Writing thesis statements

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story in two sentences and 6 words. He, apparently, claimed it to be the best short story he ever wrote. In these two sentences we can find a whole world of drama. It reads:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

This “short story” can serve as an example of the kind of condensation a thesis statement should have. A thesis statement provides the core idea or argument that you spend the pages of your paper unfolding. In Hemingway’s statement we are not told what has actually happened but it contains a direction, a central idea, that will be unfolded throughout the story. Gordon Harvey from Harvard University points to this as well. He defines a thesis in the following way:

Thesis: your main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition that your essay demonstrates. It should be true but arguable (not obviously or patently true, but one alternative among several), be limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition and with available evidence, and get to the heart of the text or topic being analyzed (not be peripheral). It should be stated early in some form and at some point recast sharply (not just be implied), and it should govern the whole essay (not disappear in places). [Our underlining].

Keeping Harvey’s definition in mind you can start working on creating your thesis. The following steps can help you do this.

  1. Determine what kind of paper you are writing:
    • An analytical paper breaks down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluates the issue or idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to the audience. A paper in music theory or history could be an example of an analytical paper.
    • An expository (explanatory) paper explains something to the audience. A paper in music education could be an example of an expository paper explaining a particular pedagogical approach to music, for example.
    • An argumentative paper makes a claim about a topic and justifies this claim with specific evidence. The claim could be an opinion, a policy proposal, an evaluation, a cause-and-effect statement, or an interpretation. The goal of the argumentative paper is to convince the audience that the claim is true based on the evidence provided. A review of a musical performance would be argumentative.
    If you are writing a text that does not fall under these three categories (ex. a narrative, reading journal, self-evaluation for example), a thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph could still be helpful to your reader.
  2. Your thesis statement should be specific - it should cover only what you will discuss in your paper and should be supported with specific evidence.
  3. The thesis statement usually appears somewhere in the first paragraph of a paper. You might want to avoid the somewhat formulaic “in this paper I argue that...“ though keeping that line in mind is a good idea because, basically, that is what you are saying.
  4. Your topic may change as you write, so you may need to revise your thesis statement to reflect exactly what you have discussed in the paper.

Different genres demand different thesis statements

Analytical thesis statement

This paper would present an analysis of the source material used. This could be a literature review, for example.

Example of an analytical thesis statement:

Chopin greatly admired the music of J.S. Bach, and his Preludes reflect the influence of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

This paper would discuss and analyze relations between Chopin’s Preludes and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Expository (explanatory) thesis statement

This paper would explain the material the thesis promises to explore.

Example of an expository thesis statement:

The approaches to teaching music to children developed by Orff, Kodaly, and Dalcroze are different and unique.

The paper would go on to explain, compare and contrast the three approaches.

Argumentative thesis statement

This paper would present an argument and present enough evidence to support the claim and convince a reader.

Example of an argumentative thesis statement:

Playing Mozart’s music on the fortepiano, the instrument as it existed in his own time, conveys a very different impression of his music than playing it on a modern piano.

This paper would go on to present evidence to support this claim.