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Writing a Thesis Statement

Whether you write it first or last, a strong thesis statement is a crucial piece of a top-quality paper. It clarifies exactly what you’re writing about and lays the foundation for your argument. Here’s how to improve your thesis statement in three steps.

When you’re done with your paper, take a moment to run it through an online grammar check like the one right here on Citation Machine.

Step 1: Identify Your Purpose

There are three main paper types: argumentative, expository, and analytical. There are also paper subtypes, such as the persuasive essay (which is a type of argumentative writing) or the reflective essay (which is an analytical paper). However, every essay can be sorted into one of these three categories.

The type of paper you’re writing will determine how you write your thesis statement. In an argumentative paper, the thesis statement is also called the claim, because it states a point that you’re trying to make. An analytical paper’s thesis statement is typically called just that: it’s an idea that you’re suggesting based on existing materials. Finally, an expository paper contains a topic sentence. This is because you are writing about a specific area or object, and not just an idea.

Claim:

  • Argumentative
  • Persuasive
  • Debatable point
  • Terminology may need to be defined to clarify the argument

Thesis Statement:

  • Proposes a new idea
  • Reflects on learning
  • “Digs deep” into a topic
  • Involves some theoretical thinking

Topic Sentence

  • Indicates a specific topic discussed
  • Is limited to a specific scope of study
  • Is rarely readily debatable

These three types of thesis statement and their varying names lead you to your next step: learning.

Step 2: Research

It can be tempting to latch onto an intriguing thesis statement and run with it, looking for evidence that supports your claim or topic sentence. However, it’s better to do some thorough research before hanging your hat on a thesis statement. Why?

  • You may find your opinion changes with research
  • There may not be much trustworthy information to support your ideas
  • The specific focus of your paper may change once you’ve gathered evidence from reliable sources

Once you have a general idea of what you’re going to write about, and what type of paper you’re writing, do your research. This may be based on a professor’s assignment (What social, political, or technological development most contributed to the rise of the European feudal system?), or it may be based on your own areas of interest (Choose an aspect of modern public policy to explain). Get as much information as you can, and start loosely organizing it by comparing and contrasting facts. This will also help you when it’s time to create your works cited page or annotated bibliography.

Once you have a strong body of information, see if your initial idea for a thesis statement still works.

Step 3: Be Specific

The golden rule of a thesis statement is be concise. The thesis statement is not the place to add evidence, reasoning, or specifics. It’s the simplest possible phrase you can think of to present your idea. The hook (beginning introduction) of your paper can be wild, but the thesis statement should be short and sharp. Leave no room for confusion.

  • A good example of a strong claim is: “Poaching damages local ecosystems.”
  • A weak example of a claim is: “Poaching damages ecosystems and is illegal, too.”

Illegality is a tangent. It shouldn’t be part of the thesis statement because it blurs the focus of the paper.

  • A strong analytical thesis statement for an English paper may read: “Keats’ poems represent the unrealistic ideology of the Romantic movement.”
  • A weaker analytic thesis statement might read: “Keats was a Romantic poem, and his poems showed impossible ideas, just like other Romantic era writers, like Brontë.”

Mentioning other poets and lengthening the thesis statement makes it unclear which poet is the focus of the paper, and why.

  • A strong topic sentence for a science paper could be: “True hibernation differs from partial hibernation in many ways.”
  • The weaker sentence could say: “Hibernation isn’t always sleeping a whole winter, because there are different ways different animals hibernate.”

The second sentence here makes it unclear whether the focus is on how different animals hibernate, or on hibernation itself.

Check Yourself

If you’ve done it right, your thesis statement will “pop” when you’re done with your paper. It will be short and sweet, clearly stating your main focus. Each paragraph of your paper will relate back to it clearly. And if a reader were asked what the paper was about, he or she should answer in a way that clearly reflects the thesis statement.

If you can check these off, you’re ready to sharpen your works cited page and make sure your evidence fulfills your awesome thesis statement!

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How do I make a strong argument?

Good thesis: Makes a strong argument

The point of a thesis, ultimately, is to posit an argument that you will then support through the rest of the paper. So a good thesis will put forth a strong statement that 1) needs proving and 2) can be proven with the information in the rest of the essay.

Example:

Ultimately, an environment of rampant piracy helps no one and hurts all artists trying to make a living from creative work.

A paper arguing about media piracy might use this sentence as a thesis statement. It’s an opinion or a theory, not a given fact, and could be argued against. It’s the kind of statement that takes a definitive stance and clearly leads into supporting arguments to follow. That’s where your research will come in – and make sure to cite everything properly, whether the guidelines call for an annotated bibliography, Chicago in-text citation, or something else entirely!

Bad thesis: Does not make an argument or states a simple fact

When it comes to the actual argument of a thesis, there are two major pitfalls that writers may fall into. The first: writing a thesis that doesn’t actually make an argument that lends itself to evidence. The second: stating a simple fact that doesn’t need proving because it’s already assumed to be true, even by someone with no knowledge of the field.

Let’s try turning the above example into a sentence like this.

According to these studies, there is an environment of rampant piracy in this country.

There is no real argument here, especially given the clause “according to these studies,” which means that evidence has already been referenced. This is not a thesis, but a conclusion.

How long is a thesis statement?

Good thesis: A complex sentence

An okay thesis might be a straightforward sentence, but a truly excellent one is likely to be a longer sentence with multiple clauses. Why? Because the best theses make an argument that also includes context, reasons, or acknowledgement of opposing views.

Example:

While some readings may suggest that Romeo and Juliet is about the foolishness of impetuous young love between naïve, hyper-emotional partners, the play is more overtly a critique of feud culture and its effects on future generations.

Here, the author would acknowledge the validity of another viewpoint, but argue that theirs is, ultimately, the best or most accurate one – and then the paper would proceed to present evidence. Having this complex sentence for a thesis statement opens up avenues for a thoughtful paper that ultimately makes a stronger argument because it doesn’t pretend alternatives don’t exist, but answers the “why?” question of why its argument should win.

Bad thesis: A simple statement

When you’re first learning how to write essays, simple statements are the norm, but as you advance in your writing, theses should become more advanced as well. A short sentence is not likely to contain the kind of in-depth or multifaceted argument that you’ll need in order to support a thoughtful paper.

The play Romeo and Juliet is about the dangers of feud culture.

Not incorrect, but not great either. A simple statement like this isn’t a good thesis because it barely scratches the surface; a great thesis will dig deeper.

How do I stick to a clear topic?

Good thesis: Stays on topic

When writing a thesis statement, it’s important to stay close to the prompt. A thesis statement is designed to provide a road map for what’s to come, and if it’s not clear, then the rest of the paper is likely to be unclear or disorganized, too. This is especially true for compare and contrast style prompts, where the writer is asked not to make a new argument of their own, but to find meaning in the relationship between existing arguments. Let’s try one:

Example:

While Brecht’s analysis focuses on the political aspects and how the play’s adaptation fit into the development of his own theatrical paradigm, Nussbaum analyzes from a more theoretical, literary approach, discussing language and moral ambiguities in the context of Hegelian dialectic and revealing the manipulation of paradigm within the universe of the play itself.

The author here sticks to a clear topic: the relationship between two theorists’ takes on a single play. By finding a common theme that is addressed differently – “paradigms” – the writer makes an “argument” as to what that relationship is. Staying on topic is no different than sticking to MLA format: it’s about checking your work to follow directions.

Bad thesis: Has no specific topic

If you create a thesis statement and it doesn’t narrow down a broad topic to something specific, you probably need to do some reworking. A weak version of the complex thesis above might look something like this:

Brecht and Nussbaum both analyze the play, but differently.

Although this is, technically, an opinion statement (one could theoretically argue that two analyses are similar rather than different), it’s a weak one that provides no guidance for the rest of the essay. We need specifics to tie it together and form a strong road map for the paper.