Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

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:

  • Does the thesis make one argument that my reader can disagree with? Too many arguments will confuse your reader as to what the thrust of your essay is.
  • Does the thesis allow me to fully explain my argument in the space I’m given? If not, you’ll have to narrow your topic.
  • Is this thesis worth talking about? This step often gets left out, but it’s important. It’s okay if the argument you want to make is way out in left field, but you have to work extra hard to justify it.

Let’s try the earlier thesis and see if we can make it better.

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

This appears to make a certain argument – namely, that failure is an important part of learning to succeed – so it appears to satisfy the first category. It’s essentially a slight rephrasing of the prompt, which is okay, even if it’s not very exciting.

What about the second component? Can you fully explain the argument? I don’t think so, unless you’re going to explain every failure you can possibly have in life and why it’s good for you. You’re going to have to be more specific. As it is, the thesis might be worth talking about, but it’s too broad to say for sure. Let’s try being more specific.

Michael Jordan, President Abraham Lincoln, and a group of Singaporean scientists all have one thing in common: They think that failure is not only normal, but necessary for success – and you should too.

This thesis answers the question the writer poses and makes a claim that needs to be proved. It takes the position that failure is necessary for success and even directly confronts the reader that they should believe the same thing, thus pulling the reader into the essay. It also gives three (odd) specific examples up front that you know they’re going to talk about in the essay. This combination of specifics and challenging the reader makes this an effective thesis.

Lesson Summary

Remember that a great, well-written (and revised) thesis:

  1. Answers a question and makes an argument.
  2. Sets the reader’s expectations.
  3. Has one main, overarching point and does not promise more than it can deliver in the space provided.
  4. Is specific and concrete.
  5. Is worth talking about and can be well argued.
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