The Thesis Sentence

The thesis sentence is arguably the most important sentence in an academic paper. Without a good, clear thesis that presents an intriguing arguable point, a paper risks becoming unfocused, aimless, not worth the reader's time.

The Challenge of the Thesis Sentence

Because the thesis sentence is the most important sentence of a paper, it is also the most difficult to write. Readers expect a great deal of a thesis sentence: they want it to powerfully and clearly indicate what the writer is going to say, why she is going to say it, and even how it is that she is going to go about getting it said. In other words, the job of the thesis sentence is to organize, predict, control, and define the paper's argument.

In many cases, a thesis sentence will not only present the paper's argument, it will also point to and direct the course that the argument is going to take. In other words, it may also include an "essay map" - i.e., phrases or clauses that map out for the reader (and the writer) the argument that is to come. In some cases, then, the thesis sentence not only promises an argument, it promises the structure of that argument as well.

The promises that a thesis sentence makes to a reader are important ones and must be kept. It's helpful sometimes to explain the thesis as a kind of contract between reader and writer: if this contract is broken, the reader will feel frustrated and betrayed. Accordingly, the writer must be very careful in the development of the thesis.

Working on the Thesis Sentence

Chances are if you've had trouble following or deciphering the argument of a paper, there's a problem with the thesis. If a tutor's first response to a paper is that he doesn't know what the paper is about, then the thesis sentence is either absent from the paper, or it's hiding. The first thing you might wish to do is to ask the writer what his thesis is. He may point to a particular sentence that he thinks is his thesis, giving you a very good place to start.

Let's say that you've read a paper in which you've encountered this thesis:

Although heterosexuality has long been regarded as the only natural expression of sexuality, this view has been recently and strongly challenged by the gay rights movement.

What's wrong with this sentence? Many things, the most troublesome of which is that it argues nothing. Who is going to deny that the heteronormative view has been challenged by the gay rights movement? At this point, you need to ask the writer some questions. In what specific ways has the gay rights movement challenged heterosexuality? Do these ways seem reasonable to the writer? Why or why not? What argument does he intend to make about this topic? Why does he want to make it? To whom does he want to make it?

After giving the writer some time to think about and talk about these questions, you'll probably want to bring up another problem that is certain to arise out of a thesis like this one: the matter of structure. Any paper that follows a thesis like this one is likely to ramble. How can the reader figure out what all the supporting paragraphs are doing when the argument itself is so ill-defined? You'll want to show the writer that a strong thesis suggests - even helps to create - strong topic sentences. (More on this when we consider matters of structure, below).

But before we move on to other matters, let's consider the problem of this thesis from another angle: its style. We can see without difficulty that the sentence presents us with at least two stylistic problems: 1) this thesis, which should be the most powerful sentence of the paper, employs the passive voice, and 2) the introductory clause functions as a dangling modifier (who regards heterosexuality as the only natural way to express sexuality?).

Both stylistic problems point to something at work in the sentence: the writer obliterates the actors - heterosexuals and homosexuals alike - by using the dangling modifier and the passive voice. Why does he do that? Is he avoiding naming the actors in these sentences because he's not comfortable with the positions they take? Is he unable to declare himself because he feels paralyzed by the sense that he must write a paper that is politically correct? Or does he obliterate the actors with the passive voice because he himself wishes to remain passive on this topic?

These are questions to pose to the writer, though they must be posed gently. In fact, you might gently pose these questions via a discussion of style. For instance, you might also suggest that the writer rewrite the sentence in the active voice:

Although our society has long regarded heterosexuality as the only natural expression of sexuality, members of the gay rights movement have challenged this view strongly.

This active construction helps us to see clearly what's missing:

Although our society has long regarded heterosexuality as the only natural expression of sexuality, members of the gay rights movement have challenged this view strongly, arguing XYZ.

This more active construction also makes it clear that merely enumerating the points the author wants to make is not the same thing as creating an argument. The writer should now be able to see that he needs to go one step further - he needs to reveal his own position on the gay rights movement. The rest of the paper will develop this position.

In short, there are many ways to begin work on a writer's thesis sentences. Almost all of them will lead you to other matters important to the paper's success: its structure, its language, its style. Try to make any conversation you have about thesis sentences point to other problems with the writing. Not only is this strategy efficient, but it also encourages a writer to see how important a thesis is to the overall success of his essay.

Talking Your Way to a Workable Thesis

For the sake of making (we hope) a somewhat humorous illustration of the matter at hand, we offer the following scenario, which shows how tutor and tutee can talk their way to a workable thesis - and, indeed, to a good essay. So sit back, and enjoy this "break" in your training.

Imagine (though it is indeed quite a stretch) that a freshman composition teacher has the audacity to assign a paper on cats (the animals, not the play). The students may write any kind of paper they like - narration, description, compare/contrast, etc. - as long as their essays contain a thesis (that is, that they argue some point) concerning cats. A writer comes to you for help in developing her thesis. You read the assignment, and then you tell the writer that she first must choose the kind of paper she would like to do. She decides to do a narrative because she thinks she has more freedom in the narrative form. Then you ask her what she has to say about cats. "I don't like them," is her reply.

"OK," you say, "that's a start. Why don't you like them?" The writer has lots of reasons: they smell, they're aloof, they shed, they keep you up nights when they're in heat, they're very middle class, they steal food off of the table, they don't get along with dogs (the writer loves dogs), and on, and on. After brainstorming for a while, you tell the writer to choose a few points on which she'd like to focus - preferably those points that she feels strongly about or those which seem unusual. She picks three: cats smell, they steal food, and they are middle class. She offers her thesis: "I don't like cats because they are smelly, thieving, and middle class."

"O.K.," you say, "It's not a very sophisticated thesis but we can use it for now. After all, it defines your stance, it controls your subject, it organizes your argument, and it predicts your strategy - all the things that a thesis ought to do. Now let's consider how to develop the thesis, point by point."

You begin to ask questions about cats and their smell. "What do they smell like?" you say. The writer thinks awhile, and then says, "They smell like dirty gym shorts, like old hamburgers, like my eighth-grade math teacher's breath." The writer laughs, particularly fond of the final simile. Then she adds, "My boyfriend has a cat. A Tom. When he moved into his first apartment, that cat sprayed all over the place, you know, marking his territory. The place stunk so bad that I couldn't even go there for a week. Can you imagine? Your boyfriend gets his first apartment, and you can't even go in the place for a week?"

The writer has sparked your imagination; you think that she can spark her teacher's imagination as well. "Why don't you do your narrative about your boyfriend's cat? You could tell the story - or you could make up a story - about going over there for dinner, hoping for a romantic evening, and being put off by the cat." The writer likes this idea and goes off to write her draft. She returns with the following story about her boyfriend and his cat.

She was hoping for a romantic dinner; he was making her favorite meal. She could smell the T-bone and the apple pie before she even got to his door. But when she opened the door, her appetite was obliterated: the smell of cat spray smelled worse than her eighth-grade math teacher's breath. Of course, because she remained hopeful for a romantic evening, she put on her best face, tried not to grimace, and gave her boyfriend the flowers she'd picked up on the way. They chat; everything is going fine; he goes to the kitchen to check on dinner; she hears his shriek. The cat has stolen all of the food! Upon searching, they find the cat under the sofa, not only with their dinner, but with the writer's wallet, her favorite picture of her mom torn in half, her new leather jacket now full of cat hairs. This cat not only stinks, he's a thief as well. Still, the evening need not be a total waste. They order pizza, have some wine. She and her man talk; their moods improve, and she decides that it might be a nice time to kiss. She pulls the old yawn trick to get her arm around him, and just as she's ready to kiss him the cat jumps into his lap. "Oh, Pookie, Pookie, Pookie," her boyfriend says, giving himself over to the purring cat. "Damn lap cat," the writer says to herself, and leaves it at that. She has written a paper illustrating that cats are smelly, thieving, and middle class. She has fulfilled her thesis.

Now, you like this paper. It's got a great voice, and it's got humor. You feel, however, that the writer should refine the thesis. It has served the writer well in helping her to organize, control, predict, and define her essay; however, she needs now to consider how to choose words and a tone which will hook the reader and reel him in. You explain to the writer that her thesis can be humorous, that she can feel free to be extreme, because a funny, exaggerated thesis would suit this funny, exaggerated paper.

After some doodling and some dialogue, the writer comes up with the following thesis: "All cats should be exterminated because they are the stinking, kleptomaniacal darlings of the bourgeoisie." You laugh; you like it. Moreover, the thesis has given the writer an ending for her essay: she exterminates the cat in her boyfriend's microwave, convinces him to get a goldfish instead, and the two of them live happily ever after. The writer is happy. The tutor is happy. The paper works.

While you will likely not encounter a "cat" assignment at Dartmouth, this sort of experience with writing a thesis is a common one. Even when papers are more sophisticated than this one - even when the subject is Hitler's rise to power, or Freud's treatment of taboo - writers will often write a working thesis, one that guides them through the writing process. Then they will return to the thesis, sometimes several times before their paper is finished, revising it to better fit their paper's increasingly refined argument and tone.

Polishing the Thesis Sentence

Look at the sentence's structure. Is the main idea of the paper placed appropriately in the main clause? If there are parallel points made in the paper, does the thesis sentence signal this to the reader via some parallel structure? If the paper makes an interesting but necessary aside, is that aside predicted - perhaps in a parenthetical element? Remember: the structure of the thesis sentence also signals much to the reader about the structure of the argument. Be sure that the thesis reflects, reliably, what the paper itself is going to say.

As to the style of the sentence: hold the thesis sentence to the highest stylistic standards. Help a writer to make sure that it is as clear and concise as it can be, and that its language and phrasing reflect confidence, eloquence, and grace.