WHAT THIS HANDOUT IS ABOUT
This handout describes what a thesis statement is, how thesis statements work in your writing, and how you can craft or refine one for your draft.
Writing in college often takes the form of persuasion—convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you are studying. Persuasion is a skill you practice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up, your parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favorite candidate or policy. In college, course assignments often ask you to make a persuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your point of view. This form of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictable pattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your topic, you state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper.
WHAT IS A THESIS STATEMENT?
A thesis statement:
- tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
- is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
- directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
- makes a claim that others might dispute.
- is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.
If your assignment asks you to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor may assume you will include one. When in doubt, ask your instructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an assignment asks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstrate cause and effect, or to take a stand on an issue, it is likely that you are being asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively.
HOW DO I GET A THESIS?
A thesis is the result of a lengthy thinking process. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way.
Writers use all kinds of techniques to stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships or comprehend the broader significance of a topic and arrive at a thesis statement.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY THESIS IS STRONG?
If there’s time, run it by your instructor or make an appointment at the Writing Center to get some feedback. Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft and its working thesis,ask yourself the following:
- Do I answer the question? Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
- Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose?If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
- Is my thesis statement specific enough? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: why is something “good”; what specifically makes something “successful”?
- Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test? If a reader’s first response is, “So what?” then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
- Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering? If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It’s okay to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
- Does my thesis pass the “how and why?” test? If a reader’s first response is “how?” or “why?” your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.
Suppose you are taking a course on 19th-century America, and the instructor hands out the following essay assignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought the Civil War. You turn on the computer and type out the following:
- The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.
This weak thesis restates the question without providing any additional information. You will expand on this new information in the body of the essay, but it is important that the reader know where you are heading. A reader of this weak thesis might think, “What reasons? How are they the same? How are they different?” Ask yourself these same questions and begin to compare Northern and Southern attitudes (perhaps you first think, “The South believed slavery was right, and the North thought slavery was wrong”). Now, push your comparison toward an interpretation—why did one side think slavery was right and the other side think it was wrong? You look again at the evidence, and you decide that you are going to argue that the North believed slavery was immoral while the South believed it upheld the Southern way of life. You write:
- While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.
Now you have a working thesis! Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of how the two sides disagreed over this reason. As you write the essay, you will probably begin to characterize these differences more precisely, and your working thesis may start to seem too vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moral reasons, and that they just focused on different moral issues. You end up revising the working thesis into a final thesis that really captures the argument in your paper:
- While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.
Compare this to the original weak thesis. This final thesis presents a way of interpreting evidence that illuminates the significance of the question. Keep in mind that this is one of many possible interpretations of the Civil War—it is not the one and only right answer to the question. There isn’t one right answer; there are only strong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses of evidence.
Let’s look at another example. Suppose your literature professor hands out the following assignment in a class on the American novel: Write an analysis of some aspect of Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. “This will be easy,” you think. “I loved Huckleberry Finn!” You grab a pad of paper and write:
- Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.
Why is this thesis weak? Think about what the reader would expect from the essay that follows: you will most likely provide a general, appreciative summary of Twain’s novel. The question did not ask you to summarize; it asked you to analyze. Your professor is probably not interested in your opinion of the novel; instead, she wants you to think about why it’s such a great novel—what do Huck’s adventures tell us about life, about America, about coming of age, about race relations, etc.? First, the question asks you to pick an aspect of the novel that you think is important to its structure or meaning—for example, the role of storytelling, the contrasting scenes between the shore and the river, or the relationships between adults and children. Now you write:
- In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.
Here’s a working thesis with potential: you have highlighted an important aspect of the novel for investigation; however, it’s still not clear what your analysis will reveal. Your reader is intrigued, but is still thinking, “So what? What’s the point of this contrast? What does it signify?” Perhaps you are not sure yet, either. That’s fine—begin to work on comparing scenes from the book and see what you discover. Free write, make lists, jot down Huck’s actions and reactions. Eventually you will be able to clarify for yourself, and then for the reader, why this contrast matters. After examining the evidence and considering your own insights, you write:
- Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.
This final thesis statement presents an interpretation of a literary work based on an analysis of its content. Of course, for the essay itself to be successful, you must now present evidence from the novel that will convince the reader of your interpretation.
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Mr. Brynes of Leonardtown High School
Thesis Statement Guide Development Tool
Follow the steps below to formulate a thesis statement. All cells must contain text.
1. State your topic.
2. State your opinion/main idea about this topic.
This will form the heart of your thesis. An effective statement will
- express one major idea.
- name the topic and assert something specific about it.
- be a more specific statement than the topic statement above.
- take a stance on an issue about which reasonable people might disagree.
- state your position on or opinion about the issue.
3. Give the strongest reason or assertion that supports your opinion/main idea.
4. Give another strong reason or assertion that supports your opinion/main idea.
5. Give one more strong reason or assertion that supports your opinion/main idea.
6. Include an opposing viewpoint to your opinion/main idea, if applicable. This should be an argument for the opposing view that you admit has some merit, even if you do not agree with the overall viewpoint.
7. Provide a possible title for your essay.
Thesis Statement Guide Results
Thesis Statement Model #1: Sample Thesis Statement
Parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch.
Thesis Statement Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Notice that this model makes a concession by addressing an argument from the opposing viewpoint first, and then uses the phrase "even though" and states the writer's opinion/main idea as a rebuttal.
Even though television can be educational, parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch.
Thesis Statement Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Here, the use of "because" reveals the reasons behind the writer's opinion/main idea.
parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch because it shortens children's attention spans, it inhibits social interaction, and it isn't always intellectually stimulating.
Thesis Statement Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons
This model both makes a concession to opposing viewpoint and states the reasons/arguments for the writer's main idea.
While television can be educational, parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch because it inhibits social interaction, shortens children's attention spans, and isn't always intellectually stimulating.
Remember: These thesis statements are generated based on the answers provided on the form. Use the Thesis Statement Guide as many times as you like. Your ideas and the results are anonymous and confidential. When you build a thesis statement that works for you, ensure that it addresses the assignment. Finally, you may have to rewrite the thesis statement so that the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct.
Thesis Statement Guide: Sample Outline
Use the outline below, which is based on the five–paragraph essay model, when drafting a plan for your own essay. This is meant as a guide only, so we encourage you to revise it in a way that works best for you.
Start your introduction with an interesting "hook" to reel your reader in. An introduction can begin with a rhetorical question, a quotation, an anecdote, a concession, an interesting fact, or a question that will be answered in your paper. The idea is to begin broadly and gradually bring the reader closer to the main idea of the paper. At the end of the introduction, you will present your thesis statement. The thesis statement model used in this example is a thesis with reasons.
Even though television can be educational , parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch because it shortens children's attention spans, it inhibits social interaction, and it is not always intellectually stimulating
First, parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch because it shortens children's attention spans.
Notice that this Assertion is the first reason presented in the thesis statement. Remember that the thesis statement is a kind of "mapping tool" that helps you organize your ideas, and it helps your reader follow your argument. In this body paragraph, after the Assertion, include any evidence–a quotation, statistic, data–that supports this first point. Explain what the evidence means. Show the reader how this entire paragraph connects back to the thesis statement.
Additionally, it inhibits social interaction.
The first sentence of the second body paragraph should reflect an even stronger Assertion to support the thesis statement. Generally, the second point listed in the thesis statement should be developed here. Like with the previous paragraph, include any evidence–a quotation, statistic, data–that supports this point after the Assertion. Explain what the evidence means. Show the reader how this entire paragraph connects back to the thesis statement.
Finally, the most important reason parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch is it is not always intellectually stimulating.
Your strongest point should be revealed in the final body paragraph. Also, if it's appropriate, you can address and refute any opposing viewpoints to your thesis statement here. As always, include evidence–a quotation, statistic, data–that supports your strongest point. Explain what the evidence means. Show the reader how this entire paragraph connects back to the thesis statement.
Indeed, while television can be educational, parents should regulate the amount of television their children watch.
Rephrase your thesis statement in the first sentence of the conclusion. Instead of summarizing the points you just made, synthesize them. Show the reader how everything fits together. While you don't want to present new material here, you can echo the introduction, ask the reader questions, look to the future, or challenge your reader.
Remember: This outline is based on the five–paragraph model. Expand or condense it according to your particular assignment or the size of your opinion/main idea. Again, use the Thesis Statement Guide as many times as you like, until you reach a thesis statement and outline that works for you.