Essay Writing 101

You’re clear of midterms now, but essays are still looming. You’ve probably got a little over a month to write  a great essay. You might start now, you might not. Either way, every great essay starts with a great thesis sentence. We’ve all heard about them, but the question I’m most often asked when helping people with their essays is “What’s a thesis sentence?” After reading this, you’ll never need to ask that question again. And you’ll craft theses which will make angels cry. Okay, maybe not that. But here are the things that make a thesis sentence good. 

1. Answer a Good Question

A good thesis answers a good question. A good question is narrow in focus already. “Why did the Spartans wage war?” is a terrible question. It’s too big, for starters. You can’t possibly talk about the entirety of Spartans in a ten page paper without half-assing it somewhere. Nor the entirety of Spartan wars. Let’s try a smaller one. “What was the role of the ephors in the tale of Thermopylae?” That’s better. For one thing, it just narrowed your reading list from four thousand books to about forty. For another, you are capable of reasonably answering it in an essay of undergrad length. If it sounds like it would make a good graduate thesis, it’s too big for you.

2. Back it up with Sound Reasons

There are lots of ways to answer a question. Some of them are good, and some of them are not. Why did the Spartans wage war? Because they were dicks. The following forty paragraphs will demonstrate the connection between Spartan dickishness and their propensity for warfare. I won’t say that’s an essay no one wants to read, but it’s not an essay that’s going to get you a good grade. If you were arguing with a friend and asserting your thesis, think of three things you could say that would convince your friend. It doesn’t matter if they really happened, just think of them. Now go and find out, doing the research. If you can’t think of three things, throw it aside and move on.

3. Keep it to a Single Sentence

If it takes you more than one relatively uncomplicated sentence to explain your thesis, it’s too broad. Seriously. If you can’t explain a sketch of your paper in fifteen seconds, move on. “People are like businesses, so business ethics models can apply to people.” I wrote twenty-five pages on that in graduate school, based on two years of research. But it comes down to one sentence. All the rest of the work is in proving it, bringing to bear sound reasons, establishing the definitions and the context, and actually making sure it answer the question. Which brings me to the last point.

4. Don’t Write it in Stone

Your thesis is not permanent. You did not sign a contract in blood when you wrote it, so don’t be afraid to go back and change it. If you think of a better answer to your question, use it. If you come to the end of your paper and realize that your thesis is completely wrong, don’t rewrite your paper, rewrite your thesis. That’s how scholarship works. You revise your opinions in light of the facts. No one will hold you to your thesis, least of all your professors. They’re professionals, and they know how this works. So don’t be afraid to change it if you feel the need, or if it doesn’t fit.

That’s it. The four key elements to a good thesis sentence. If you can hit all of these, you’ve got the start of a pretty good paper not just in classics, but anywhere else. Every paragraph should support your thesis in some way, because it’s the answer that blends your paper into a coherent whole. So go and write happily, and if you can’t do that, write well. You’ll get through it.

Jim Tigwell has written a hundred essays and believes in your ability to finish yours. He has spoken with your profs, and they do not secretly hate you. Find out more about his conversations with them on his Twitter.

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