never start out a literary essay with basic information
Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying appeared in 1930.
It was his fifth novel. The novel focuses on the Bundren family
and their journey to bury Addie Bundren. Faulkner writes the
novel in a stream-of-consciousness style.
here are twofold: anyone who has reathe nove already knows everything
you have said, and some of this information is probably irrelevant
to the essay’s argument. Does 1930 matter? Does
it being his fifth novel matter? Each conceivably might:
the year could matter in an essay that discussed the novel’s
relationship to contemporary events such as the stock market crash
and the beginning of the Great Depression, and when the novel occurs
in Faulkner’s career could matter in an essay that discusses
the development of his style over time. But right now, those
facts seem irrelevant, and probably are. This also gives the reader
the impression you are trying to pad the essay’s length and
lack a strong sense of why you are writing.
One other common
error students make in literary essays is to start out writing as
if their subject is life and not literature. This is also
a problem of audience: students sometimes think that unless
they go out of their way to make their essays relevant to their
readers’ lives, the readers will not care. But again,
people who decide to read an essay almost certainly already have
an interest in the subject — in the case of a literary essay,
the play, poem, story, novel, whatever — and do not have to
be convinced of its relevance to their lives. Therefore, do
not start a literary essay by making an argument about life.
More times than I can count, a student has begun an essay with something
the beginning of time, teenagers have rebelled against their parents
by falling in love. Everybody agrees love is important, but no
one seems to know how to go about learning how to act when one
is in love. We all expect our first love to be special and
last forever, but usually it ends up being ruined by misunderstandings.
On the other hand, maybe it is those experiences that allow us
to love in a more mature way. People never want to break
up with their first loves, but what if the only way to make that
happen is to die? Parents want to protect their children
from falling in love with the wrong person, but how can they know
what their children truly feel? These are the kinds of issues
William Shakespeare deals with in Romeo and Juliet.
In a word,
ugh! First, teenagers did not exist at “the beginning of time.”
Second, this paragraph contains no real thesis statement, nor does
it raise literary questions. Third, it puts words in the readers’
mouths that they may not accept, such as the assertion that “we
all expect out first love to . . . last forever.” But
most importantly, none of this will be of interest to a reader looking
for help with Romeo and Juliet. Readers of critical
essays neither expect nor wish to be lectured about love.
The play, and not reality, should be the subject because literature
never proves anything about reality in any case; you cannot answer
questions about love by reading any play, even one by Shakespeare,
who incidentally returned to the subject many times, usually much
more cynically than he appears to write in Romeo and Juliet.
And to be blunt, the odds that a brief college essay can answer
the big questions about love (or human nature, or metaphysics, or
ethics) — questions that humanity has tried to answer for
thousands of years — are infinitesimal, while the odds that
you might have something interesting to say about a literary work
are actually pretty good. Write
about literature, not life!
an open-form essay, the conclusion provides the answer to the question
or settles the issue that the introduction presents. In a closed-form
essay, the conclusion returns to the thesis and reconsiders it in the
light of the evidence the essay has presented. The conclusion
should never simply re-state the thesis. If you can switch the
introduction and conclusion without losing any comprehensibility, you
have written a bad conclusion.
task of a conclusion is to pull a paper together and leave the reader
on a strong note. Remember that your readers will not take nearly as
long to read your paper as you took to write it (at least, so you should
hope), and you should presume their memory is good enough that they
can remember what
you said a page or two earlier. Indeed, the papers required in
undergraduate courses will seldom be so long that you need to remind
your readers of your own argument at the end. Therefore, phrases
such as “As I have argued,” “As stated above,”
or “I have already said” are all signs that you are about
to repeat yourself in a particularly uninteresting way. These
so-called “summary conclusions” can be helpful at the end
of a book or even a densely written chapter of twenty pages or more,
but at the end of a five- or ten- or twelve-page paper are unnecessary.
usually poor tactic is to end your paper on a quotation from a secondary
source (a critic, for example). After spending all that time trying
to convince your reader that you are someone worth listening to, why
would you want to abandon the end of the paper — the last chance
you have to leave a lasting impression with your reader — to someone
Finally, do not throw up your hands and admit defeat, or even worse
apologize. I have seen fairly good college level papers torpedoed
by a bizarre form of mea culpa at the end, such as, “No
matter how many times one reads this poem, in the end everyone is going
to have his own opinion on it. My interpretation is no better
than anyone else’s, and that is what makes it a great poem.”
Obviously, that completely undercuts whatever point you have been trying
to make. Have the courage to stand behind your opinions —
at least until someone shows you where the flaw in them lies. Of course,
this is easier to do if you have put real thought into them and challenged
them yourself first.
closed- and open-form essays
Here are three
literary essays that offer good examples of the advantages of both
closed- and open-form. The closed-form
essay examines the role of Ben in Arthur Miller’s Death
of a Salesman. This is a closed-form essay with a tightly
focused introduction: the introduction is the divided and specific
thesis discussed above. From the introduction alone, you can
anticipate many of the arguments the author will make, yet the introduction
avoids being an outline or purpose statement. The conclusion
avoids the common closed-form problem of repetition; the conclusion
makes use of the argument that the essay has been made. Note:
this essay includes some minimal use of secondary sources.
open-form essay discusses whether Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s
Idylls of the King (which are a poetic re-telling of the
King Arthur legend) should be considered misogynistic. In this
case, the introduction actually requires two paragraphs: the first
briefly summarizes the background of Arthurian literature while the
second deals with Tennyson’s work specifically. Again,
this essay makes some use of secondary sources. You will find
the central issue at the end of the second paragraph. Note how
the issue implies a “How?” or “Why?” question
— you cannot settle the issue without providing reasons for
the conclusion. You need not read the whole essay, but please
do read the two-paragraph introduction and the conclusion to see how
effectively the final paragraph settles the issue the introduction
presents. This essay also employs secondary sources.
— the term “explication” refers to a type of close
reading performed on a literary work, usually a poem — is also
open-form, but in this case the author ends the one-paragraph introduction
with a question. This approach can be a little trickier, but
in this case it works because the question is appropriate to the assignment.
Again, you need not read the whole essay, but I suggest you examine
both the introduction and conclusion to see how effective an open-form
approach can be.