4.B: Formulating a Thesis (Strategy 1)


Guidelines for Drafting a Thesis Statement

Cartoon drawing of a car speeding down a hill. Over it, the word "Problem" is connected by arrows to the word "thesis"


It helps to understand why readers value the arguable thesis. What larger purpose does it serve? Readers will bring a set of expectations to an essay. If writers can anticipate the expectations of their readers, the better they will be able to persuade the audience to find the arguments convincing, interesting, and relevant.

Academic readers (and readers more generally) read to learn something new. They want to see the writer challenge commonplaces—either everyday assumptions about the object of study or truisms in the scholarly literature. In other words, academic readers want to be surprised so that their thinking shifts or at least becomes more complex by the time they finish reading an essay. Good essays problematize what we think we know and offer an alternative explanation in its place. They leave their reader with a fresh perspective on a problem.

We all bring important past experiences and beliefs to our interpretations of texts, objects, and problems. Writers can harness these observational powers to engage critically with what they are studying. The key is to be alert to what strikes you as strange, problematic, paradoxical, or puzzling about your topic. If writers can articulate this and a claim in response, they are well on their way to formulating an arguable thesis in the introduction.

How do I set up a “problem” and an arguable thesis in response?

All good writing has a purpose or motive for existing. The thesis is the writer’s surprising response to this problem or motive. This is why it seldom makes sense to start a writing project by articulating the thesis. The first step is to articulate the question or problem your paper addresses.

Cartoon drawing of a woman thinking "What's my 'problem'"?, with a title of Step 1.


Here are some possible ways to introduce a conceptual problem in your paper’s introduction.

1. Challenge a commonplace interpretation (or your own first impressions).

Cartoon drawing of a hand in the air, with a caption saying "Halt! Not so fast..."


How are readers likely to interpret this source or issue? What might intelligent readers think at first glance? (Or, if you’ve been given secondary sources or have been asked to conduct research to locate secondary sources, what do other writers or scholars assume is true or important about your primary source or issue?)

What does this commonplace interpretation leave out, overlook, or under-emphasize?

2. Help the reader see the complexity of your topic.


Cartoon drawing of a scroll of paper with phrases and drawings on it, to illustrate brainstorming

Identify and describe for the reader a paradox, puzzle, or contradiction in a primary source(s).

What larger questions does this paradox or contradiction raise for readers?

3. If research is part of the assignment, piggyback off another scholar’s research.


Cartoon drawing of one stick figure giving a piggyback ride to another, with the caption "Yipee!"

Summarize another scholar’s argument about the topic, primary source, or case study and explain to the reader why this claim is interesting and explain how the claim will extend this scholar’s argument to explore an issue or case study that the scholar doesn’t address fully.

4. If research is part of the assignment, identify a gap in another scholar’s or a group of scholars’ research.

Cartoon drawing of a woman looking through a magnifying glass to see a crack in a substance below her, captioned "A Gap!"


Summarize another scholar’s argument about your topic, primary source, or case study and explain to the reader why this claim is interesting. Or, summarize how scholars in the field tend to approach the topic.

Next, explain what important aspect this scholarly representation misses or distorts. Introduce the particular approach to the topic and its value

5. If research is part of the assignment, bring in a new lens for investigating the case study or problem.

Cartoon drawing of a pair of glasses, with the caption "Wow! Things look different now!"

Summarize how a scholar or group of scholars has approached the topic.

Introduce a theoretical source (possibly from another discipline) and explain how it helps to address this issue from a new and productive angle.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMTip: your introductory paragraph will probably look like this:


Cartoon drawing of a square. At the top is the word "Problem" emphasized, followed by "why it's significant." A line is drawn beneath this, with the word "Thesis" appearing below the line

Testing Your Thesis

Test a thesis statement’s arguability by asking the following questions:

lightbulbDoes the thesis only or mostly summarize a source?

If so, try some of the exercises above to articulate the paper’s conceptual problem or question.

lightbulbIs the thesis arguable –can it be supported by evidence, and is it surprising and contentious?

If not, return to the sources and practice the exercises above.

lightbulbIs the thesis about the primary source, or is it about the world?

If it’s about the world, revise it so that it focuses on primary source(s). Remember to include solid evidence to support the thesis.


“Formulating a Thesis” was written by Andrea Scott, Princeton University



I’d like to thank my current and former colleagues in the Princeton Writing Program for helping me think through and test ways of teaching the arguable thesis. Special thanks go to Kerry Walk, Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Judy Swan, and Keith Shaw. A shout-out to Mark Gaipa as well, whose cartoons on teaching source use remain a program favorite.

[1] Adapted from Erik Simpson’s “Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis” athttp://www.math.grinnell.edu/~simpsone/Teaching/fiveways.html