How to Write a Thesis Statement

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  • 0:04 The Thesis Explained
  • 1:06 When Given an Essay Prompt
  • 2:36 No Essay Prompt?!
  • 4:56 Revising Your Thesis
  • 7:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Curley
Find yourself confounded by thesis statements? Writing an excellent thesis statement doesn't require magic or luck, but it does require a few key elements we'll lay out for you in the lesson that follows.

The Thesis Explained

Presumably you know what a thesis is by now. If not, go and watch 'What is a Thesis Statement.' Seriously, what are you waiting for? Go! Yeesh.

Okay, for the REST of you, let's recap what a thesis does, and then we'll break down what makes it tick so you can duplicate it. Today we've decided to kick it old school with our pal (and famous Greek mythological warrior) Theseus, the thesis... guy. He'll help lead us down the LABYRINTH of writing a good thesis. Are you ready, Theseus?


Haha! That's right, Theseus. But I think you'd better let me take it from here.

A strong thesis does three things:

  1. Answers a question with a claim that needs to be proved.
  2. Tells the audience what to expect in the rest of your essay going forward.
  3. Is specific.

Now, how you express these three elements depends on the type of essay you're being asked to write, so let's look at a couple of situations.

When You're Given an Essay Prompt

To answer the first point, before you can answer the question posed by the prompt, you have to answer how you feel about the question for yourself. In other words, do a little brainstorming to see if you agree or disagree.

So let's say your prompt is as follows:

'There is no great success without failure.' - Develop an essay that explains how much you agree or disagree with the previous statement using examples from your reading, experiences, or observations.

First, decide whether you agree or disagree with the prompt. Maybe you think winning is all that matters, or maybe you think failing has its own virtues. What do you think, Theseus?

Phainomai tous kalistous logous einai... (Theseus is chased off by a Minotaur.)

Maybe there are shades of grey in between - it's okay to talk about that, too - but your thesis is going to tell us YOUR position. So, following the formula for a strong thesis, we'll try our own.

Success is defined by winning, not failure, but failure is an essential part of learning to succeed.

Does this satisfy the three requirements? It appears to answer the question - the writer thinks that failure is permissible and good - and it appears to make a claim that needs to be proved - namely, why it's essential to success. The audience can expect an essay about failure, but it's a little broad and lacks specifics. We'll address how to revise this thesis a little bit later.

When You're Not Given an Essay Prompt

If you're not given an essay prompt - or are given a more ambiguous one - a thesis statement still serves the exact same purpose we've already laid out. The only difference is that you're coming up with both the question (the prompt) and the answer (the thesis) on your own.

Let's say your teacher asks you to discuss the meaning of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur in an essay. Without any other direction, where do you go from there? Well, first you have to research the topic story and try to develop a persuasive argument. Maybe you decide that Theseus is a symbol of revolution, and that the labyrinth represents the difficulty of navigating politics, and the Minotaur represents the monster that lies at the heart of all governments.

With these symbols in hand, perhaps you ask the question: Is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur representative of something beyond a simple myth? And you decide that yes, each major character and challenge represents something about the process of revolution. Then you narrow down the specifics - Theseus is a revolutionary, the maze represents the difficulty of navigating politics, et cetera - so your eventual thesis looks like this:

The tale of Theseus and the Minotaur is a metaphor for revolution, with Theseus, the Minotaur, and the labyrinth each symbolizing a different aspect of the process of social upheaval.

This thesis answers the question the writer poses and makes a claim that needs to be proved (what the story symbolizes and how), lets the reader know what is going to be discussed, and then gives several specifics (we know we'll be talking about three major symbols and how they relate to social upheaval and revolution), making this a serviceable thesis.

One thing I should note here is that you shouldn't try to bite off more than you can chew with your thesis, and that's another reason why it pays to be specific. Discussing symbolism in a short tale is appropriate for a short or medium-length essay. Discussing all instances of symbolism in an epic-length poem like The Iliad is better suited to a whole book. If your thesis seems too broad, find a way to narrow it down.

Revising Your Thesis

No thesis is born perfect, but during a timed test - where you may have only 30 minutes to an hour to brainstorm, organize, write, and edit your full essay - you may have to try to get it right the first time. All other times, however, you should revise your thesis.

When revising your thesis, ask yourself:

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