How to Write an Effective Thesis Statement
Published on February 19, 2020
Jonathan Wlodarski is pursuing a Ph.D. in English and teaches introductory-level English courses.
What Is a Thesis Statement?
A thesis statement is typically one sentence that appears in the first paragraph of an essay that captures the essay's purpose. Think of the thesis statement as a one-sentence summary that tells the reader exactly what an essay says.
Rather than writing your essay like a puzzle, keeping the reader in suspense about what conclusion you'll reach by the end, use the thesis statement like a treasure map to give the reader a sense of your essay's direction. Tell them the conclusion up front, so they know where your piece is headed.
Once you've done your research and found your sources, craft a thesis statement that clearly indicates the direction your essay will take. As you write, think about how each paragraph connects to your thesis. If you're struggling to understand how a particular idea relates directly to the thesis statement, it may be a sign that you've diverged from the purpose of the essay.
THESIS STATEMENT DEFINITION
A thesis statement is a one-sentence declaration of intention — a summation of the main idea your essay will explain at length. An effective thesis statement will make a unique claim or seek to answer an important question.
Tips for Writing a Good Thesis Statement
Essays should be based on a specific argument. Check your thesis statement to see if the central idea of your writing is too vague. If you argue for something overly general — for example, an argument that all pop music is bad — your essay will try to conquer too many ideas and be unfocused.
Refine your argument to be more specific. Perhaps you'll say that pop music suffers from repetitive chord progressions or that pop songs have unimaginative lyrics. These narrower claims allow you to easily marshall evidence in support of your thesis.
Make a Clear Argument
Often, you need to write a paper within a very limited set of parameters — usually a few thousand words at most. Within a prescribed framework, you won't have space on the page to fully address multiple arguments.
If a reader can't ascertain the direction your essay will take from reading the thesis statement alone, then revise it to ensure your main point is stated plainly. If you're struggling to make your argument clear, try formulating your thesis statement using this template: "In this paper, I argue that __________."
Because some writing instructors forbid or disapprove of the first-person point of view in academic essays, you may have to change your thesis statement later; however, using this template reminds you what your argument should be, which is a helpful early drafting technique.
Take a Strong Stance
When writing your essay's thesis statement, ask whether it is a statement that can be argued with. For example, if your thesis statement is, "Computers are a popular technology in today's society," your essay might not be advancing a position so much as stating an objectively true fact.
Most essays will require you to take a stance, not make an observation, so craft a thesis statement that actually puts forward a unique perspective.
Question Your Assumptions
As you formulate the thesis statement of your essay, ask yourself what assumptions your argument is based on. In other words, what must your readers assume to be true before they can even begin to accept your argument?
Be particularly aware of your intended audience. For example, does your argument rely on a religious or moral code to prove that it is inherently right? If you are writing a paper for a class in Christian ministry, a dogmatic argument might be appropriate; for a sociology paper, however, such arguments don't hold water.
Think about the ways in which your argument may not hold up for people who don't subscribe to your viewpoints, then revise or re-approach your thesis statement so that your argument doesn't depend on those assumptions.
Don't Hide Your Thesis
Keep in mind that your thesis statement should come near the beginning of your essay. Conventional wisdom dictates that it should appear by the end of the first paragraph, though the exact positioning may vary, depending on how much introduction your specific essay requires. In any case, it should generally come at the end of your introduction to the material — the final statement your reader sees at the beginning, before moving into the body of your argument.
To some extent, it's also important not to overthink your thesis statement. Don't dress up a thesis statement with fancy language, and don't be too clever in how you set the stage for your argument; both of these strategies sometimes disguise a weak central thesis. Whoever your professor is, they will appreciate you getting to the point in a clear, concise manner.
Types of Thesis Statements
Argumentative essays ask students to make the case for a particular perspective, or to persuade the reader to agree with the writer's point of view by the time they reach the essay's conclusion. In these essays, a thesis statement should be a clear picture of the argument you will make over the course of your essay.
In an American history class, you are asked to argue about the dominant cause of the War of 1812. Your thesis statement might look like, “The War of 1812 was a direct result of British arms sales to native tribes in the American West.”
In an ethics class, you are asked to argue about the moral obligation to help people in need. Your thesis statement might read, “By virtue of a social contract, we do have a moral obligation to help one another.”
In analytical essays, writers must communicate their interpretation of a given source or set of sources. In these essays, a thesis statement will explain the conclusion that your analysis has led you to. It may also be helpful to forecast your analysis by explaining which specific points you'll be examining. A helpful formula to get started with this kind of thesis statement is: "In this essay, I argue __________ by examining ____, ____, and ____."
In an English class, you've been asked to write an essay that analyzes how a persuasive article about climate change was constructed. Your thesis statement might say, “In this paper, I argue that Johnson relies too heavily on personal anecdotes and interviews, rather than scientific data, to establish the threat of climate change.”
In a psychology class, your assignment is an essay that analyzes the connection between depression and childhood trauma based on several studies you've researched. Your thesis statement might read, “Based on the data from these three studies, it's clear that there is a direct link between childhood trauma and clinical depression emerging in adults.”
Expository essays ask writers to provide an informational breakdown of a topic, educating readers using specific details. It may be hard to understand how a thesis statement is of use in an expository essay because expository writing often does not advance an argument. Even so, a controlling statement near the beginning of the essay that summarizes your point is useful. By communicating clearly what the intention of your writing is, you can ensure that each new piece of information supports the central idea you are building.
A helpful formula for guiding your expository essay is: "In this essay, I will teach my reader __________." As you work toward this goal, you can revisit this sentence later and rework it into an effective thesis statement.
In a biochemistry class, you've been asked to write an essay explaining the impact of bisphenol A on the human body. Your thesis statement might say, “This essay will make clear the correlation between bisphenol A exposure and hypertension.”
In a gender studies class, you must write an essay that explains third-wave feminism. Your thesis statement might read, “Third-wave feminism built upon the work of earlier generations of feminists to advocate for an expanded view of what being a woman means.”
Especially in composition and creative writing classes, you might be asked to write essays that draw upon your personal experiences. Prompts for personal essays might include writing about your experiences with race or your development as a writer, and these essays are often centered on a moment of realization or revelation. You can distill these themes into a thesis statement for your personal essay. While there may be no central argument in a thesis like this, there is always an organizing principle, such as change, destiny, growth, or irony.
In a creative writing class, you have to write an essay about how the place you grew up shaped you. Your thesis statement might look like, “Growing up on the farm taught me how to be more patient.”
In a composition class, you have to write an essay about the first time you realized how your gender was part of your identity. Your essay's thesis statement might read, “Because I was yelled at for playing with dolls as a kid, I understood that I didn't fit the narrow constraints of masculinity as my family defined it.”
Some Final Thoughts
Crafting an effective thesis statement is a useful exercise not just in college, but in your everyday life. It teaches you to examine ideas, organize them into a central theme or argument, and to persuasively mobilize evidence in support of this argument — a skill useful in many careers and personal endeavors.