Thesis Statements

A Thesis is:

  • The statement of the author’s position on a topic or subject.
  • Clear, concise, and goes beyond fact or observation to become an idea that needs to be supported.
  • Often a statement of tension, where the author refutes or complicates an existing assumption or claim (counterargument).
  • Often answers WHY or HOW questions related to the topic at hand.

A Thesis Statement is Not:

  • A statement of fact or observation (no matter how astute the observation).
  • A statement of personal conviction or opinion.
  • A generalization or overly broad claim.

For the writer, the thesis statement:

  • Helps the writer determine the essay’s real focus. What are you trying to say with the evidence presented? A thesis provides a theory to be tested by evidence.
  • Serves as a planning tool. The component parts of the thesis often correspond with the essay’s topic sentences.

For the reader, the thesis statement:

  • Serves as a “map” to guide the reader through the paper. In the same way the thesis helps you organize your paper, the thesis helps organize the reader’s thinking. Once a solid thesis is presented, the reader will understand that all of the evidence presented is in service of proving the thesis.
  • Creates a reason to keep reading, to discover the support behind the thesis.

If you are having trouble coming up with a thesis…

…ask yourself a genuine, difficult question about the topic (usually a “how” or “why” question), and state your response, even if you are not sure why you want to give that answer. Your response may very well be a workable thesis, and the pursuit of proving that answer may reveal to you more about your sources of evidence.

…think of a strong statement or observation you have made about the subject beginning with the words “In this essay, I will…” then ask yourself why this observation is important, or “So What?”1 Answer the question with “I believe this because…” In the draft stage you might phrase a working thesis as the following:

In this essay, I plan to explain how Mark Twain’s Adventure of Huckleberry Finn contrasts his river and shore scenes. I believe Twain is telling us that in order to find America’s true democratic ideals one must leave “civilized” society (the shore) and go back to nature (the river).

Then revise out the “I” statements. A revised version of this thesis might look like this:

Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.

Writing in the Disciplines

Keep in mind that thesis statements vary depending on the purpose of the assignment (or type of essay), and also by discipline. Here are a few notes on the thesis statements and the purpose of writing in a few different disciplines.2

English: “A thesis is an interpretive argument about a text or an aspect of a text. An interpretive argument is defined as one that makes a reasonable but contestable claim about a text; in other words, it is an opinion about a text that can be supported with textual evidence.”

Sciences (Biology): “A well-written scientific paper explains the scientist’s motivation for doing an experiment, the experimental design and execution, and the meaning of the results… The last sentences of the introduction should be a statement of objectives and a statement of hypotheses.”

Business: “When you write in business courses, you will usually write for a specific audience. Your goal will be to communicate in a straight-forward manner and with a clear purpose.”3

History: “In historical writing, a thesis explains the words or deeds of people in the past. It shows cause and effect; it answers the question why? A thesis must change a reader’s mind to be of value. If it presents only facts or an obvious finding, it will merely confirm what the reader already believes.”

Some Examples of Effective Thesis Statements:

The Reds won the 1990 World Series because of superior pitching, not because of bad calls by the umpires.4

An analysis of the available evidence reveals that, rather than being exploited, the women who worked in textile mills in Massachusetts at the turn of the 20th century shaped their experience for their own purposes, actively engaging in expanding the constricted opportunities for women. 5

It seems clear that the Union soldiers, particularly black soldiers, were killed after they had stopped fighting or had surrendered or were being held prisoner. Less clear is the role played by Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest in leading his troops. Although we will never know whether Major General Nathan Forrest directly ordered the massacre, evidence suggests that he was responsible for it.   ** Note that the author needed several sentences to set up his/her argument, first presenting the facts of the situation, then presenting the argument in the final sentence.

When California politicians revisit the mountain lion question, they should frame the issue in a new way. A future proposition should retain the ban on sport hunting but allow the Department of Fish and Game to control the population. Wildlife management would reduce the number of lion attacks on humans and in the long run would also protect the lions.7

Weak Thesis Statements and How to Fix Them

Here are some examples of weak thesis statements and how to fix them.8

Weak thesis: “This paper addresses the characteristics of a good corporate manager” (this thesis does not make a claim/is a statement of fact, it does not answer a “how” or “why” question).
Stronger thesis: “The very trait that makes for an effective corporate manager—the drive to succeed—can also make the leader domineering and, therefore, ineffective.” (This thesis raises a specific issue for the essay to explore).

Weak thesis: “The Jean industry targets its advertisements to appeal to young adults” (obviously true/statement of fact; does not answer a “how” or “why” question)
Stronger thesis: “By inventing new terms, such as ‘loose fit,’ and ‘relaxed fit,’ the jean industry has attempted to normalize, even glorify, its products for an older and heavier generation.” (readers can agree/disagree with this claim).

Weak thesis: “Sir Thomas More’s Utopia proposes an unworkable set of solutions to society’s problems because, like communist Russia, it suppresses individualism” (this thesis argues on the basis of personal conviction or opinion and does not answer “how”).
Stronger thesis: “Sir Thomas More’s Utopia treats individualism as a serious but remarkable social problem. His radical treatment of what we might now call “socialization” attempts to redefine the meaning and origin of individual identity” (replaces opinion with a theory to be tested by evidence).

Weak thesis: “Violent revolutions have both positive and negative results for man” (thesis makes an overly broad claim).
Stronger thesis: “Although violent revolutions begin to redress long-standing social inequities, they often do so at the cost of long-term economic dysfunction and the suffering that attends it” (brings out complexity of subject and narrows focus)

  1. This strategy comes from Writing Analytically by Jill Stephen and David Rosenwasser.
  2. The following statements on writing in the disciplines have been borrowed from the Writing Guides found at the Writing Across the Curriculum website athttp://wac.gmu.edu/guides/GMU%20guides.html.
  3. From A Writer’s Reference, 6th Edition, with Writing in the Disciplines, by Diana Hacker.
  4. From Writing From A to Z, Third Edition
  5. Modified from Anatomy of Film, Third Edition by Bernard F. Dick
  6. Modified from A Writer’s Reference, 6th Edition, with Writing in the Disciplines, by Diana Hacker.
  7. From Rules for Writers, Fourth Edition by Diana Hacker
  8. This section is borrowed from Writing Analytically, by Jill Stephen and David Rosenwasser.
Last updated 7/30/2009
Posted in Introductions and Argument, Parts of the Essay, Writing Resources