How to Consistently Form a Clear and Concise Thesis
It takes practice, but it’s worth it!
The key to writing well is having something to say, then saying it clearly. To make a point, and then prove that point with examples. In nonfiction writing, we call that point the “thesis.” It’s the backbone of your essay, article, blog post, or feature story. It’s the essence of what your story is “about.” And it can be hard as shit to get right.
But that’s okay. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is a craft. It takes practice. And it’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of what you’re trying to communicate that you lose sight of the bigger picture. The biggest challenge of writing is keeping yourself on track. From start to finish, you need to ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” And then: “Have I said it?” Again and again and again.
This basic guidance is something I keep returning to, even after a decade of writing and editing for a living. It comes from On Writing Well, the classic manual by the late writer, editor, critic, and journalism professor William Zinsser. Through those two simple questions, Zinsser boils down the writer’s fundamental task. Those questions form the basis for what will become your thesis.
Some folks might see Zinsser’s advice as so obvious that it borders on insulting. But he was correct in pointing out that it’s all too easy to set out to write without knowing exactly what you’re trying to express. It can take time to zone in on the specific, unifying idea that’s buried in the material you’re stitching together. That’s why writing is work.
The bad news is that there’s no silver bullet for fast-tracking the process of finding your specific, clear idea. But the good news is that once you know what that point is, you can make sure you’ve conveyed it well. You can ensure that you express your point directly, using language that your reader will understand. And once you read what you’ve written, you can assess whether your reader would get what you’re trying to say, or if you’ve left room for misinterpretation or confusion.
I wish I could say I’ve mastered this. I’m not sure that any writer ever does, not completely. And that’s the humbling beauty of the process.
As Zinsser noted, “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” The same is true of an argument. A clear, concise thesis takes some honing. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can cut yourself a path that will get you there, eventually. You might even be proud of the end result.