Student writers know that an argumentative essay should have a strong thesis, but what exactly is a thesis anyway?  And what makes a thesis strong as opposed to weak?

To put it simply, a thesis makes a claim; it asserts that something is true.  So if you want to have a good thesis, is it enough to make an assertion that is demonstrably true?

An assertion that is true certainly seems better than an assertion that is not true, but it turns out that truth on its own is not enough.

Consider the following example: 

Toni Morrison was an American writer who was born in 1931. 

This statement is true in several ways:  Toni Morrison was American; she was a writer; and she was born in 1931.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that all of these claims are simply bland statements of fact.  When you get right down to it, they just aren’t that interesting on their own and they don’t set up an “argument” to come.  If there were a genuine dispute about the year of Morrison’s birth, and if that dispute mattered in some important way, then a claim about her birth year might become interesting.  Otherwise, it’s just boring.

So, to have a good thesis we need a claim that is not only valid but also interesting, a claim that matters.  If you’re writing an essay about Toni Morrison for an English class, then a claim that counts as interesting is probably going to say something about one of Morrison’s literary works.  Your central claim should be about that literary work, rather than about Morrison as a person.

With that goal in mind, a writer might arrive at something like this:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a novel dealing with American slavery and its aftermath. 

But is this a good thesis?  The assertion is certainly an improvement over the one about Morrison’s birthday, but it’s telling us something that is probably going to be pretty obvious to any more or less alert reader of the novel.  In fact, this claim is not something that any reasonable person would be likely to disagree with.

But do you want someone to be able to disagree with your thesis?  Yes, you do! 

You may hope that by the time a reader is done reading your argument they will, in fact, agree with your thesis, but there should be at least the possibility of disagreeing with it.  Why?  Because if it’s not possible to disagree with your claim, then it’s probably not very interesting or compelling.

Does this mean that there is some connection between the possibility of disagreement and the question of how interesting a claim is?  Again, the answer is yes!  Indeed, John Bean has argued that academic discourse can be defined as a “conversation in which people are fundamentally disagreeing.”  That sort of disagreement is valuable; it is reasoned and reasonable and it allows people to arrive at new insights.  A good argument might even cause some readers to change their minds!

To start to get at something interesting, something that another reader might disagree with, you’re going to need to start paying attention to particular insights, and perhaps particular questions, that you had while reading the novel.

Let’s say you noticed while reading that we often encounter characters in the novel who are telling their own stories, either to themselves or to someone else.  Some questions might occur to you:  Why is there so much emphasis on storytelling in this novel?  Or, how does storytelling work in the novel?  Or, how does it work for a particular character?

Behind every strong thesis there are questions like these, questions the writer of the essay is thinking about actively and trying to explore in the act of writing.  A thesis can’t be a question; as we’ve already said, it needs to be a claim.  But that claim may very well be the answer, or at least part of the answer, to a question that has become important to the writer of the essay.  You might even say that the attempt to answer the question drives the writing of the essay and leads to the claim the essay writer ends up making. 

So, after a little more thought, and perhaps some exploratory writing, you begin to think that stories seem to help the characters understand themselves and the world around them.  But as you think about it more, you begin to wonder if it might sometimes be the case that these stories are interfering with a given character’s understanding of the world and holding that character back in some way--with the result that these stories sometimes need to be reconsidered, or revised, or perhaps even rejected.  Thinking of the novel’s main character, Sethe, you dig in and look closely at some of the passages that seem most relevant to a consideration of the role of storytelling, and you eventually arrive at the following thesis:

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel that seems so often to be about remembering, it turns out that the act of forgetting is crucial to Sethe’s survival.

Now things are starting to get interesting!  This is certainly a thesis another reader might disagree with; but on the other hand, it’s not so far-fetched that it just seems outlandish or ridiculous.  It seems, in fact, like the sort of claim that might just give rise to an interesting and stimulating conversation, one that leads to further questions and non-obvious conclusions.  And that’s what academic dialogue is all about!