Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Thesis Statements
Defining the Thesis Statement
What is a thesis statement?
Every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.
How long does it need to be?
A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the paper is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused.
Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis
Where is your thesis statement?
You should provide a thesis early in your essay -- in the introduction, or in longer essays in the second paragraph -- in order to establish your position and give your reader a sense of direction.
Tip: In order to write a successful thesis statement:
- Avoid burying a great thesis statement in the middle of a paragraph or late in the paper.
- Be as clear and as specific as possible; avoid vague words.
- Indicate the point of your paper but avoid sentence structures like, “The point of my paper is…”
Is your thesis statement specific?
Your thesis statement should be as clear and specific as possible. Normally you will continue to refine your thesis as you revise your argument(s), so your thesis will evolve and gain definition as you obtain a better sense of where your argument is taking you.
Tip: Check your thesis:
- Are there two large statements connected loosely by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. "and," "but," "or," "for," "nor," "so," "yet")?
- Would a subordinating conjunction help (i.e. "through," "although," "because," "since") to signal a relationship between the two sentences?
- Or do the two statements imply a fuzzy unfocused thesis?
- If so, settle on one single focus and then proceed with further development.
Is your thesis statement too general?
Your thesis should be limited to what can be accomplished in the specified number of pages. Shape your topic so that you can get straight to the "meat" of it. Being specific in your paper will be much more successful than writing about general things that do not say much. Don't settle for three pages of just skimming the surface.
The opposite of a focused, narrow, crisp thesis is a broad, sprawling, superficial thesis. Compare this original thesis (too general) with three possible revisions (more focused, each presenting a different approach to the same topic):
- Original thesis:
- There are serious objections to today's horror movies.
- Revised theses:
- Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.
- The pornographic violence in "bloodbath" slasher movies degrades both men and women.
- Today's slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.
Is your thesis statement clear?
Your thesis statement is no exception to your writing: it needs to be as clear as possible. By being as clear as possible in your thesis statement, you will make sure that your reader understands exactly what you mean.
Tip: In order to be as clear as possible in your writing:
- Unless you're writing a technical report, avoid technical language. Always avoid jargon, unless you are confident your audience will be familiar with it.
- Avoid vague words such as "interesting,” "negative," "exciting,” "unusual," and "difficult."
- Avoid abstract words such as "society," “values,” or “culture.”
These words tell the reader next to nothing if you do not carefully explain what you mean by them. Never assume that the meaning of a sentence is obvious. Check to see if you need to define your terms (”socialism," "conventional," "commercialism," "society"), and then decide on the most appropriate place to do so. Do not assume, for example, that you have the same understanding of what “society” means as your reader. To avoid misunderstandings, be as specific as possible.
Compare the original thesis (not specific and clear enough) with the revised version (much more specific and clear):
- Original thesis: Although the timber wolf is a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated. [if it's so timid and gentle -- why is it being exterminated?]
- Revised thesis: Although the timber wolf is actually a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated because people wrongfully believe it to be a fierce and cold-blooded killer.
Does your thesis include a comment about your position on the issue at hand?
The thesis statement should do more than merely announce the topic; it must reveal what position you will take in relation to that topic, how you plan to analyze/evaluate the subject or the issue. In short, instead of merely stating a general fact or resorting to a simplistic pro/con statement, you must decide what it is you have to say.
- Avoid merely announcing the topic; your original and specific "angle" should be clear. In this way you will tell your reader why your take on the issue matters.
- Original thesis: In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between fairy tales and early childhood.
- Revised thesis: Not just empty stories for kids, fairy tales shed light on the psychology of young children.
- Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues.
- Original thesis: We must save the whales.
- Revised thesis: Because our planet's health may depend upon biological diversity, we should save the whales.
- When you make a (subjective) judgment call, specify and justify your reasoning. “Just because” is not a good reason for an argument.
- Original thesis: Socialism is the best form of government for Kenya.
- Revised thesis: If the government takes over industry in Kenya, the industry will become more efficient.
- Avoid merely reporting a fact. Say more than what is already proven fact. Go further with your ideas. Otherwise… why would your point matter?
- Original thesis: Hoover's administration was rocked by scandal.
- Revised thesis: The many scandals of Hoover's administration revealed basic problems with the Republican Party's nominating process.
Do not expect to come up with a fully formulated thesis statement before you have finished writing the paper. The thesis will inevitably change as you revise and develop your ideas—and that is ok! Start with a tentative thesis and revise as your paper develops.
Is your thesis statement original?
Avoid, avoid, avoid generic arguments and formula statements. They work well to get a rough draft started, but will easily bore a reader. Keep revising until the thesis reflects your real ideas.
Tip: The point you make in the paper should matter:
- Be prepared to answer “So what?” about your thesis statement.
- Be prepared to explain why the point you are making is worthy of a paper. Why should the reader read it?
Compare the following:
- Original thesis:
- There are advantages and disadvantages to using statistics. (a fill-in-the-blank formula)
- Revised theses:
- Careful manipulation of data allows a researcher to use statistics to support any claim she desires.
- In order to ensure accurate reporting, journalists must understand the real significance of the statistics they report.
- Because advertisers consciously and unconsciously manipulate data, every consumer should learn how to evaluate statistical claims.
Avoid formula and generic words. Search for concrete subjects and active verbs, revising as many "to be" verbs as possible. A few suggestions below show how specific word choice sharpens and clarifies your meaning.
- Original: “Society is...” [who is this "society" and what exactly is it doing?]
- Revised: "Men and women will learn how to...," "writers can generate...," "television addicts may chip away at...," "American educators must decide...," "taxpayers and legislators alike can help fix..."
- Original: "the media"
- Revised: "the new breed of television reporters," "advertisers," "hard-hitting print journalists," "horror flicks," "TV movies of the week," "sitcoms," "national public radio," "Top 40 bop-til-you-drop..."
- Original: "is, are, was, to be" or "to do, to make"
- Revised: any great action verb you can concoct: "to generate," "to demolish," "to batter," "to revolt," "to discover," "to flip," "to signify," "to endure..."
Use your own words in thesis statements; avoid quoting. Crafting an original, insightful, and memorable thesis makes a distinct impression on a reader. You will lose credibility as a writer if you become only a mouthpiece or a copyist; you will gain credibility by grabbing the reader with your own ideas and words.
A well-crafted thesis statement reflects well-crafted ideas. It signals a writer who has intelligence, commitment, and enthusiasm.
DEFINITIONS OF WRITING TERMS
Alliteration: The repetition of the same sound in successive words, usually, but not necessarily, at the beginning of words: Blown buds of barren flowers...
Apostrophe: A figure of speech in which the absent is addressed as if present, the dead as if alive, or the inanimate and abstract as if animate and concrete: Come, Sleep; O Sleep!
Argumentation: Writing or speaking in which reasons or arguments are presented in a logical way.
Arrangement: The order in which details are placed or organized in a piece of writing.
Audience: Those people who read or hear what you have written; readers to whom a piece of writing is addressed.
Balance: The arranging of words or phrases so that two ideas are given equal emphasis in a sentence or paragraph; a pleasing rhythm created when a pattern is repeated in a sentence.
Body: The paragraphs between the introduction and conclusion that develop the main idea(s) of the writing.
Brainstorming: Collecting ideas by thinking freely and openly about all the possibilities; used often with groups.
Central idea: The main point of a piece of writing, often stated in a thesis statement or topic sentence.
Clincher sentence: The sentence that summarizes the point being made in a paragraph, usually located at the end.
Coherence: The arrangement of ideas in such a way that the reader can easily follow from one point to the next.
Composition: A process in which a writer's ideas are combined into one unified piece of writing.
Deductive reasoning: The act of reasoning from a general idea to a specific point or conclusion.
Definition: (See Extended definition, below)
Description: Writing that paints a colorful picture of a person, place, thing, or idea using vivid sensory details.
Details: The words used to describe a person, support an argument, persuade an audience, explain a process, or in some way support the central idea.
Emphasis: Placing greater stress on the most important idea in a piece of writing by giving it special treatment; emphasis can be achieved by placing the important idea in a special position, by repeating a key word or phrase, or by simply writing more about it.
Essay: A piece of factual writing in which ideas on a single topic are presented, explained, argued, or described in an interesting way.
Exposition: Writing that explains.
Expressive writing: Writing in which the author's primary purpose is to describe or communicate personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions.
Extended definition: Writing that goes beyond a simple definition of a term in order to make a point; it can cover several paragraphs and include personal definitions and experiences, figures of speech, and quotations.
Figurative language: Language that goes beyond the normal meaning of the words used; writing in which a figure of speech is used to heighten or color the meaning.
Focus: Concentration on a specific subject to give it emphasis or importance.
Form: The arrangement of the details into a pattern or style; the way in which the content of writing is organized.
Free writing: Writing openly and freely on any topic; focused free writing is writing openly on a specific topic.
Generalization: An idea or statement which emphasizes general characteristics rather than specific manifestations.
Grammar: The study of the structure and features of language; rules and standards which are to be followed to produce acceptable writing and speaking.
Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which there is conscious exaggeration for the sake of emphasis: His hands dangled a mile out of his sleeves.
Idiom: A phrase or expression which means something other than what the words actually say. An idiom is usually understandable to a particular group of people: Up the Boohai (a New Zealand idiom meaning "all wrong.")
Inductive reasoning: Reasoning which leads one to a conclusion or generalization after examining specific examples or facts; drawing generalizations from specific evidence.
Inverted sentence: A sentence in which the normal word order is inverted or switched, usually so that the verb comes before the subject.
Irony: A figure of speech in which what is meant is emphasized by asserting the opposite: You're going to love what the wrecker did to your car.
Issue: A point or question to be decided.
Jargon: The technical language of a particular group that is inappropriate in most formal writing since it is frequently not understandable by those outside the group.
Journal: A daily record of thoughts, impressions, and autobiographical information, often a source of ideas for writing.
Juxtaposition: Placing two ideas (words or pictures) side by side so that their closeness creates a new, often ironic, meaning.
Limiting the subject: Narrowing the subject to a specific topic that is suitable for the writing or speaking assignment.
Literal: The actual or dictionary meaning of a word; language that means exactly what it appears to mean.
Loaded words: Words that are slanted for or against the subject.
Logic: The science of correct reasoning; correctly using facts, examples, and reasons to support the point.
Malapropism: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (Merriam Webster): "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder"(Richard Daley, former Chicago mayor).
Metaphor: A figure of speech that makes an implied comparison of two unlike things by declaring them to be identical: The ship plowed the seas.
Metonymy: A figure of speech in which one word is used in place of another word that it suggests: He loves to read Dickens (Dickens' work); or the substitution of the part for the whole - I saw fifty sails (ships with sails).
Modifier: A word, phrase, or clause that limits, alters, or describes another word or group of words.
Narration: Writing that tells a story or recounts an event.
Objective: Relating information in an impersonal manner; without interjecting feelings or opinions.
Observation: Paying close attention to people, places, things, and events to collect details for later use.
Onomatopoeia: The use of words in which the sound suggests the sense: The silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain...
Overview: A general idea of what is to be covered in a piece of writing.
Oxymoron: A two-word phrase containing contradictory elements: jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, numb feeling.
Personal narrative: Personal writing that covers an event in the writer's life; it often contains personal comments and ideas as well as a description of the event.
Personification: A figure of speech in which abstract qualities or inanimate and natural objects are given the attributes of human beings: Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful.
Persuasion: Writing that is meant to change the way the reader thinks or acts.
Point of view: The position or angle from which a story is told, for example, first-person ("I"), third-person ("he").
Process: A method of doing something that involves several steps or stages; for example, the writing process involves prewriting, planning, writing, and revising.
Prose: Writing or speaking in the usual or ordinary form; prose becomes poetry when it is given rhyme or rhythm.
Pun: A play upon words of the same sound but of different meanings or upon different meanings of the same word: They went and told the sexton and the sexton tolled the bell.
Purpose: The specific reason a person has for writing; the goal of writing, for example, to inform, entertain, or persuade.
Revision: Changing a piece of writing to improve it in style or content.
Simile: A figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things, using words such as like, as, or than: The fallen leaves wandered like lost children through the empty streets.
Spontaneity: Doing, thinking, or writing without planning.
Subjective: Thinking and writing that includes personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions.
Theme: The central idea in a piece of writing (lengthy writings may have several themes); a term sometimes used to describe a short essay.
Thesis statement: A statement of the purpose, intent, or main idea of an essay.
Tone: The writer's attitude toward the subject; for example, a writer's tone may be light, serious, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, solemn, or objective.
Topic: The specific subject of a piece of writing.
Topic sentence: The sentence that contains the main idea of a paragraph.
Transitions: Words or phrases that help clarify the relationships between ideas and tie them together, for example, nevertheless, moreover, most important, as a result.
Unity: A sense of oneness; writing in which each sentence helps to develop the main idea.
Usage: The way in which people use language; usage may be standard (formal and informal) or nonstandard.
Vivid details: Details which appeal to the senses and help the reader see, feel, smell, taste, and hear the subject.