The Thesis Statement
The thesis is typically a one-sentence statement of the central idea you are defending. Whether an essay argues,
explains, or describes, readers need a concise statement that sums up the essay’s purpose. The following section outlines
a process for developing a sound thesis statement.
1. Develop Your Thesis by Starting with Your Topic
What do you find interesting about your topic? Maybe just one part of it is intriguing; or, perhaps the topic itself makes
many thoughts come to mind. Take a moment to think about how you respond to the topic—and value your perspective!
This is a sign that you are intellectually engaged. You’ll write more passionately when you’re involved.
2. Write a General Thesis Statement to Guide Your First Draft
Jenny took pressure off herself when starting her psychology paper. She wrote, “I’m interested in Erikson’s theory of
personality development because it explains some of my high school experiences.” Then she started to free write, piecing
together ideas with material she’d read earlier and learned in class.
You are the intended audience of your first draft. Use it to explore your thoughts, make associations, and ask yourself
questions. If it helps, write from the first person “I” point of view. Writer-based prose lets your brain engage the topic;
ideas flow easily, and writing is enjoyable. Don’t edit your writing or thoughts at this stage, and don’t worry about using a
formal academic voice, unless it’s natural to do. You’ll tidy up academic voice and other formal concerns later.
3. Refine Your Thesis After You Write a Draft
After writing five pages, Jenny stopped and read her draft. Noting that it discussed mainly one stage of Erikson’s theory,
she revised her thesis: “Erikson’s fifth stage of personality development, identity versus role development, explains my
deviant behavior in high school.”
Notice how Jenny’s thesis is sounding more focused and academic, even though it still refers to personal experience. Her
first thesis guided her drafting so she could discover what really interested her. Then after reading the draft objectively—
as a reader, not a writer—she let the draft guide her revision of the thesis. When drafting (especially free writing), once
you get into the flow, your ideas tend to focus themselves rather than follow the thesis.
4. Let Research Focus Your Thesis
Focusing her research to Erikson’s fifth stage, Jenny discovered that her reason for acting up in high school was role
development; ever the individualist, she could never be the team player that Chess Club expected of her. She revised her
thesis again: “Erikson’s fifth stage of personality development, identity versus role development, accounts for what is
seen as deviant behavior by highly talented and motivated adolescents.”
Keep researching while drafting, because new information helps you make more connections for your argument. It also
helps focus your thesis statement, moving it from an “I-oriented” assertion into an arguable, academically acceptable
statement. Take advantage of the drafting process to craft your thesis statement. Your focus and ideas often change
during writing; don’t expect to nail down your thesis statement before you’ve even written anything. Sometimes you have
to produce a draft to discover your thesis.
The next section discusses characteristics of the thesis statement.
Thesis Statement Characteristics
1. A thesis is a declarative statement, not a question.
“The thesis statement is your answer to the central question or problem you have raised” (Gibaldi 49-50). Academic
writing conventions demand that you provide your answer to the problem at hand in a concise thesis statement. Because
your essay poses a question (perhaps not explicitly, but one exists under the surface), phrase your thesis in the form of a
statement, not a question.
“What are effective prevention strategies for feline AIDS?” is not a good thesis for a final draft because it states a
question, but it can get the process started, especially research. After researching feline AIDS, the writer revised his
thesis to, “To prevent feline AIDS, cat owners should keep their cats indoors as much as possible”: This academically
acceptable thesis is a declarative statement asserting a position (“should’) that requires defending. (Note: using a
question in your introduction before the thesis is acceptable, since rhetorical questions can invigorate your prose style.)
2. A thesis takes a stand; it doesn’t just state a fact.
Because a thesis asserts your stance on an issue, and because your purpose for writing is to persuade (even if you feel
your interpretation of the Canterbury Tales offers nothing new to Chaucer studies), be bold and state your position
“Chaucer ‘s Canterbury Tales contains stories told by pilgrims traveling to St. Thomas a Becket’s shrine” is not a good
thesis because it simply states a fact. Mull that fact over and push it around so that you can assert something about it:
how does the pilgrimage framework impact the stories? Medieval travelers needed to entertain themselves, so they told
stories. You reflect how storytellers can’t help competing when they hear someone else tell a good tale. Perceiving a spirit
of one-upmanship in the narrators of the tales themselves, you notice that the pilgrimage framework takes on a new
dimension. Revise your thesis to reflect your observations: “Chaucer employs the pilgrimage framework in the Canterbury
Tales as a metaphor for the storyteller’s quest for the perfectly told narrative.” This thesis statement makes an assertion
that must be defended through research and interpretation; although someone else may have defended this same
assertion before, how you understand a text to make meaning, and your ability to explain how it does so, are important
in literary studies. Your approach might turn out to be entirely groundbreaking.
3. A thesis states a position on a topic; the title and introduction announce the topic.
The town crier was crying the day’s news: “The king has a new wife!” Interested, you cross the market square. “Tell me
more, town crier,” you ask. Wiping the spittle from his lips, he looks at you, smiles, and says, “The king has a new wife.”
“This paper explores America’s dependence on fossil fuels and hesitance to develop alternative energy sources” is a bad
thesis because, at heart, it only describes your topic. If properly written, your essay’s title already does so, and your
introductory paragraph describes the situation. The thesis needs to advance a step farther and state your position on the
issue. Upon reflection, you suspect a causal relationship between the two objects of your exploration, so you revise your
thesis: “America’s dependence on fossil fuels is keeping it from developing alternative energy sources.” Now your thesis
states a position that begs defending and opens up many avenues for research.
4. The thesis statement is a time-honored tradition in Western academic writing.
If you don’t feel confident in thesis writing, take heart: lots of good advice on it already exists. The thesis statement is an
integral part of academic writing, but it’s also so conventional that mastering it will come with practice. The thesis can
make or break a promising essay topic; let it become the backbone of your writing endeavor. Even a thesis that fails to
state your position or make an argument can be turned into a gem. The writing consultants at the Meijer Center for
Writing can help whip your current thesis statement into shape and also show how to tackle future ones.
For More Information
Reference: Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: The Modern Language
Association of America, 2003.