How To Write A Thesis Statement: A Step-by-Step Guide | Essay Writing Part 1
Posted on June 22, 2017 by June Heo
This post, How to Write a Thesis Statement, is the first post in our 5 part Essay Writing Series. In this series, we will break essay writing into a series of parts and solve some commonly asked questions to give you the tools to write consistent essays.
Some common questions about essay structure are:
- What is a thesis statement?
- What does a thesis statement do?
- Is the thesis statement important?
- How do I write a good thesis statement?
In this post, we’ll give you an overview of essay structure and explain why a thesis statement is important for your essay. We’ll then give you a step-by-step guide for writing a Band 6 thesis.
Table of Contents
This series of posts will give you step-by-step advice for writing well structured Band 6 essays. In these posts you will find some of the tip and practices that Matrix students are taught in the English courses.
If you want to jump ahead, you can read the other posts in this series:
- Introduction Structure: How to Structure Your Essay Introduction | Essay Writing Part 2
- Paragraph Structure: How to Write a Topic Sentence | Essay Writing Part 3
- Paragraph Structure: How to Write a Body Paragraph | Essay Writing Part 4
- Conclusion Structure: How to Write a Conclusion | Essay Writing Part 5
Many students are confronted and struggle with English. Often students think that English is an esoteric or abstract subject. This is not the case. Learning how to write a good essay is something developed through practice and logic, not innate skill or talent. Anybody can write a good essay with practice and instruction.
In this series of posts, we will show you some of the skills that Matrix students use as they learn to write Band 6 responses. First, we will learn about the structure of an essay, and then we will look at why the thesis is the solid foundation on which we build our argument.
What is Essay Structure?
Essay structure is the logical sequencing of information we use when composing a written argument. When you break it down, essay writing is actually a fairly straightforward process.
- Introduction – Introduce your main argument (thesis);
- Introduction – Explain the key 2 or 3 ideas (themes) that will support your main argument;
- Introduction – Explain how these ideas fit together logically;
- Body Paragraph – Introduce a specific idea;
- Body Paragraph – Present evidence that supports your idea;
- Body Paragraph – Connect this idea to your main argument;
- Body Paragraph – Repeat steps 4,5,6 for the other ideas that support your main argument;
- Conclusion – Restate your argument;
- Conclusion – Make a concluding statement.
When you break essay writing down into a process, it becomes straightforward and systematic.
Take a moment to read back through that process and think about any patterns that you see.
Yes. That’s right, there is a lot of repetition in an essay!
This repetition isn’t a flaw, quite the opposite.
“Repetition helps a reader retain ideas and see how they all slot together.”
This is why the introduction has statements that are repeated in the body paragraph and then the conclusion. This means that you are reasserting your key ideas. Essay writing is a process of introducing an idea, supporting it with evidence, and then reasserting that idea again.
We can take the process of essay writing and look at it in a diagram:
Diagram: Essay Structure ©Matrix Education 2017
Clearly, essay writing isn’t that complex. No, it is just a process. Complexity comes from the ideas you present and the detail with which you support them.
In this post, we will look at the first step of this process. The thesis statement.
Let’s have a look at what it does.
The thesis is the foundation of your essay. It structures your argument. Having a good thesis is essential to getting a band six result, regardless of what module or level of English you are doing.
What happens to a building if its foundation isn’t sound? It won’t bear stress and will collapse. Similarly, if your thesis statement is weak or flawed your argument will have fundamental weaknesses.
Writing a good thesis statement is not easy. There is a tendency to parrot the question back at markers or present a statement that is overly broad and doesn’t give your discussion a focus. Sometimes students forget to address the whole of the question. These errors will leave you with a flawed thesis.
Your thesis needs to be concise, but also answer the question. It must introduce an idea that you can readily repeat throughout your essay so that your reader is constantly aware of what you are arguing.
Now we know what a thesis is and how it functions within an essay, let’s look at a step-by-step process for writing one!
We’ll now look at the process for writing a thesis statement. To do so, we will look at a few different questions so you can get a broad sense of what a thesis needs to do. Then we will focus on one of these questions and develop it throughout this series.
Step 1: Don’t Repeat the Question
The most common error when composing thesis statements is repeating the question.
As senior students, you are expected to analyse the question and construct a personal and logical response to it. Repeating the question back at the marker as a thesis statement does not demonstrate an understanding of the question, module, or text. Instead, such a response demonstrates that you have a limited understanding of both.
Let’s take a gander at the 2016 HSC question for Module C:
“Politics illustrates the ultimate powerlessness of ordinary people.
To what extent is this view represented in your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing?”
For this question, many students would write something along the lines of:
“In Shakespeare’s King Henry IV pt 1 (1597) and Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) the exploration of politics demonstrates the ultimate powerlessness of the common person.”
Do not do this!
This response demonstrates nothing about your knowledge of the texts, the module, or the question. Similarly, it is not enough to simply rephrase the words or offer a simple paraphrase such as:
“Shakespeare’s King Henry IV pt 1 (1597) and Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) depict the ultimate flaw of politics, the lack of agency of the ordinary person.”
This response fails to address your knowledge concerning about politics or power, the key themes the question is asking you to discuss. Neither thesis statement answers the question meaningfully.
Do define the question
Your response needs to define the key terms in a question. This will demonstrate that you understand both what you are being asked and the ideas in the texts.
For example, a good thesis to the above question would begin by answering the question rather than introducing the texts:
“Politics is defined by the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, as the decisions of the few dictate the lives of the many. Power can only be wielded by those who have authority conferred on them by birth or by their fellows.”
This response takes time to define the key ideas that are being asked and relates them to the concerns of Module C – Elective 1: People and Power. Although the above response is in the affirmative, we could also challenge the statement:
“The relationship between people and politics is founded upon society granting authority to individuals. While the few may be able to exercise power, the masses can always unite to take it away.”
You will notice that in both theses the texts are not introduced. This is fine; you don’t have to name a text to demonstrate an understanding of it. You can introduce the texts after your thesis when you examine how this concern is present in the themes present in them.
Step 2: Don’t Use Uncertain Terms
Don’t be vague or use low modality words and expressions in your thesis.
Students have it drilled into them that “they know nothing” or “don’t have the experience” to say things with certainty. This is said to stop students making broad sweeping statements about human existence or genres of writing, but it must not apply to your understanding of the text.
Let’s have a look at the 2015 Area of Study question to see what we mean:
“The process of discovery involves uncovering what is hidden and reconsidering what is known.
How is this perspective on discovery explored in your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing?”
A common thesis mistake was to state something along the lines of:
The discovery of something that had been lost or concealed could lead individuals to reconsider what they know.
This statement uses the verb “could” which lacks certainty. You want to use verbs that have high-modality or high certainty.
Rather than verbs like “may,” “might,” or “could” you want to use verbs like “will,” “does,” and “shall.” People are more inclined to give credibility to assertive and confident voices.
Using verbs that have this level of certainty in your theses will present you as being confident and certain in your argument. This is why the following thesis statement sounds so authoritative:
“The discovery of something that had been lost or concealed leads individuals to reconsider what they know.”
Step 3: Use Two Sentences
The term thesis statement can be misleading. We hear “statement” and we often think “sentence.” The two words are not synonymous, though. It is far better to use an extra sentence to add detail to your sentence rather than pack it into one. You need to explain the logic of your argument in a thesis, not just outline an argument.
Compare these two thesis statements:
“The discovery of things that have been concealed or lost leads individuals to reconsider their knowledge of things.”
“The discovery of things that have been lost or concealed has a profound impact on an individual’s perspective of society. The process of discovery compels individuals to reassess their perspectives on the world and adjust their views on society.”
The second thesis is obviously better, but why?
The first thesis statement is competent, but it does not help the marker into your understanding of the module or the question. By splitting the statement over two sentences in the second example, we detail the logic of our argument. The second statement explains how the process of discovery works, rather than merely noting that it occurs.
Step 4: Answer the Question Asked
Too often students will write the thesis they have prepared and not the one that responds to the question they have been given. This is common amongst students who prefer to write “generic” essays and “mould” them to suit a question. Let’s consider the 2016 HSC question for Hamlet:
How does Shakespeare use imagery to portray challenging ideas about truth and deceit in Hamlet?
In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text.
This question is asking you to address how a specific literary and dramatic technique, “imagery,” is used to convey ideas about a specific theme – “truth and deceit.” The question gains added complexity from the adjective “challenging.” This word directs you to look at those ideas around truth and deception which are either difficult to understand or represent, or those ideas which challenge our understanding about “truth” and “deceit.” Because “truth and deceit” are ideas which relate to the theme of appearance and reality or corruption, students were tempted to rely on prepared responses without adapting them to the question asked.
Consider the following thesis statement:
“Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599) examines the struggle of the human condition by exploring the dichotomy between appearance and reality.”
This is not a terrible general thesis statement, but it is a very poor response to the question. It does not answer the question we’ve been asked. What it needs to do is link the theme “appearance and reality” to the question’s focus on “imagery” and “challenging ideas.”
A band 6 thesis would state:
“Shakespeare uses the imagery of corruption and decay in Hamlet (1599) to depict the difficulty of discerning reality from appearance. This representation of a common human struggle challenges audiences by reminding them of the difficulty of knowing whether they are being presented truth or deceit.”
This statement uses two sentences to comprehensively define the terms of the question and relate them to our understanding of Hamlet. This is what you must do.
Another question we could look at is:
“William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not about revenge, it is a play concerned with morality and madness.”
To what extent do you agree with this statement? Make use of detailed references to the play in your response.
Remember, first we need to unpack the question. The key parts of the question’s statement are:
- “Macbeth is not about revenge” – this makes a statement about the themes of the text. This statement asks you to agree or disagree with the proposition that Macbeth is not about revenge. The full title of Macbeth is The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606), so it is clearly a tragedy. Tragedies are a genre or type of drama that are often concerned with revenge in some way. In this text, it is the victims of Macbeth’s actions who desire revenge.
- “it is a play concerned with morality and madness” – this makes a statement about what the play is about instead: morality (the rules we use to guide appropriate behaviour and actions) and madness. Macbeth engages in regicide (killing a king) and murder. Later he either sees ghosts or hallucinates. So, we must decide if Macbeth’s immoral actions and his descent into lunacy are of greater concern than the theme of revenge.
- Essay questions use different phrases such as “discuss”, “to what extent”, and “how much.” This compels you to take a position on the question that is more nuanced than just yes or no. This question asks us “to what extent” we agree with the statement. Remember, the marker will expect a complex position on the text that demonstrates a thorough understanding of it.
We can assume the stance that:
- Macbeth is a character concerned with revenge; and
- Macbeth interrogates moral questions of murder and regicide while representing Macbeth’s journey into madness
So, our thesis statement that addresses these positions is:
“The resolution of The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) is driven by revenge. However, it is Shakespeare’s interrogation of the morality of Macbeth’s actions and his subsequent descent into madness that is the central focus of the text.”
Step 5: Practice
A good thesis is not going to write itself during an exam. If you want a killer thesis statement then you need to write it, and that means practice.
Essay writing is a skill that develops the same way as juggling a soccer ball or playing the panpipes. You will not become adept unless you invest many hours writing and rewriting responses to a variety of questions.
If you want to learn how to produce that killer thesis go to the NESA website and work your way through their practice questions until you’re an expert.
Step 6: Learn How to Write a Thematic Framework
Now you’ve got a thesis, you need to use it to structure an essay. The next step is to choose the themes that you will discuss and introduce them to your reader. To learn how to do this, read How to Structure Your Essay Introduction | Essay Writing Part 2!
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