Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You'll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far, they want to know what the essay argues as well as how the writer plans to make the argument. After reading your thesis statement, the reader should think, "This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm interested to see how I might be."
An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." A thesis is not a topic; nor is it a fact; nor is it an opinion. "Reasons for the fall of communism" is a topic. "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" is a fact known by educated people. "The fall of communism is the best thing that ever happened in Europe" is an opinion. (Superlatives like "the best" almost always lead to trouble. It's impossible to weigh every "thing" that ever happened in Europe. And what about the fall of Hitler? Couldn't that be "the best thing"?)
A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should "telegraph" how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.
Steps in Constructing a Thesis
First, analyze your primary sources. Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author's argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—that there are, for instance, many different metaphors in such-and-such a poem—which is not a thesis.)
Once you have a working thesis, write it down. There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you'll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.
Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction. A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.
Anticipate the counterarguments. Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of the arguments that you'll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counterargument. If yours doesn't, then it's not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is not an argument.)
|Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election because he failed to campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention.|
This statement is on its way to being a thesis. However, it is too easy to imagine possible counterarguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he suffered from a "soft-on-crime" image. If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counterargument, you'll strengthen your argument, as shown in the sentence below.
|While Dukakis' "soft-on-crime" image hurt his chances in the 1988 election, his failure to campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention bore a greater responsibility for his defeat.|
Some Caveats and Some Examples
A thesis is never a question. Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question ("Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?") is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.
A thesis is never a list. "For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" does a good job of "telegraphing" the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesn't advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.
A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational. An ineffective thesis would be, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil." This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.
An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. "While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline" is an effective thesis sentence that "telegraphs," so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, "Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim."
A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible. Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite's inability to address the economic concerns of the people" is more powerful than "Communism collapsed due to societal discontent."
Copyright 1999, Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University
If your essay is giving you fits, this book is for you.
If your essay has left you in a cold sweat, or cursing your blinking cursor, or in a state of panic—or just boredom—then this book is also for you.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about writing a winning essay, this book will help you write more persuasively, with more assurance.
You Can Write a Great Essay
The hardest thing about writing is that it requires thought. It requires putting ideas into words, and words into sentences on paper. When you’re composing an essay, you also need to think about what you’re writing from your reader’s perspective. You need to think about how to write your argument so that your reader can understand it. And you’ll need to anticipate his or her questions with your written analysis.
It’s not easy. Writing requires time, effort, and skill. It takes more work than chunking through a set of math problems, or conjugating verbs in a foreign language.
But here’s the good news: Writing is a skill. A skill you can master.
In this book, I’ll introduce you to techniques that will help speed you on your way. They’re the same techniques I’ve applied in my academic and professional careers, and in my work as a writing coach. And they are effective: I graduated summa cum laude from Bryn Mawr College with honors in English. Thanks to the foundation set out in these pages.
Before we get into that, though, a quick heads-up.
Five Paragraphs, or Twenty-five?
If you’ve bought this book to help you with a class assignment, you’ve probably been told how to write an essay. Probably more than once. Maybe you’ve heard what sounded like conflicting ad-vice—even from well-meaning teachers.
Some teachers champion the so-called “five-paragraph essay.” (It’s a basic format made up of, yes, five paragraphs: An introductory paragraph, including a thesis statement, followed by three supporting examples, and then a conclusion.) Champions of this approach to essay-writing say that the five-paragraph format is a great way to learn how to organize your thoughts.
Some teachers can’t stand the five-paragraph essay. They contend that it locks you into a formula. Instead, they want you to learn how to develop an argument that builds and builds—and car-ries your reader to your conclusion.
This book doesn’t pick sides. Really, there’s no conflict between a well-structured essay and an essay that develops a convincing argument. An A+ essay does both.
How to Write an A+ Essay focuses on essays you’re likely to write for English class, but you can apply its lessons to any kind of essay. It shows you how to frame a persuasive argument—on any subject. Whether your essay is five paragraphs, or twenty-five, whether it’s a single page, or a dozen, this book unlocks the key elements of great essay-writing.
How to Write an Essay: Beyond the Formula
Here’s something you won’t hear from many teachers: There really is an essay “formula.” Plug in the right types of sentences in the right places and you’re on your way to a successful essay.
This book will take you through the formula:
• Understand the book.
• Write an effective outline.
• Fill in relevant examples, pulled straight from the text.
But this book also aims to take you beyond the formula. Great writing is never formulaic; A+ essays aren’t, either. To write an A+ essay, you need to show more than an ability to arrange words in a template. You need to demonstrate your understanding of the subject, your command of your argument, and your ability to guide your reader to your conclusion.
Don’t worry: I’ve got you covered.
I won’t spend much time on the phraseology you’ll find in a lot of essay-writing resources—terms like “hook,” “thesis statement,” “topic sentence,” and so on. Yes, I’ll cover all the details essential to a killer essay. But I’ll leave the English jargon to others. I want you to think, not like someone preparing to write an essay for English class, but someone preparing to argue a case in a court of law.
How to Write an Essay: Think Like a Prosecutor
In fact, let’s leave English class behind—just for a moment. Let’s take a brief trip to court, where a high-profile case is being argued in front of a skeptical jury. We’re not going to visit a real courtroom, where procedure, and mountains of evidence, and bad fluorescent lighting take the fun out of the case. Instead, we’ll sit down in the gallery of one of TV’s courtrooms—the kind of place that makes a trial seem dramatic and sexy.
In this high-profile case:
• The prosecutor is the lawyer in charge of proving that the person on trial is guilty.
• The defense attorney is the lawyer who argues that the defendant, the person on trial, is not guilty.
• The jury is the 12-member panel that listens to both sides of the case and decides whether the defendant is guilty.
To convince a jury to return a guilty verdict requires the right arguments. The right evidence. It takes a clear sense of what the case is about and a willingness to take the jury by the hand and lead them through the case—witness by witness—so that they reach the right conclusion. The prosecutor must anticipate the defense attorney’s arguments—where he or she might try to punch holes in the case to create doubt. And above all, the prosecutor must be persuasive.
Any lawyer will tell you that winning at trial is not that simple, but for our purposes, it is. That’s because writing a paper is like heading up the prosecution team in a court of law. To win your case, you must:
• Assemble your case file.
• Bring charges.
• Gather relevant evidence and witnesses to support your case.
• Organize that evidence and those witnesses in a logical progression that leads the jury to the proper conclusion.
• Anticipate the defense’s arguments and objections and prepare to counter them.
• Write a killer opening argument.
• Make your case in a focused and persuasive fashion.
• Deliver a clincher of a closing argument.
No, there’s no shortcut to a great essay. But follow these steps, and you may be surprised by the logic and clarity of the arguments you develop, and the strength of the essay you write.
Ready to get writing? Good. The defendant awaits.
Step 1: Think Like a Prosecutor was last modified: November 2nd, 2015 by Jenny Sawyer