Essentially, a thesis is the argument that an author is trying to prove through an essay.
Believe it or not, figuring out the thesis of the author is the most profoundly important step of your entire writing process.
The following is the step-by-step process that can help you discern the thesis of the author:
- Read the entire thing. You have 50 minutes to write a four-page essay, and the passage in question is less than two pages. This gives you lots of time to read and digest the passage. Just get a feel for what the author is saying, and keep an eye out for the different elements - which you’ll learn more about in the subsequent chapters. You do not need to doodle or do anything fancy for now. Instead, you’re just building a “mental table of contents” for the entire essay.
- Sum up the author’s thesis in less than 10 Words. What is the primary point of the passage? You do not want to ramble on. You just want to boil down the thesis of the author in as few words as possible. Every single word in the entire passage has only one purpose, which is to strengthen that argument. There are a lot of words in the author’s essay, but your goal is to summarize and write down the goal of the entire passage in one short sentence. Also, if you have any trouble doing this, look at the prompt box below the passage - the thesis is spelled out for you. In a SAT essay, the prompt starts with “explain how Jimmy Carter….persuades his audience that the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve should not be developed for industry.” The SAT does this step for you. So read the entire essay, absorb it, make note of the general flow and structure, and then sum it up in one sentence.
- Write that sentence down. This “thesis” sentence is your North Star.
- Every single piece of evidence you find is a piece of evidence used to prove this sentence.
- Every single piece of reasoning you find is reasoning meant to prove this sentence.
- Every single emotional, persuasive, and stylistic element you find is meant to prove this sentence.
If the three elements you find DO serve to prove this sentence, they’re relevant. If they DON’T, then they’re not. You’ve already completed the most important step. Now, let’s try to come up with the thesis of two SAT Essays that have been released by College Board:
ESSAY PASSAGE 1
Adapted from Paul Bogard, “Let There Be Dark.” 2012 by Los Angeles Times. Originally published December 21, 2012.
- At my family’s cabin on a Minnesota lake, I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars. But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth. This winter solstice, as we cheer the days’ gradual movement back toward light, let us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.
- All life evolved to the steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights. Today, though, when we feel the closeness of nightfall, we reach quickly for a light switch. And too little darkness, meaning too much artificial light at night, spells trouble for all.
- Already the World Health Organization classifies working the night shift as a probable human carcinogen, and the American Medical Association has voiced its unanimous support for “light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts at both the national and state levels.” Our bodies need darkness to produce the hormone melatonin, which keeps certain cancers from developing, and our bodies need darkness for sleep. Sleep disorders have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, and recent research suggests one main cause of “short sleep” is “long light.” Whether we work at night or simply take our tablets, notebooks and smartphones to bed, there isn’t a place for this much artificial light in our lives.
- The rest of the world depends on darkness as well, including nocturnal and crepuscular species of birds, insects, mammals, fish and reptiles. Some examples are well known - the 400 species of birds that migrate at night in North America, the sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs - and some are not, such as the bats that save American farmers billions in pest control and the moths that pollinate 80% of the world’s flora. Ecological light pollution is like the bulldozer of the night, wrecking habitat and disrupting ecosystems several billion years in the making. Simply put, without darkness, Earth’s ecology would collapse....
- In today’s crowded, louder, more fast-paced world, night’s darkness can provide solitude, quiet and stillness, qualities increasingly in short supply. Every religious tradition has considered darkness invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began. In a world awash with electric light...how would Van Gogh have given the world his “Starry Night”? Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?
- Yet all over the world, our nights are growing brighter. In the United States and Western Europe, the amount of light in the sky increases an average of about 6% every year. Computer images of the United States at night, based on NASA photographs, show that what was a very dark country as recently as the 1950s is now nearly covered with a blanket of light. Much of this light is wasted energy, which means wasted dollars. Those of us over 35 are perhaps among the last generation to have known truly dark nights. Even the northern lake where I was lucky to spend my summers has seen its darkness diminish.
- It doesn’t have to be this way. Light pollution is readily within our ability to solve, using new lighting technologies and shielding existing lights. Already, many cities and towns across North America and Europe are changing to LED streetlights, which offer dramatic possibilities for controlling wasted light. Other communities are finding success with simply turning off portions of their public lighting after midnight. Even Paris, the famed “city of light,” which already turns off its monument lighting after 1 a.m., will this summer start to require its shops, offices and public buildings to turn off lights after 2 a.m. Though primarily designed to save energy, such reductions in light will also go far in addressing light pollution. But we will never truly address the problem of light pollution until we become aware of the irreplaceable value and beauty of the darkness we are losing.
The following is what I have come up with:
Thesis: Natural darkness needs to be preserved and light pollution needs to be checked
ESSAY PASSAGE 2
Adapted from Dana Gioia, “Why Literature Matters,” 2005 by The New York Times Company. Originally published April 10, 2005.
- strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts - and especially literature - actually diminished.
- According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major forms that are measured....The declines have been most severe among younger adults (ages 18–24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study, however, is the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading literature.
- That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of any kind is falling as well.
- That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend, the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a separate report, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”
- The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not “linear, logical, analytical talents,” author Daniel Pink states, but “the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative.” When asked what kind of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top.
- Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that it inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy declines. There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of non-reading to the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of Manufacturers polled its members on skill deficiencies among employees. Among hourly workers, poor reading skills ranked second, and 38 percent of employers complained that local schools inadequately taught reading comprehension.
- The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere....A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-old’ civic knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship… and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.”
- It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness among young people. One of the surprising findings of “Reading at Risk” was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than non-readers, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading....
- The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well....
- Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded.These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.
The following is what I have come up with:
Thesis: Decline of reading abilities in America is having a negative effect on society.
Believe it or not, this simple step is the most important step of your entire writing process. Now that you know what the essay says, what it’s about, and what the author is trying to prove, you can take relevant, powerful steps to start documenting the elements necessary for your own essay.
Quick note: COULD you argue that it’s a crappy argument or piece? You COULD, but DON’T. No matter what, your entire essay will be spent talking about the many things that the author does to support his argument. Why would you make things harder on yourself by pulling a 180 and randomly introducing the idea that these elements and reasoning chains weren’t enough? Bad idea. No matter what, you will end by saying that the author does a fine job because of everything you just wrote about.