Thesis: A controlling idea for an essay

You have probably heard a sermon or a political speech that just rambled all over the place, and maybe you have written a paper that should have been titled "Everything I Could Think Of At The Last Second." (I certainly have!) Unstructured rambles lack unity and are irritating to read. Here’s an example that seems to be going well, but actually isn’t:

In one of his last bouts, Sugar Ray Robinson missed repeatedly with his jab in early rounds against Joey Archer. By the third round Archer was hitting Robinson almost at will with jabs and crosses. Archer used a combination jab and cross in the middle rounds to harass the veteran fighter. Sugar Ray began his boxing career when Archer was two years old. Archer found the range with a hook once or twice in the late rounds, but failed to down Robinson.¹

The whole thing is about Robinson and Archer, so what’s the problem? The writer got misled by the sentence that ended "veteran fighter" and dumped the sentence about Sugar Ray getting into boxing when Archer was two years old. Interesting stuff—but the rest of the paragraph is a description of the final fight, not a personal history.

Readers want focus, and a paragraph about Robinson’s final fight is no place for observations about his Army career, marriages, or appearance on a postage stamp.

A Thesis Procedure

Some writing teachers say you should begin by writing a thesis, then sort of "fill in the blanks." That doesn’t work too well for most of us, especially if the essay begins with free-writing. So instead, try this approach:

  1. Do a really relaxed first draft—write everything you can think of that relates to the topic.
  2. Reread your early draft and ask yourself what seems to be the central focus.
  3. Write that down as a simple declarative sentence. Here’s an example: "In Sugar Ray Robinson’s last fight, he was clearly defeated by the much younger and less skilled Joey Archer."
  4. Go back through your draft and decide what needs to be deleted (because it doesn’t fit that central focus) and what needs to be expanded (because it’s on topic, but should say more).
  5. Be ready to sharpen and revise your focus statement (the one you wrote in #3). Don’t feel like you’ve signed a contract.
  6. As you move toward a final draft, decide whether this thesis statement should actually appear in the final copy, and if so, where.*

Zeroing in on that thesis/focus statement

A good thesis limits and defines the content of the paper—in itself, it makes an intelligent statement about your topic and the specifics of the paper flesh that out and define it. This is why some thesis statements simply don’t work. They are so wishy-washy, general, or vague that they are limiting and explaining nothing. Some thesis attempts are nothing more than discussions of the writer’s personal emotions.

A statement, not a question

"What was Robinson’s last fight like?" That’s a great question, but your answer is the focus of the essay. If you have only questions, you haven’t got anything to tell us.

Not just a prediction of the writer’s procedure

Not just "First I will do this, then I will do this, then I will do this." That kind of writing is only there to please English teachers, but it doesn’t help readers. It doesn’t control the essay. The Robinson/Archer paragraph wouldn’t have been improved at all if the writer’s thesis had been "First I will tell about rounds one through three, then I will mention how old Archer was when Robinson began, then I will finish with a discussion of the last rounds."

Tight, not loose

It’s true—big sloppy thesis statements make generalized essays that don’t go anywhere, but tight, specific thesis statements make essays that are easy to write and read. Which of these would you rather write? Which would you rather read?

More than a flat statement of facts

Almost all good essays move into persuasion—whether they are trying to persuade you to vote for a candidate or simply persuade you that they have the right information. A thesis that’s simply a fact-statement leads to a very dull essay—grinding out the academic sausage. Compare:

It’s your opinion, but…

Your name is at the top of the first page, so you do not need to soften your thesis with an apology. Do not write:

This kind of writing is usually shorthand for "I’m just a college freshman, and I don’t have any confidence in the material I have found, so I’ll phrase it this way because nobody can possibly disagree with the point that I have this opinion, weak and foolish though it may be."

Do you want to read an essay with that attitude? Why bother? I want to learn about Sugar Ray Robinson, not about the writer’s inner emotions.

Wishy-washy doesn’t work either

Perhaps you are terrified of making enemies. Maybe you had one of those terrible high school teachers who graded according to whether you agreed with his/her opinions, and you think of writing as a mind-reading exercise. Because you are not too good at mind-reading, you may be tempted to come up with a thesis statement like this:

If you have done your homework and have found decent evidence, present it! Either he was or he wasn’t! Take a stand and give us reasons to believe your side! College teachers in general are mature enough to respect people whose opinions differ, especially if they can bring forth good material to support their positions. You are not being politically correct when you refuse to take a stand; you are merely being lazy, fearful, or just plain indecisive.

S + D + 3R

Formulas are sometimes useful if you’re really stuck. Try this one if you can’t think of a controlling statement for an essay and your rough draft is just a jumble:

OK—you don’t need three reasons if your subject just doesn’t work that way, but you should have something to back up your claim. Maybe your working thesis will have them, but the thesis in your paper will be a little more graceful. You should have some sort of S+D+R idea in mind, though, when you write.

One last hint

The whole essay needs a controlling statement (thesis), and each paragraph needs one too (topic sentence). Almost everything I’ve said above about being specific and focused should apply to topic sentences (though they sometimes are just fine being statements of fact).

¹ Gallo, Joseph D., and Henry W. Rink. Shaping College Writing: Paragraph and Essay. 2nd ed., Harcourt, 1973.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 8/5/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: