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.
What is a Yankee?
To most of the world, a Yankee is an American, anybody who lives in the United States. It is not always a pleasant connotation; in fact, "Yankee, go home!" calls up images of angry Latin American mobs protesting the oppression of American imperialist policies.
To most Americans, though, the word Yankee means either the pin-striped New York baseball team or the Northern forces in the American Civil War, the soldiers from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In time, though, the idea that the word Yankee suggests has shrunk geographically until it is on the verge of extinction.
Perhaps the most famous Yankee of all (no offense to the musical Damn Yankees! intended) has star billing in Mark Twain's novel Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I have lived most of my life, now, in that southern New England state, and I can assure you there are precious few real Yankees around. Real Yankees might have lived in Connecticut at one time, but now they are from another place and perhaps another time. As television and other forms of mass media invade our homes and tend to diminish regional differences, to make Americans more and more homogeneous, the Yankee might be one of the first genuine American characters to disappear.
A neighbor of mine claims he knows what a real Yankee is all about. Years ago, he says, he lived next door to one. It seems his plumbing was acting up and he'd actually removed the toilet from the floor and taken it out into the backyard to do some surgery on it. Now he knew that his neighbor, who happened to be a professional plumber as well as the putative Yankee, was well aware of the fact that he was struggling to fix his toilet and he knew that his neighbor was home, doing nothing in particular that day, probably watching from the kitchen window. But would he come over and offer to help? No way. But when my friend finally gave up and went over and asked for assistance, the plumber-neighbor not only agreed to help, he did so gleefully. He spent the entire afternoon finding and fixing the problem and helping to return the toilet to its proper place. And wouldn't accept a dime, of course.
According to my friend, that's the first tenet of Yankee-ness. You must never offer help because that makes the person to whom you have proferred assistance "beholden" to you. And a Yankee must never be "beholden" to anyone. (That's how the word for this concept is said, and so we must spell it that way, too.) To be beholden means that you owe something to someone else. Now everyone in the world can owe something to the Yankee, but the Yankee must never owe anyone else anything, and he can't really understand someone who would be willing to be beholden. Thus he will not offer help oh, maybe in a real emergency, he would be as good a Samaritan as anyone else until asked. When asked, it's another story. You will get more help than you can imagine, help in great abundance, more than you could ever deserve or pay back. So it's not that Yankees are stingy; on the contrary, a Yankee is generous to a fault. But there is a sense of reserve that prohibits the true Yankee from offering help before being asked. The sense of inviolate space is paramount: "Good fences make good neighbors," says the neighbor in Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," and the Yankee will not cross the fence until asked.
Another friend of mine knows someone, a Yankee, a chap born so far north in Vermont that he's nearly Canadian, who comes over to help with his taxes ever year. To re-pay him, my friend must resort to trickery, leaving something on the doorstep in the middle of the night. To offer anything else, up front, might tip the beholden scales in his favor and that would be risky.
That's what I think defines this dying breed of the American Yankee: an extraordinary sense of balance and reserve, a holding off and yet, behind all that reserve, a reservoir of generosity and friendliness that can be nearly overwhelming.