A thesis is a brief statement, usually one sentence, which tells the reader what the crux of your argument is going to be. It is detailed enough to give your reader a map to your argument, or to highlight the most important aspects of your argument, but not so detailed as to bog the reader down with too much data. Most importantly, there should be no doubt in your reader’s mind about what your thesis statement is or how your paper is going to progress from it.

A good thesis has three traits:

(1) it is narrow: it states precisely the specific topic and argument that the paper will follow

  • SO: “Criseyde's attempts to exercise agency over the direction of the love affair are shown, by Pandarus' machinations in Books 2 and 3 as well as the fortunes of war in Books 4 and 5, to be illusory and ultimately futile.NOT: “Pandarus prevents Criseyde from exercising agency.”

(2) it is provocative: it brings to the surface a compelling and not self-evident interpretation of the topic and/or states a proposition with which someone could reasonably disagree.

  • It is self-evident that Troilus blames Fortune and/or “Love” for all that besets him. It is not self-evident what the relationship between Fortune and Love is. Are they the same force? Competing entities? Projections?
  • Taking a counter-intuitive approach and examining the role of free will and the efficacy of actions in a poem that appears on so many levels to forestall free will is also a good approach to locating a provocative argument.
  • Similarly, as class discussions about Chaucer inevitably demonstrate, we could debate for hours about how much agency Criseyde actually has and what evidence is admissible.
  • Any argument that has a viable counterargument is de facto provocative, and the essay should take that counterargument into consideration to be fully persuasive.

(3) it is incisive: it cuts to the quick of what is really at stake in the argument

  • Think of this as the “so what?” test. Why does it matter what the strictures are on Criseyde's agency? What is the text suggesting about the efficacy of free will? What does the relationship between fate within the text and foreordained narratives on the level of the Narrator suggest about the poet's work?

A few reminders about making sure that your thesis is working AS a thesis and that it is
governing the essay effectively:

  • “Although” and “because” clauses can often (but not necessarily) indicate an argumentative thesis
  • The “incisive” aspect of the argument will probably come after you've  wrestled with the issue for some time, so keep revising your working thesis to reflect the new insights that you acquire in the writing process
  • After you've finished your main draft of a paper, recalibrate your thesis so that it claims what the essay actually demonstrates, not what you originally thought the essay would demonstrate.