This post has been written by our guest academic, Louis Provis.

What exactly is a thesis statement?

What if I told you that one sentence in your essay or thesis could be the difference between a First and a Fail?

It may sound absurd – perhaps even unfair – but it’s true. I refer, of course, to the thesis statement. A thesis statement is your entire essay if it were condensed into a single sentence. If your essay title is a question, then your thesis statement is the one-sentence answer.

It tends to arrive near the end of the first paragraph of a thesis.

Let’s take a look at an example from a Master of Education degree thesis:

Thesis title
What constitutes ‘good writing’ for GCSE students of English?

Thesis statement
The examination rubric by which GCSE English writing performance is assessed, influenced by a long history of variable ‘tastes’, may now be said to describe ‘good writing’ as that which is grammatically accurate, sophisticated, and suited to purpose, genre and audience.

(The thesis statement would be located in paragraph 1, after a brief overview of the subject).

Why is a thesis statement important?

As I mentioned, the way your thesis statement is written can be the difference between a First and a Fail. But how?

To answer that, let’s think about what ‘thesis’ means. From the Greek thésis, meaning ‘proposition’, your thesis is your main argument.

It is the position you have to support and defend for the remainder of your essay. Without something clear to defend, the fortress you build will crumble and the army you deploy will run about like headless chickens.

In essence: without a clear thesis statement, you don’t have an essay.

“Establishing a clear thesis at the start of your essay is crucial for both you and your examiner. For your examiner, it’s evidence that you have answered the question. For you, it can function as an essay plan.”

For both of you, it’s a litmus test for the quality of the argument: if you can’t fit your essay’s arguments into a sentence, they are too diffuse; and if you can’t stick to your thesis statement’s focus throughout your essay, you are not focused.

A precisely focused and well-grounded essay is more worthy of a First Class grade than one with a scattergun approach.

What should a thesis statement include?

What your thesis statement includes is determined by three things:

1. The subject and topic of the essay.
2. The purpose of the essay.
3. The length of the essay.

Let’s examine each of those in more detail to see how they can help us refine our thesis statement.

The subject and topic of the essay

Look at this real-life title from an undergraduate Sports Science essay:

What are the key differences between training recommendations for maximising muscular strength and maximising muscular hypertrophy?

The first task is, of course, to determine the subject of the essay.

In this example, that would be ‘training recommendations for maximising muscular strength and training recommendations for maximising muscular hypertrophy’.

Knowing that means that I know I will need to deploy my knowledge about those two similar but distinct areas. It also means that I should be using the specialist terminology relevant to the field, such as load, isotonic and volume.

Next, I need to determine the topic.

Here it would be ‘the key differences’ between training recommendations for those two goals. That phrase ‘key differences’ is likely to be at the heart of my thesis statement, to show that I’m on track.

With that in mind, my thesis statement might look like this:

Whilst both training outcomes require resistance training centred upon isotonic contractions, it is likely that the absolute load requirements may need to be higher for strength purposes, whilst the total training volume may need to be higher for hypertrophy purposes.

It is by no means a complete essay, but it states clearly what the ‘short answer’ to the question is, whilst paving the way for the ‘long answer’ to follow.

But what if the essay isn’t just looking for the facts organised into a specific order? What if the essay is asking for analysis? Or an argument?

The purpose of the essay

Different essay purposes require different thesis statements. Fortunately, there are only three main essay purposes, and they’re pretty easy to recognise:

1. The expository essay:
This is an essay type that asks for the key facts on a subject to be laid out, with explanations. The Sports Science question above is an example of this. It asks for the WHAT and HOW of something.

2. The analytical essay:
This essay type asks you not only to lay out the facts, but also to analyse and deconstruct them to better understand them. It is typical in subjects such as English Literature and Fine Art. It asks for the WHY of something.

3. The argumentative essay:
This type of essay asks you to use the facts available, to analyse them for value, and then to provide a point of view about the subject. It moves more quickly through the WHAT, HOW and WHY of a topic through to: WHY DOES IT MATTER?

All of the above essay types need a thesis statement that includes a proposition (a statement which answers the question or addresses the title).

Beyond that, these three essay types all require different additions.

For the expository essay, you need to add an overview of the details of the conclusion. Let’s look at an example:

Expository essay title:
What are the key differences between training recommendations for maximising muscular strength and maximising muscular hypertrophy?
(BSc in Sports Science)

Expository thesis statement:
Whilst both training outcomes require resistance training centred upon isotonic contractions, it is likely that the absolute load requirements may need to be higher for strength purposes, whilst the total training volume may need to be higher for hypertrophy purposes.
(The basic conclusion is that both approaches need isotonic resistance training; the details are teased out in bold.)

For the analytical essay, you need to add an overview of the analysis performed. Here’s an example:

Analytical essay title:
Why did England and Wales vote to leave the European Union?
(BA in Politics)

Analytical thesis statement:
A close consideration of the voter demographics, the populist nature of political messages leading up to the referendum, and the history of Britain’s status in the EU, will demonstrate that Brexit was primarily motivated by the machinations of the Right.

(The basic conclusion is that Brexit was influenced by politicians; the analytical approach is in bold.)

For the argumentative essay, you need to add an overview of your reasoning. Another example:

Argumentative essay title:
To what extent do you consider the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays to be in question?
(BA in English Literature)

Argumentative thesis statement:
Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays is beyond question, given both the entirely unconvincing nature of any counter-theories and the relatively unstable conception of the playwright’s identity as it stands.
(The basic conclusion is that Shakespeare did write his plays; the reasoning is in bold.)

As you can see from these examples, the purpose of the essay gives a very clear demand for something beyond a simple answer.

But, there’s more!

The length of the essay

The prescribed length of the essay also defines what you need to do with your thesis statement.

Your thesis statement is a microcosm: a miniature, compressed version of your whole essay.

So, it makes sense that the length of the actual essay is going to impact upon the content of the thesis statement.

If, for example, your essay is expected to be 800 words long and on the subject of Eve in the Bible, then it would be overly ambitious for your thesis statement to say: ‘through comprehensive study of the Bible and extant criticism’. For an 800 essay, more precision will be necessary. It would be better for your thesis statement to say: ‘with due awareness of the complexity of the issue, focusing on feminist readings of Genesis.’

“Matching the scope given in your thesis statement to the depth you provide in your essay is a very effective way to ensure precision.”

Contrastingly, if your essay is expected to be 80,000 words long (a PhD thesis, for example), on the subject of stop-motion animation, it would be rather unambitious to suggest that the essay will ‘provide a visual analysis of Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers’, only. For a PhD, we would expect more content to be covered, and multiple approaches to analysis to be considered.

Indeed, matching the scope given in your thesis statement to the depth you provide in your essay is a very effective way to ensure precision.

So, to summarise, how do I write a thesis statement?

It’s a simple, three-part process:

1. Identify the question in the title (or make a question from the statement).
2. Answer that question in as few words as possible.
3. Complete the sentence by providing an overview of the foundation behind your answer.

Easy, right? It can be!

That said, there are plenty of traps that essayists can fall into with this part of the essay. Let’s look at some of these pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Pitalls to Avoid

Pitfall #1: amateurish style

This is common throughout academic essays written by beginners. It’s not just the thesis statement that falls foul of sounding amateurish. There are plenty of ways this happens, which are beyond the scope of this argument, but the following example is a prime example:

In this essay, I will explore the various pieces of evidence before concluding.

This is amateurish for a few reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t actually say anything. You could otherwise word it, ‘I will write an essay which answers the question’ – a rather wasted sentence. The next, and more forgivable issue is the use of the first-person. We want to get a sense that an individual wrote this essay, but we never want to hear them mentioned! Make sense? No? Sorry.

This should instead read more like:

This essay considers evidence from X in light of Y which ultimately reveals Z at the heart of the issue.

(It focuses on the specifics, X, Y, and Z, and is devoid of any mention of its author.)

Pitfall #2: empty phrasing

This is similar to amateurish style. However, empty phrasing is not just amateur-sounding; it’s manipulative-sounding.

Using phrases such as “in order to” instead of, simply, “to” – or “due to the fact that” instead of just “as” – look like attempts to fill up the word count with waffle rather than content. The same goes for phrases that can be substituted for one word: ‘it is evident that’ can (and should) become ‘evidently’.

Watch this thesis statement from a GCSE essay on Music go from hideous to tolerable:

Beethoven was unable to hear his work, due to the fact that he was deaf, so it is evident that he musically conceptualised the notes in order to compose.
(Wordy!)

Beethoven was unable to hear his work, as he was deaf, so it is evident that he musically conceptualised the notes to compose.
(Slightly less wordy.)

Beethoven’s deafness made him unable to hear his work, so evidently he musically conceptualised the notes to compose.
(About as concise as such a complex sentence will get…)

Do not mistake wordiness for sophistication. Your ideas should be sophisticated; your writing should be clear.

Pitfall #3: non-standard grammar

For an examiner, the English language is not just a vehicle for your ideas. It should be, but the academic process always involves the assessment of your expression.

So, to satisfy our examiners’ prescriptive tastes, we need to adhere to the basic tenets of Standard English.

Take a look at the following thesis statement example from an A Level Sociology essay:
Considering the status of BAME in Internet culture, the demonstrably racist treatment at the hands of the police, and the energy behind the BLM protests, concluding that there is hope for the future.

This sentence has no finite main verb, so it is technically not a sentence. To become a grammatical sentence, we would need to make ‘concluding’ finite: ‘it can be concluded’, or ‘we conclude’.

The writer got lost in this example because the sentence was so long!

Long sentences can also lead to a failure to make subject and verb agree, like in the next thesis statement example from a school Geography essay:

The most populous municipalities of Spain, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, and Zaragoza, does not rank in the top ten most dense populations of the country, with the exception of Barcelona.

Because the subject ‘municipalities’ is separated from the verb ‘does’ by eight words, it is easy to forget that they do not agree. It should, of course, be ‘do, not ‘does’.

Final words

The thesis statement, as I said at the start, can be the difference between a First and a Fail. So, take your time with it.

Write it carefully.

Then redraft and refine it several times, until it’s as good as you can make it.

The payoff is a slick, coherent thesis statement that paves the way to a great essay that really impresses your examiner.