Thesis Statements There is a basic difference between a thesis and a topic. A topic is just a subject like “my high school” or “Tolstoy.” By contrast, athesis isa statement about the topic. It is the main point that an author is trying to make. It can be an argument, an explanation, the conclusion of an analysis, or any number of other points.
You need to develop a clear thesis. It is often necessary to do invention exercises, freewrite, or even write out an entire draft before you are sure exactly what you want to prove. Sometimes when you start with one idea, after you have written it all out, you will discover your conclusion is something different and represents what you really want to write about or can prove and show a reader—in other words, your thesis.
Questions can be useful in generating a topic or a thesis for a paper.But the thesis is not the question(s); rather it is the answer to the question(s). For example, you might ask about the cause of something, like a social problem or a disease, or how a disease or condition is treated (or could be treated). Your answer would be the thesis.
Narrow the focus and limit your thesis. For a short paper, such as those you write in this class, your thesis and focus must be quite limited. You cannot show how everything in your life led up to this particular moment or how the Industrial Revolution led to global warming. You could write an autobiographical book of several hundred pages on the development of your personality; entire libraries of scientific writing are devoted to the issue of global warming. What you must do for a short essay is find an angle or a way of saying something specific about a limited topic.
For example, there are five-hundred-page biographies of authors like Leo Tolstoy, so you would not want to condense that into an encyclopedia-like article (which is definitely not a model for your essays). Instead you might find a specific event and discuss how it affected Tolstoy’s life or his writing. Your thesis statement might start out as something like this:
Leo Tolstoy’s service as an officer in the Russian army during the Crimean War influenced him in a number of ways, for example, in his views on the military and on the situation of the serfs (Figes 444-446).
The essay then would develop what exactly those experiences were, what ideas he had on reform in the military, and what his changed view of the serfs led him to believe and to do. All of that could take a twenty-page essay or longer to fully develop. But for a shorter essay, a student might limit this to Tolstoy’s plans for land reform, both before and after the Crimean War. Or a student interested in military history might write about Tolstoy’s plans for military reform, such as getting rid of corporal punishment. Another approach would be to write about how Tolstoy’s contact with peasant soldiers spurred him to reform his own life. All of these possibilities are suggested in a few pages in Orlando Figes’ study of the Crimean War (444-446). The point is that to decide how to narrow a subject and a thesis down, you must first start by reading and exploring a topic.
Figes, Orlando. The Crimean War: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry
Holt and Company, LLC, 2010.