The eternal refrain goes like this: “What’s the thesis?”  It’s as ubiquitous as “Where’s the beef?” But a thesis is not a call to action for a mundane fast-food restaurant. It’s much more important than that. It’s the argument. Or more eloquently, the Writing Lexicon defines the thesis as “an arguable claim—i.e., an assertion someone could reasonably argue against; as such, it provides unexpected insight, goes beyond superficial interpretations, or challenges, corrects, or extends other arguments.”

There’s a reason why a great deal of high school English teachers place an emphasis on the thesis. It functions as the raison d’etre. It lays out the terms of the argument—what the essay is analyzing, with what it is analyzing, and what it all means. Strong theses go above and beyond this, however, by explaining why all of that stuff is important.

The essay excerpts in this section were chosen for their strong theses, though they accomplish these arguments in different ways.

The first excerpt shows how to write a different kind of thesis. In Hannah Tandy’s “The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synagogue,” the thesis develops with the introduction of evidence—a thesis variant known as the delta thesis. A delta thesis is an argument that develops throughout the paper, its trajectory informed by examining the evidence. Difficult to attempt, and tricky to master, Hannah shows a worthy example of how to do it—through the introduction of complicating evidence.

The second excerpt demonstrates how one can write a sophisticated thesis from a more simple argumentative framework. In Eliza Mott’s “The Shade of the Body: Notions of Materiality in Rauschenberg’s Dante Series,” the thesis is an example of an advanced lens essay. Lens essays use a particular theoretical framework to analyze a source text. Though lens essays are commonly assigned as part of the freshman writing seminar, Eliza’s example paves the way for revealing how to compose a sophisticated one.

Lastly, our “Works in Progress” section demonstrates a problematic thesis, written by Harrison Blackman. In the excerpt, Harrison ended up writing a paper with two distinct theses—the thing a delta thesis paper should never become.

The thesis is tough. There are different kinds—some are tricky, and some are examples of how to make a simple framework sing. And don’t write more than one thesis in an eight-page paper. Read on, true believer—“What’s the thesis?”

For more details, refer to the Thesis Preface from our 2014 issue, available here

The author


Harrison Blackman ’17 was born in Southern California and lives in Maryland. He studies the history of science, urban studies, and creative writing, with a particular focus on how these eclectic interests somehow involve Greece.

Emily de La Bruyere ’16 is Woodrow Wilson School major from New York City, though she’s in denial about both. Ostensibly she studies security, diplomacy, and Sino-American relations. For better or for worse, she has been known to spend more time at Weaver Stadium than in the classroom.