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What are Thesis and Theme?

Going Back to the Basics:

Thesis and theme are two words that everyone knows they know but they typically can’t describe these terms succinctly. Chances are, unless you’re in a writing-dominated field, you probably haven’t given these terms much thought since college or high school English classes. That’s okay, but if you’re embarking on writing a book, you’ll need to brush up on these key terms.

Thesis and theme are the foundations of all writing, professional or informal. They both convey the subject of the text. Despite this similarity, there’s a stark difference between the functions of the thesis and the theme. 

The theme of a piece of writing is less intricate than its thesis. A theme is the main idea of a paper. It can be described in a word or short phrase, and these themes are demonstrated throughout the work by the content. Within a longer piece, such as an article or a book, there can be multiple themes. Oftentimes, these are divided by chapters or headings. Theme offers some room for interpretation—while the overall message should be received the same by each reader, the word(s) they use to describe it has some flexibility.

That’s not the case with the thesis statement. A thesis statement is the argument that a writer constructs throughout the work. It can be described in a phrase, sentence, or even a paragraph. The thesis statement must define the purpose of the paper, mention the points you’ll explore, and serve as an abbreviated summary of the work. There’s the misconception that a thesis statement and a topic sentence are interchangeable terms. While the thesis statement may act as a topic sentence, it usually comes later in the introductory text and it’s more specific than topic sentences are allowed to be.

A strong thesis requires some effort and workshopping. When you’re writing the outline for your book, determine the core ideas that you want to discuss, think about your purpose for writing, and then find a way to piece all of the components together. A key to obtaining a good thesis is to unify your key points and be specific about your intentions for the piece. 

Let’s take a look at an example: 

A paper on traditional vs independent publishing can have themes of diversity, empowerment, change through social media, individual identity, etc. Subheadings would show these themes for each of the sections throughout the paper.

A topic sentence could be: “In the internet age, small independent publishing is growing as an alternative for authors.”  This is a fact that can be proven; it doesn’t show the author’s opinion or intention for the paper.

But a thesis statement would be: “Small presses use social media as a tool to celebrate the diverse voices that they publish while enacting slow scale social change through challenging identities perpetuated by the media.” Now that thesis encompasses a lot of topics that the reader will expect to have reviewed. It also makes an argument for how small presses operate and what their lasting effects might be. 

Your thesis should be just as specific, though it doesn’t have to be as polished and complete before you start writing your book. However, you should still have a placeholder thesis statement to guide you through your writing. Later, you can refine your thesis to better reflect the content you cover. I suggest having several people review your thesis statement to make sure it’s 1) clear, 2) concise, and 3) accurately describes what your book is about. If your thesis is still giving you trouble, try completing some thesis exercises, available in most writing books and online.


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