Writing the Thesis Statement

Writing the Thesis Statement
By Worth Weller (with a little
help from the Purdue and
Dartmouth OWL)
What is it?
• For most student work, it's a one- or two- sentence
statement that explicitly outlines the purpose or
point of your paper.
• It is generally a complex, compound sentence**
– A compound-complex sentence is made from two
independent clauses and one or more dependent
“Although I like to go camping, I haven't had the time to
go lately, and I haven't found anyone to go with.”
What does it do?
• It should point toward the development or
course of argument the reader can expect
your argument to take
Where does it go?
• Because the rest of the paper will support or
back up your thesis, a thesis is normally
placed at or near the end of the introductory
What does it contain?
• The thesis sentence must contain an arguable
– A thesis sentence must not simply make an
observation -- for example, "Writer X seems in his
novel Y to be obsessed with lipstick."
• Rather, it must assert a point that is arguable:
– “Writer X uses lipstick to point to his novel's larger
theme: the masking and unmasking of the self."
What it determines
• The thesis sentence must control the entire
• Your thesis sentence determines what you are
required to say in a paper.
• It also determines what you cannot say.
• Every paragraph in your paper exists in order to
support your thesis.
• Accordingly, if one of your paragraphs seems
irrelevant to your thesis you have two choices: get
rid of the paragraph, or rewrite your thesis.
Is it fixed in concrete?
• Imagine that as you are writing your paper you
stumble across the new idea that lipstick is used in
Writer X's novel not only to mask the self, but also
to signal when the self is in crisis.
• This observation is a good one; do you really want
to throw it away? Or do you want to rewrite your
thesis so that it accommodates this new idea?
A contract
• Understand that you don't have a third
option: you can't simply stick the idea in
without preparing the reader for it in your
• The thesis is like a contract between you
and your reader.
• If you introduce ideas that the reader isn't
prepared for, you've violated that contract.
It provides structure for your paper
• The thesis sentence should provide a structure for
your argument.
• A good thesis not only signals to the reader what your
argument is, but how your argument will be
• In other words, your thesis sentence should either
directly or indirectly suggest the structure of your
argument to your reader.
• Say, for example, that you are going to argue that
"Writer X explores the masking and unmasking of the
self in three curious ways: A, B, and C.”
• In this case, the reader understands that you are
going to have three important points to cover, and
that these points will appear in a certain order.
Other Attributes
• It takes a side on a topic rather than simply
announcing that the paper is about a topic (the title
should have already told your reader your topic).
Don't tell readers about something; tell them what
about something. Answer the questions "how?"
or "why?”
• It is sufficiently narrow and specific that your
supporting points are necessary and sufficient, not
arbitrary; paper length and number of supporting
points are good guides here.
More Attributes
• It argues one main point and doesn't
squeeze three different theses for three
different papers into one sentence;
• And most importantly, it passes The "So
What?" Test.
An Equation
• Thesis statements are basically made up of
your topic and a specific assertion about
that topic, therefore,
The four “shoulds” of a
thesis statement:
• A good thesis statement should take a
stand - don't be afraid to have an
opinion; if after your research, your
opinion changes, all the better - means
you have been thinking; you can write a
new thesis statement!
• A good thesis statement should
justify discussion - don't leave
your readers saying to themselves
"So what" or "duh?" or "like what's
your point?"
• A good thesis statement should
express one main idea or a clear
relationship between two specific ideas
linked by words like "because," "since,"
"so," "although," "unless," or "however."
• Poor: Stephen King writes high caliber
• Good: Stephen King’s books are of
such a high caliber because they use
colorful vocabulary to discuss normal
people who get into supernatural
• A good thesis statement should be
restricted to a specific and manageable
topic - readers are more likely to reward
a paper that does a small task well than
a paper that takes on an unrealistic task
and fails
Example: Broad Thesis
• Bad Thesis: There should be no restrictions
on the 1st amendment.
• Better Thesis: There should be no
restrictions on the 1st amendment if those
restrictions are intended merely to protect
individuals from unspecified or otherwise
unquantifiable or unverifiable "emotional
Example: Broad Thesis
• Bad Thesis: The government has the right
to limit free speech.
• Better Thesis: The government has the
right to limit free speech in cases of overtly
racist or sexist language because our failure
to address such abuses would effectively
suggest that our society condones such
ignorant and hateful views.
Example: Uncontestable Thesis
• Bad Thesis: Although we have the right to
say what we want, we should avoid hurting
other people's feelings.
• Better Thesis: If we can accept that
emotional injuries can be just as painful as
physical ones we should limit speech that
may hurt people's feelings in ways similar
to the way we limit speech that may lead
directly to bodily harm.
Example: List Thesis
• Bad Thesis: There are many reasons we
need to limit hate speech.
• Better Thesis: Among the many reasons we
need to limit hate speech the most
compelling ones all refer to our history of
discrimination and prejudice, and it is,
ultimately, for the purpose of trying to
repair our troubled racial society that we
need hate speech legislation.
Example: Research Thesis
• Bad Thesis: Americans today are not prepared
to give up on the concept of free speech.
• Better Thesis: Whether or not the cultural
concept of free speech bears any relation to the
reality of 1st amendment legislation, its
continuing social function as a promoter of
tolerance and intellectual exchange trumps the
call for politicization (according to Fish's
agenda) of the term.

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