The following post is an excerpt from How to Write an Essay like an Equation.
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A thesis statement is the point, main idea, or central claim of your writing. It conveys the purpose of your writing. The more specific and detailed your thesis, the more clearly it will express your main idea and a sense of purpose.
In chapter two, I advised establishing purpose early, explicitly, and with specific language. An effective thesis statement will come early in your writing. It will explicitly state your main idea, and it will use specific, detailed language to do so.
It can be helpful to think of the thesis statement as the BLUF — the bottom-line, up-front. If you could tell your audience only one idea, the BLUF would be it. It is your main idea, your central claim, and your purpose in communicating.
It is crucial to state your purpose and bottom-line early in the writing so that readers know what to expect, what genre they are reading, and whether it will serve their needs and goals.
Assuming they decide it will, a specific and detailed thesis early in your paper helps readers view the rest of your writing as purposeful, focused, and organized.
In most informative or persuasive writing, you will restate your thesis in the conclusion. The first time the audience reads your thesis, they don’t necessarily fully understand or agree with it. Hopefully, they will understand and agree with your thesis after reading about each of the specific supporting points and details presented in your paper. Restating your thesis in the conclusion, then, reminds readers of your entire thesis and gives you a chance to present your thesis with maximum impact.
Where’s the BLUF?
To illustrate the importance of a strong thesis, or BLUF, here is an example of some writing that lacks a clear thesis (and thus a sense of purpose):
Car technology has progressed so much since the days of the “horseless carriage.” Many vehicles have DVD players built-in, Bluetooth connectivity, multiple USB chargers, and even WI-FI. Engines run much better and operate with computers. Drivers do not even use keys any more. They can start their engines, pun intended, with the push of a button, and the doors lock automatically when they walk away from the car with the key. Walking back out to the car to retrieve something but encountering locked doors can be very frustrating.
What is the point, main idea, or central claim of this introductory paragraph?
The last sentence of the introduction is usually the thesis statement, but surely the paper won’t focus solely on the frustration of encountering locked car doors without a key? There isn’t much of a purpose to that idea. It also diverges sharply from most of the rest of the introduction.
The first sentence could be a general thesis. The thesis or BLUF sometimes comes at the very beginning. But the rest of the introduction focuses on modern examples of car technology rather than examples of progress over time. It also ranges over diverse car technology instead of focusing on one type. Is the rest of the paper about car technology? If so, what kind? There are big jumps from built-in DVD players to auto-lock to the frustration of locked doors.
The lack of clarity, focus, and purpose in this introduction demonstrates the importance of a specific, detailed, purposeful thesis statement early in the writing.
Here’s the BLUF
In contrast to the example above, the writing below has a clear, specific, detailed, and purposeful thesis statement or BLUF. If this was all you had time to say to your audience, your audience’s time would be well-spent.
Push-button start, keyless entry, and auto-locking have become widespread vehicle features, causing a fair amount of confusion and inconvenience for households with multiple cars. One person will walk out to the other person’s car expecting to open the door and retrieve something, but it will be locked due to the auto-lock feature. Obviously, one can simply carry a key for each vehicle, but then a person with a spouse and multiple driving-age children might have four or five car keys, plus keys for the house and workplace. A new product, The Key Manager, easily syncs with most vehicle models and their keys, allowing drivers to carry one key for multiple cars.
The first few sentences present the problem or situation. The thesis, or BLUF, then sums up the paper’s content and purpose with adequate specific detail. Readers know the paper’s main idea and purpose, and they will expect a more detailed discussion of The Key Manager and its functions and benefits. When the paper delivers on this promise, it will seem even better developed and organized than it already is. (The Key Manager is hypothetical, by the way.)
Finding Your BLUF
As a writing teacher, I often find myself telling students to work on their thesis statements. Their thesis statements are often too vague, lack a clear purpose, or both.
The problem is not a lack of intelligence or inspiration. The students simply lack strategies for finding their thesis statements, or their BLUFs.
To state a strong thesis, we need to know what we think about a topic. Some people can sit down, think about something, and reach a judgment with several supporting reasons. Then they can write a paper that states their judgment and summarizes its supporting reasons in the very first paragraph. In other words, they write a specific, detailed thesis with a clear purpose.
Other people need help thinking through their ideas. They may use various brainstorming strategies, such as “mind-mapping” or “free-writing.” They may thoroughly discuss the topic with someone. They may write an entire draft before really figuring out what they think about the subject of their writing. (For a list of prewriting strategies, refer to chapter 10.)
Whatever kind of person you might be, finding the BLUF takes time and effort.
If you expend that effort up-front by thinking through your draft before starting to write it, then you will probably have a pretty strong thesis in your first draft.
If you need to figure out what you think through the process of drafting, then your first draft will almost certainly lack a decent thesis. You will need to rewrite the draft so that you state a specific, detailed thesis early in your paper, preferably the first paragraph. (For a list of rewriting strategies, refer to chapter 10.)
Rewriting, or revising, strategies can be extremely helpful to discovering your BLUF and how to best express it. These revision strategies include:
underlining the specific details of your thesis;
looking to the conclusion for inspiration; and
When you underline the specific details of your thesis, then you double-check that your thesis actually has specific details. The details are important because they give the thesis its substance and purpose as well as foreshadow the rest of the paper’s ideas. If you can’t underline anything, then you know you need to add more specific detail that sums up your paper’s main points.
Sometimes, I tell students to use their conclusion as the introduction and then write a new conclusion. Their conclusions often have excellent thesis statements because they finally figured out what they thought about the topic.
If you look to the conclusion for inspiration, then you can improve your introduction’s thesis by adding the details and purpose from your conclusion’s thesis. You shouldn’t repeat your thesis verbatim, but you want the introduction and conclusion’s thesis statements to match up in terms of detail and purpose.
An outline lists the main points you want to make in your essay or speech. Outlines are written before writing a draft, and they are usually written with short phrases that jog a writer or speaker’s memory.
Reverse-outlining occurs after writing a draft. Read through your draft and write the main idea of each paragraph in the margin of the paper, in MS Word’s “comments,” or in separate notes. Limit yourself to short phrases or even individual words if possible. A reverse-outline provides a list of the main points you already made. Then you can write a thesis, or BLUF, in the introduction that sums up those points.
Writing the BLUF
How do you write the thesis, or BLUF, once you find it?
As I will explain more fully in chapter ten, writing is a process. You won’t write a perfect draft on the first try, and you likely won’t figure out your thesis on the first try either.
Don’t worry! There is still “one right answer,” or at least a systematic method.
First, understand yourself.
Do you think through things before reaching a conclusion? How much time-to-think do you need? Or do you reach conclusions by talking about things with others? Or writing?
Second, use your strengths.
If you think through your writing before starting a draft, then make sure you take enough time to think and determine your thesis before beginning to write. You may go through multiple drafts of your thesis, or BLUF, in your mind.
If you need to have some discussions with others or do some prewriting or drafting to determine what you think on a topic, then remember that you will need to revise your introduction’s thesis statement more thoroughly than someone who revised it mentally before writing it down. Remember that your first draft is tentative and that its purpose is to get you to a better final draft.
Third, use revision strategies as needed.
You may thoroughly contemplate and mentally revise a thesis statement, but you could still benefit from underlining its specific details, checking the conclusion’s thesis, or reverse-outlining. One of these strategies may be more helpful to you than the others, or you may find different ones to be helpful at different times.
Fourth, practice audience-awareness.
Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Ask yourself, “Will my audience know what this paper covers? Will they know what to expect from the rest of the paper?” You may show your thesis — and only your thesis — to a friend and then ask these questions.
Whatever you do, always ensure that your thesis contains specific details that foreshadow the paper’s main ideas and express a sense of purpose.
Where Does It Fit in the Equation?
Your audience should know what your writing covers and why it matters, based solely on your thesis or BLUF statement. Readers are always wondering:
Why should I care?
What will I get out of this?
Will this meet my needs, achieve my goals, or enable an action that I want to take?
A specific, detailed, purposeful thesis statement answers each of these questions. The more specific and detailed it is, the more substantive it will be. The more substantive, the more it will establish purpose and engage interest.
We can add to the equation:
Audience-Awareness + Purpose + Thesis + …
As you can see, audience-awareness, purpose, genre, and thesis are all interrelated. You are well on your way to learning how to write an essay like an equation.
Here are some thought-exercises and activities to develop your thesis statement and BLUF-ing skills (sorry, not sorry).
Think about the last time you were really confused by someone or something, such as a conversation, a video, or a piece of writing. Why was it hard to figure out the main idea and follow along?
Think about the last time you struggled to explain yourself. If you could re-explain, what would you say now?
How would you sum up the last article or book you read (or movie you watched) in less than thirty words?
Write a summary, in thirty words or less, of the last article or book that you read. Include as many main ideas as you can.
Choose an article or book. Write the main idea or central claim in your own words. Be specific.
Think about a hobby or subject that you enjoy. In thirty words or less, tell someone unfamiliar with the hobby or subject both what it is and why you enjoy it.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
Learn more about his work, sign up for a newsletter, and get free excerpts at www.EricSentell.com.