11.2 How to Write a Thesis Statement

Whether you are writing a short essay or a doctoral dissertation, your thesis statement will arguably be the most difficult sentence to formulate. An effective thesis statement states the central message of a composition and, therefore, functions to control, assert and structure your entire argument. Without a sound thesis, your argument may sound weak, lacking in direction, and uninteresting to the reader.

Ensure your thesis is provable

Hand holding a camera lens in front of a blurry field of sunflowers; through the lens they are clearDo not come up with your thesis and then try to hunt down research to prove it later. Doing this often results in an undefensible thesis or poor arguments because the evidence didn’t exist or is insufficient to prove your point. The thesis is the end point of your research, not the beginning. You need to use a thesis you can actually back up with the research and evidence you’ve collected.

Start with a question — then make the answer your thesis

Regardless of how complicated the subject is, almost any thesis can be constructed by answering a question.

  • Question mark drawn in yellow chalk on black pavementQuestion: “What are the benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade classroom?”
    • Thesis: “Computers allow fourth graders an early advantage in technological and scientific education.”
  • Question: “Why is the Mississippi River so important in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn?”
    • Thesis: “The river comes to symbolize both division and progress, as it separates our characters and country while still providing the best chance for Huck and Jim to get to know one another.”
  • Question: “Why do people seem to get angry at vegans, feminists, and other ‘morally righteous’ subgroups?”
    • Thesis: “Through careful sociological study, we’ve found that people naturally assume that “morally righteous” people look down on them as “inferior,” causing anger and conflict where there generally is none.”

If, as part of your research process, you wrote a research question, you’ve already got a start on shaping a thesis statement by asking a question. Simply state, in one or a few sentences, your answer to the research question, asserting your views about your topic. If you don’t have such a question, consider the research you’ve done so far and think up a question you can answer based on the research you’ve done.

Tailor your thesis to the type of paper you’re writing

Not all essays persuade, and not all essays teach. The goals of your composition will help you find the best thesis.

  • Analytical: Breaks down something to better examine and understand it.
    • Ex. “This dynamic between different generations sparks much of the play’s tension, as age becomes a motive for the violence and unrest that rocks King Lear.”
  • Expository: Teaches or illuminates a point.
    • Ex. “The explosion of 1800’s philosophies like Positivism, Marxism, and Darwinism undermined and refuted Christianity to instead focus on the real, tangible world.”
  • Argumentative: Makes a claim, or backs up an opinion, to change other peoples’ minds.
    • Ex. “Without the steady hand and specific decisions of Barack Obama, America would never have recovered from the hole it entered in the early 2000’s.”

Whatever your purpose for writing, your thesis statement expresses your views on your subject. But it should also fit with the goals of the composition you are writing.

Get the sound right

hand holding white megaphoneYou want your thesis statement to be identifiable as a thesis statement. You do this by taking a very particular tone and using specific kinds of phrasing and words. Use words like “because,” suggesting results or consequences, and language that is firm, direct, and definitive.

Example thesis statements with good statement language include:

  • “Because of William the Conqueror’s campaign into England, that nation developed the strength and culture it would need to eventually build the British Empire.”
  • “Hemingway significantly changed literature by normalizing simplistic writing and frank tone.”

Know where to place a thesis statement

Because of the role thesis statements play, they appear at the beginning of the paper, usually at the end of the first paragraph or somewhere in the introduction. Although most people look for the thesis at the end of the first paragraph, its location can depend on a number of factors such as how lengthy of an introduction you need before you can introduce your thesis or the length of your paper.

Limit a thesis statement to one or a few sentences in length

Thesis statements are clear and to the point, which helps the reader identify the topic and direction of the paper, as well as your position towards the subject. If it gets too long, the central point you are making gets lost.