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Step 2: Formulate a provisional thesis statement

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As we saw in the Essay Model diagram, the thesis statement is positioned as the last sentence in the first paragraph – the Introduction. The preceding sentences in the introduction prepare the reader to consider the THESIS STATEMENT, which is the most important sentence in the entire essay. If you were asked to summarise, in one sentence, your 500-word or 10,000-word essay, that sentence would be the thesis statement.

In an expository or descriptive essay, the thesis statement should group together the various aspects of the topic that you will be describing; in an analytical essay, it should state your findings; and in an argumentative essay, it should express the position you’re taking on an issue.

The following points are important to remember when you’re formulating your thesis statement:

  • The thesis statement is a sentence that says clearly, precisely, and concisely what the essay is all about.
    • The thesis statement is the essay’s ‘big idea’
  • The thesis statement must be explained, supported, or defended in the paragraphs that make up the body of the essay.
    • Everything relates back to the thesis.
  • The thesis statement needs to be both arguable (it sets out a hypothesis, position, or perspective – not just the facts – and supportable (there must be adequate evidence or points of argument to convince the reader of the validity of the thesis).
  • The thesis statement needs to be concise.

i10-people02As they read through the essay, the reader needs to see the thesis being supported.

To demonstrate, let’s develop a thesis statement for Model Essay One (descriptive) and Model Essay Two (argumentative).

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500 words equates to three to five paragraphs. Using a five paragraph model, the essay looks like this: one introductory paragraph, three middle paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph – the three middle paragraphs represent the body of the essay, in which you present your evidence or argument.

A paragraph can be made up of any number of sentences, but generally, a paragraph is around 3 to 5 sentences.

Model essay one

Paragraphs one and five function as the opening and closing frames of the case or argument you are presenting. The three middle paragraphs are where you present your argument or evidence supporting the thesis statement. This means that you can reasonably present three points of argument or evidence (each paragraph should make just one main point).

In Model Essay One, you’re asked to identify the characteristics that make a successful essay. You could probably identify many characteristics, but you have only three paragraphs, so you need to tailor your response to fit your 500-word essay. A simple solution is to focus on one characteristic for each paragraph. Your provisional thesis statement might therefore be:

A successful essay has three key elements: A, B, and C.

This sets clear parameters for your reading and note-making. It also gives you a hook to hang your essay on; you will refine it as you read to gather research material on the characteristics of a successful essay. From your reading, you will identify three elements that you will make a case for as the most important. Although you won’t be developing a ‘for and against’ argument, you will have to convince your reader of your case. In this example, there’s no definitive ‘right’ answer – there are many important characteristics from which to choose – but you will have to justify your choice and convince your reader of its validity.

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As we saw in the Directive Verbs section, ‘discuss’ means that you have to ‘examine, giving the details and the points for and against’ and that you must ‘develop a logical argument backed by sound evidence’. Usually the essay topic is complex and, therefore, cannot be addressed by a simple ‘for’ or ‘against’ argument; there will always be both points for and points against, and all these points need to be acknowledged.

However, to write an effective argumentative essay, you will need to begin by taking a definite position on your topic, and expressing your position in a clear, arguable thesis statement, which you then defend with evidence and logic. In Model Essay Two, you have to take a position either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the validity of essay writing as a component of student assessment. As you read and research, you may want to modify your thesis statement or even take the opposite position from the one you started with – this is why at this stage we call it the provisional thesis statement.

A provisional thesis statement for Model Essay Two might be:

  • Setting essay assignments as a component of student assessment at university is a valid practice.

Alternatively, it might be:

  • Setting essay assignments as a component of student assessment at university is not a valid practice.

In supporting either of these thesis statements, you need to build a reasoned argument in the middle paragraphs (rather than simply presenting an organised list of points as you would in a descriptive essay).

It is essential that you write down a provisional thesis statement before you begin reading and researching, because this will help focus and give purpose to your reading. Do remember, however, that it is a provisional statement only; be prepared to modify it as you gather information from your reading.

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