How to Write a Thesis Statement

How to Write a Thesis Statement
Strategies for Giving an Essay a Strong, Persuasive Opening

A focused, detailed, and specific thesis statement is the glue that holds an academic essay together. Here's how to construct and refine a paper's main argument.

The thesis statement is a sentence or two that forms the most critical part of an essay's introductory paragraph (sometimes referred to as a "thesis paragraph") and it is responsible for articulating the purpose, direction, and tone of an academic paper. Without a strong thesis statement, an essay lacks focus and the points made in the body paragraphs are in danger of reading as a series of unconnected observations rather than helping to build a clear, logical, step-by-step argument that comes together in the conclusion.
Writers are sometimes told not to worry about their essay's thesis statement or to write it at the end once the paper is complete. This advice is founded on a belief that writers who aren't sure what to say need to simply sit down and write and just see where the essay takes them. This practice is inadvisable -- meandering, unfocused papers are not salvaged by a thesis statement plopped into the introduction as an afterthought. In fact, writers who are unsure how to begin or what to say will benefit from the process of carefully planning a thesis statement. Remember, if the thesis lays out the argument for the reader and gives the paper a clear sense of direction, it does the same thing for the writer!
Identify the Essay Topic
The first step in formulating the thesis statement is to look closely at the instructor's essay topics, if he or she has provided any. Do the topics ask writers to take sides in a debate, to persuade the reader, to compare or contrast two things, or to examine an issue in close detail? The essay topics are a jumping-off point. Read them carefully to make sure the essay is actually going to answer or address the topic. For instance, if the instructor wants a paper that argues about whether red is better than blue, an essay that weighs the relative merits of both red and blue is not doing its job.
One cautionary note: while fledgling writers are often encouraged to use the essay topics themselves as the foundations for a thesis statement (ie. "democracy is important because...") the word-for-word repetition of an essay topic looks amateurish at the university level. Moreover, essay topics tend to be very general and vague to give students a sense of the possibilities for their papers, whereas thesis statements need to be focused, detailed and specific.
Articulate the Essay's Perspective on the Topic
The next step is to decide how to tackle the essay topic. It isn't enough to simply state what course materials or essay questions are under discussion; a thesis statement takes a position on the chosen topic. What does the essay have to say? How does it interpret the topic? What will it argue, prove, highlight, examine, illuminate, or draw attention to? Why does it take this particular stance? By laying out a clear argument for the paper, a writer is giving signals to a reader about how to interpret the evidence put forth in the body paragraphs.

Pay Attention to Scope
Again, thesis statements need to be focused, detailed and specific. Narrow down the argument to something manageable within the confines of the paper. An essay that promises to discuss all of humanity since the dawn of time is in trouble. There's no way to discuss vague, vast ideas like "freedom" or "survival" in a three-page essay, and there isn't room to discuss entire historical periods or social movements. Essays that try to cover too much never manage to cover very much at all.
The best way to ensure that the thesis statement lays out a manageable topic is to keep refining it until it becomes as detailed and specific as possible. A strong thesis statement should express only one main idea, and that idea needs to be engaging enough to merit a whole essay.
Thesis Statement Examples
Imagine an essay topic that asks for a discussion of symbols, motifs, and themes in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
"This essay explores symbols, motifs, and themes in The Wizard of Oz" is far too vague and general: what symbols, motifs, and themes? Why? What's my angle on the material? Can I cover all the symbols, motifs, and themes in Oz in one essay? It would be wise to narrow down my topic, but even narrowing it down to "This essay explores themes in The Wizard of Oz" is too general and it doesn't offer any interpretation of the material.
This, on the other hand, would provide a clear, focused, and narrow topic for a paper that still addresses the essay topic: "This paper argues that The Wizard of Oz contains an underlying theme of self-discovery; as the film's characters set off on their adventure and are pushed to their physical and emotional limits, they ultimately discover that they already posses the qualities they most desire."
Revise the Thesis Statement if Necessary
While a working thesis statement is essential throughout the process of writing the essay, some writers will find once they have completed a first draft that they had some new ideas or took some unexpected directions in the paper. Academic essays are not like lab reports, where the conclusion states whether the experiment's hypothesis is accepted or rejected -- if the thesis statement no longer "fits" the essay, it will need to be revised.
Checklist for a Strong Thesis Statement
• The thesis statement is relevant to the essay question
• The thesis statement articulates the essay's main idea and gives a clear angle on the essay topics and/or course material
• The thesis statement makes an argument that can be covered within the scope of the essay
• The thesis statement is detailed and specific rather than broad, general, or vague
• The thesis statement reflects the argument that is actually presented in the paper

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