This is the magic thesis sentence:

Others may argue __________, but by looking at __________, we can see __________, which we otherwise might not see; this is important because __________.

It’s magic because it lays out the four things that every thesis should have, as well as the relationship between those four things. It’s a formula. In your actual paper, you should not apply this formula exactly—you shouldn’t just “plug and chug,” filling in the blanks without thinking about what you’re saying—but you should have all the components of the magic thesis sentence, just put into your own words. Let’s look at each of those components:

Others may argue __________

This is the idea/interpretation that you are responding to. If you’ve read Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, They Say, I Say, this is the “they say.” It can take several different forms:

  • A specific person. At this point you’ve read other scholars’ writings on your topic. One option is to identify a claim from a specific person—a historian, critic, sociologist, whoever—and respond to that claim. This person should have some authority, which is why you might want to use a scholarly source here, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a scholar.
  • Several people, or a whole line of thinking. Say you read four or five articles by different people that made similar points. You may want to write a paragraph summarizing all those points before you even get to your thesis statement, then have your thesis statement respond to all of them.
  • You. One option is for you to use yourself here. A thesis can begin with a statement like, “I used to think ________” or “Sometimes I think ________.”
  • Conventional wisdom. You can also begin your paper with a more general statement, like, “Many people think ________” but in that case you should have some examples to back up your claim that that really is conventional wisdom.

NOTE: This part of the thesis lays out the idea/interpretation that you are responding to, but that response can take multiple forms; you might disagree with that interpretation, you might partly agree, but argue that a part of the interpretation should be modified, or you might entirely agree, but want to build on that interpretation in a new way. This part of the thesis is followed by “but”, but it could also be followed by “and”.

by looking at __________

This is where you identify what you are analyzing. THIS IS NOT JUST THE TOPIC OF YOUR PAPER. Say you are writing a paper about the most popular pets in Victorian literature. You could incorporate either of these three statements into your thesis:

  • …by looking at pets in Victorian literature…
  • …by counting the frequencies of various pet-related words in a corpus of Victorian novels and poems…
  • …by closely examining how pets are framed in the illustrations of several Victorian children’s books…

The second and third options are both far superior to the first. They’re more specific, and they give the reader a sense of the method by which the paper is going to research and analyze the topic. The second statement focuses on the quantitative data, while the third focuses on the qualitative data, but either could lead to a strong paper. And, a paper using the second statement could still use the children’s book illustrations as an example, while a paper using the third statement could still discuss the frequencies of pet-related words, but the thesis gives a sense of the main method being employed.

we can see __________, which we otherwise might not see

This is where you identify the results of your analysis. If you’re analyzing data, what does that data tell us about your topic? If your close reading a novel, what’s the subtext that you’ve found? When you put this in your own words, you will probably cut out the “which we otherwise might not see” part, but it’s there to remind you that the results of your analysis should be non-obvious. The interpretation that you are arguing for should require the work of the paper.

this is important because __________

Why and for whom does your argument matter?

NOTE: This should not be something big and earth shattering! Papers don’t have to matter to all of society in order to have stakes that are interesting. Doves became less popular in literature as Victorian readers read more fiction and less poetry. This is important because it shows that certain images in literature are more suited to one genre than another. This is a “low stakes” claim—it won’t change anyone’s life or anything—but by specifically identifying why it’s important and, implicitly, whom it’s important to (students of literature), it can still be an interesting claim.

Now, in your own paper, your thesis won’t necessarily be one sentence; it will probably be 2 or 3. But you should know all four of these components of your paper’s thesis and should make them all clear early on in your paper—within the first paragraph or two.