The Thesis is the Thing

Your assignment is to write an essay of any type on any subject of personal interest to you. What’s the hardest step?

Steps one and two: choosing a topic and writing a thesis statement.

Let’s be clear on what I mean by “topic” and “thesis statement.” If you’re supposed to write a two-page paper on some current issue, and you decide to write about zoning laws in your community, “zoning laws” is not the thesis, or even the topic. It’s the subject–the field from which you’re going to pick a daisy, a dandelion, or a weed. The topic is one specific aspect of the subject that can be addressed in two pages, and the thesis is the main point you want to make.

Got it?

If you were to start writing a paper titled “Zoning Laws” (to continue the example), one of two things would happen: you would find yourself including so many details that the paper would quickly spill over two pages with no end in sight, or the two pages you filled would be so general they wouldn’t say anything of interest. The reader would learn that some areas of your community are zoned for business, some for commercial, and some for bi-use.

Big.  Deal.

That’s not to say that you wouldn’t get a decent grade on the essay. BUT, it will be a lot more interesting, both to write and to read, if you can choose some particular angle to explore or question to answer. That would be your topic. For instance,

  • Who decides on community zones, and why?
  • If I owned a piece of property, would I want it to be zoned residential or commercial?
  • Five local business owners, and how they feel about the laws in their area


If zoning laws don’t float your boat (and I’ll admit to already being bored with the subject myself), how about “violence in the movies”? You could start on a paper titled “Violence in the Movies,” and write three and a half pages before realizing you have no idea what your main point is.

Or, you could choose a topic like

A. The difference between violence in The Passion of the Christ and in The Terminator

Thesis statement: The purpose of the violence in The Terminator series was to stimulate our baser instincts, but the violence in The Passion was to stimulate our love for God.

B.  How movie violence became worse (or not) in the 1990s

Thesis statement: Movies have always been violent, at least since the gangster films of the 1930s, but the 1990s saw an exponential increase in technicolor gore and blood.

C.  The meaning of “gratuitous” and three specific qualities of “gratuitous” violence in film

Thesis statement: Some violence in films may be justified if it’s an important part of the story, but too often movie violence is only there to push our buttons, encourage morbid curiosity, and sell tickets.


It’s not easy to whittle down a subject into a workable topic for an essay–it takes time, thought, and at least a little knowledge. Give your brain a bit of a workout and try to think of two topics for each of the following subjects. I’ve provided an example for each.


Subject: The importance of team sports in elementary school

Possible topics:

1. How soccer builds character

2. _____________________________________

3. ______________________________________


Subject: The joys of skateboarding

Possible topics:

1. The time I pulled off a perfect 50/50

2. ______________________________________

3. ______________________________________


Subject: Choosing the right college

Possible topics:

1. The major benefit I expect from college

2. ______________________________________

3. ______________________________________


Now, choose one of those topics from each category and write a thesis statement that sets forth clearly the main point you intend to make.

Once you’ve taken this vital step, I won’t say the rest of the essay will be easy, but it will be manageable. You’ve drawn the boundaries and your thoughts shouldn’t stray outside them. If they do, go back, cross out all sentences and paragraphs that don’t relate to the thesis statement, and focus. You’ll be done before you know it!