A thesis statement is:
- The statement of the author’s position on a topic or subject.
- Clear, concise, and goes beyond fact or observation to become an idea that needs to be supported (arguable).
- Often a statement of tension, where the author refutes or complicates an existing assumption or claim (counterargument).
- Often answers WHY or HOW questions related to the topic at hand.
A thesis statement is NOT:
- A statement of fact or observation (no matter how astute the observation).
- A statement of personal conviction or opinion.
- A generalization or overly broad claim.
For the writer, the thesis statement:
- Helps the writer determine the essay’s real focus. What are you trying to say with the evidence presented? A thesis provides a theory to be tested by evidence.
- Serves as a planning tool. The component parts of the thesis often correspond with the essay’s topic sentences.
For the reader, the thesis statement:
- Serves as a “map” to guide the reader through the paper. In the same way the thesis helps you organize your paper, the thesis helps organize the reader’s thinking. Once a solid thesis is presented, the reader will understand that all of the evidence presented is in service of proving the thesis.
- Creates a reason to keep reading. The reader will want to discover the support behind the thesis.
If you are having trouble writing a thesis...
...ask yourself a genuine, difficult question about the topic (usually a “how” or “why” question), and state your response, even if you are not sure why you want to give that answer. Your response may very well be a workable thesis, and the pursuit of proving that answer may reveal to you more about your sources of evidence.
...think of a strong statement or observation you have made about the subject beginning with the words “In this essay, I will...” Then ask yourself why this observation is important, or “So What?”1 Answer the question with “I believe this is because...” In the draft stage you might phrase a working thesis as the following:
In this essay, I plan to explain how Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contrasts his river and shore scenes. I believe Twain is telling us that in order to find America’s true democratic ideals one must leave “civilized” society (the shore) and go back to nature (the river).
Then revise out the “I” statements. A revised version of this thesis might look like this:
Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Mark Twain’s Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.
Writing in the Disciplines
Keep in mind that thesis statements vary depending on the purpose of the assignment (or type of essay), and also by discipline. Here are a few notes on the thesis statements and the purpose of writing in a few different disciplines.2
English: “A thesis is an interpretive argument about a text or an aspect of a text. An interpretive argument is defined as one that makes a reasonable but contestable claim about a text; in other words, it is an opinion about a text that can be supported with textual evidence."
Sciences (Biology): “A well-written scientific paper explains the scientist’s motivation for doing an experiment, the experimental design and execution, and the meaning of the results... The last sentences of the introduction should be a statement of objectives and a statement of hypotheses.”
Business: “When you write in business courses, you will usually write for a specific audience. Your goal will be to communicate in a straight-forward manner and with a clear purpose."3
History: “In historical writing, a thesis explains the words or deeds of people in the past. It shows cause and effect; it answers the question why?... A thesis must change a reader’s mind to be of value. If it presents only facts or an obvious finding, it will merely confirm what the reader already believes.”
1. This strategy comes from Writing Analytically by Jill Stephen and David Rosenwasser.
2. The following statements on writing in the disciplines have been borrowed from the Writing Guides found at the Writing Across the Curriculum website at http://wac.gmu.edu/guides/GMU%20guides.html.
3. From A Writer’s Reference, 6th Edition, with Writing in the Disciplines, by Diana Hacker.
Developing Your Thesis Statement
What is a thesis statement?
Composition classes stress the role of the thesis statement because it is the backbone of collegiate composition. The thesis statement gives the reader insight into the topic, letting him/her know what the essay is about. Without a thesis statement, the essay may lack an argument, focus, clarity, and continuity.
1. There are two major types of thesis statements: explanatory and argumentative. The explanatory thesis announces the subject to the reader; it never declares a stance which needs an argument to defend. These explanatory theses are evident in expository essays and research essays. In an argumentative essay, the thesis statement should be a claim, not a factual statement or a personal response to a topic. It should be an idea that provokes opposition, a claim that readers might choose to refute.
2. The thesis statement is usually found at the end of an introductory paragraph. It's planted early in the essay because it informs the reader of the main important idea that encompasses the entire essay.
3. A thesis statement is not always one sentence; the length of the thesis depends on the depth of the essay. Some essays may require more than a single sentence. However, the statement should be as clear and concise as possible in the final draft of the essay. The shorter and more direct a thesis statement is the more confident and assertive the writer sounds. Being assertive and confident is crucial, especially in argumentative essays.
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Creating a thesis statement:
As a writer, keep your thesis statement in mind. Each proposed or considered topic within the essay should have some relevance to your thesis statement. It is the argument or focus of the essay, as well as a great structuring tool.
Because of the pivotal role a thesis statement plays in a piece of composition, many novice writers put too much emphasis on the thesis statement during the production of an essay. It is important to keep the thesis in mind, but it is also important to avoid hindering the writing process by restricting your writing to a thesis statement. This is where a working thesis comes into play.
A working thesis is exactly what it means: a thesis statement that is "in progress" during the writing process. Normally, a thesis statement will not be fully constructed until the entire essay is written. A working thesis allows for a writer to approach the topic with a thesis in mind, even though that thesis can be revised (and it will be numerous times) during the writing prcess.
Constructing a working thesis should come after brainstorming or deriving a topic. It should be a thesis that can help guide you as a writer through the composition of the essay. A simple way to begin the construction of a working thesis is to write "I believe that ... " and follow it up with a simple claim that includes the key topics to be discussed in the essay. An example would be:
"I believe that America's cultural identity can be defined by art, literature, and film."
The working thesis stated above now gives the writer a structure for the paper. Three main ideas should be discussed in their relation to cultural identity: art, literature, and film.
The best aspect of a working thesis is that it can be revised at any time to meet the needs of the essay or the writer. For instance, when using a working thesis, the writer knows that the thesis can be changed to fit in an extra topic if the essay needs it:
"I believe that America's cultural identity can be defined by art, literature, music, and film."
The role of the working thesis is to lessen the stress of writing a collegiate essay and to incorporate some flexibility into the writing process. Knowing that a working thesis will be subjected to numerous revisions allows the writer more freedom when writing the essay.
Now let's revise our working thesis into a stronger claim.
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Revising the thesis statement
The first step in changing the working thesis into a strong, independent claim is to cut "I believe that" from the beginning of the sentence. Let us use the original working thesis from the previous section as an example:
"I believe that America's cultural identity can be defined by art, literature, and film."
As it stands now, this thesis is a bit weak because the writer is asserting that it is their opinion or what they think. To make it into an argument or claim, the writer must be taken out of the sentence.
"America's cultural identity can be defined by art, literature, and film."
Hmm….Still sounds a little weak. Although the writer is now void from the statement, there is still doubt in this claim. This is where diction becomes important. The key is to use words that make the claim stronger and more assertive. Taking out the passive voice in the statement will add strength to the statement.
"Art, literature, and film define America's cultural identity."
Now an argument can be sparked.
Although this is not the best thesis statement, the aforementioned example is to show how to create and revise a thesis. If this thesis were to be used, it probably would be revised again to make it more specific; the types of art, literature, and film would need clarification.
Key points in revising a thesis statement:
Make sure that your paper reinforces your thesis statement at all times. One way to ensure this is by checking the use of the topic sentences throughout the essay:
- Do they have any relevance to the thesis statement?
- Do they pertain to the topic or argument?
If not, don't change your paper right away; see if you can revise the thesis statement to meet the needs of your essay. If you can't change the thesis, then change the essay.
Using diction in a thesis statement is important. Make sure the words comprising the statement are used correctly and help reinforce the claim.
Be direct, clear and concise. Do not use large, vague words unless they are necessary. Do not fluff the thesis statement. The goal of the thesis statement is to make sure the reader understands the topic on hand. Don't confuse him/her with a big, flowery sentence.
If the essay is argumentative, be assertive!!
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A Check List:
Here is a list of questions to help determine the strength of your thesis statement. After revising the working thesis into a more effective statement, ask yourself the following:
- Does my thesis statement introduce readers to the argument or claim headlining the essay?
- Will this thesis evoke discussions or arguments? Can it be opposed? Or is it merely a factual statement?
- Is my thesis obscure? Is it too general? Would making it more specific be helpful for readers?
- Does my thesis guide the essay? Is it the foundation for the topics discussed in the essay?
- Is it clear that the progression of the essay pertains to the thesis statement?
- Are my word choices in the thesis statement correct? Are all the words used in the right context? Could I make the sentence stronger by cutting unnecessary words?
- If I am writing a research paper, does my thesis place the essay and reader into a larger, contemporary scholastic discourse?
- Overall, do I feel comfortable with and confident about the final revision of the thesis statement? Do I feel that it would pique a reader's interest?
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- by Patrick Williams