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What this handout is about

This handout describes what a thesisstatement is, how thesis statements work in your writing, and how you candiscover or refine one for your draft.


Writing in college often takes theform of persuasion—convincing others that you have an interesting, logicalpoint of view on the subject you are studying. Persuasion is a skill youpractice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up,your parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favoritecandidate or policy. In college, course assignments often ask you to make apersuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your pointof view. This form of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictablepattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your topic, you state yourpoint of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence isthe thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you'll make inthe rest of your paper.

What is athesis statement?

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

If your assignment asks you to takea position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey thatposition or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. Theassignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement becauseyour instructor may assume you will include one. When in doubt, ask yourinstructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an assignmentasks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstratecause and effect, or to take a stand on an issue, it is likely that you arebeing asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively.


How do I get a thesis?

A thesis is the result of a lengthythinking process. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do afterreading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, youhave to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships betweenknown facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about thesignificance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you willprobably have a "working thesis," a basic or main idea, an argumentthat you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment alongthe way.

Writers use all kinds of techniquesto stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships orcomprehend the broader significance of a topic and arrive at a thesisstatement..

Howdo I know if my thesis is strong?

If there's time, run it by yourinstructor or make an appointment at the Writing Center to get some feedback.Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesisevaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft and its working thesis,ask yourself the following:

  • Do I answer the question? Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
  • Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose?If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it's possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
  • Is my thesis statement specific enough?

Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have astrong argument. If your thesis contains words like "good" or"successful," see if you could be more specific: why issomething "good"; what specifically makes something"successful"?

  • Does my thesis pass the "So what?" test? If a reader's first response is, "So what?" then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
  • Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering? If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It's o.k. to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
  • Does my thesis pass the "how and why?" test? If a reader's first response is "how?" or "why?" your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.



Suppose you are taking a course on19th-century America, and the instructor hands out the following essayassignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought theCivil War. You turn on the computer and type out the following:

The North and South fought the CivilWar for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.

This weak thesis restates thequestion without providing any additional information. You will expand on thisnew information in the body of the essay, but it is important that the readerknow where you are heading. A reader of this weak thesis might think,"What reasons? How are they the same? How are they different?" Askyourself these same questions and begin to compare Northern and Southern attitudes(perhaps you first think, "The South believed slavery was right, and theNorth thought slavery was wrong"). Now, push your comparison toward aninterpretation—why did one side think slavery was right and the other sidethink it was wrong? You look again at the evidence, and you decide that you aregoing to argue that the North believed slavery was immoral while the Southbelieved it upheld the Southern way of life. You write:

While both sides fought the CivilWar over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while theSouth fought to preserve its own institutions.

Now you have a working thesis!Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of howthe two sides disagreed over this reason. As you write the essay, you will probablybegin to characterize these differences more precisely, and your working thesismay start to seem too vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moralreasons, and that they just focused on different moral issues. You end uprevising the working thesis into a final thesis that really captures theargument in your paper:

While both Northerners andSoutherners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northernersfocused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own rightto self-government.

Compare this to the original weakthesis. This final thesis presents a way of interpreting evidence thatilluminates the significance of the question. Keep in mind that this is oneof many possible interpretations of the Civil War—it is not the one and onlyright answer to the question. There isn't one right answer; there are onlystrong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses of evidence.

Let's look at another example.Suppose your literature professor hands out the following assignment in a classon the American novel: Write an analysis of some aspect of Mark Twain's novelHuckleberry Finn. "This will be easy," you think. "I lovedHuckleberry Finn!" You grab a pad of paper and write:

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finnis a great American novel.

Why is this thesis weak? Think aboutwhat the reader would expect from the essay that follows: you will most likelyprovide a general, appreciative summary of Twain's novel. The question did notask you to summarize; it asked you to analyze. Your professor is probably notinterested in your opinion of the novel; instead, she wants you to think about whyit'ssuch a great novel—what do Huck's adventures tell us about life, about America,about coming of age, about race relations, etc.? First, the question asks youto pick an aspect of the novel that you think is important to its structure ormeaning—for example, the role of storytelling, the contrasting scenes betweenthe shore and the river, or the relationships between adults and children. Nowyou write:

In Huckleberry Finn, MarkTwain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.

Here's a working thesis withpotential: you have highlighted an important aspect of the novel forinvestigation; however, it's still not clear what your analysis will reveal.Your reader is intrigued, but is still thinking, "So what? What's thepoint of this contrast? What does it signify?" Perhaps you are not sureyet, either. That's fine—begin to work on comparing scenes from the book andsee what you discover. Free write, make lists, jot down Huck's actions andreactions. Eventually you will be able to clarify for yourself, and then forthe reader, why this contrast matters. After examining the evidence andconsidering your own insights, you write:

Through its contrasting river andshore scenes, Twain's Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the trueexpression of American democratic ideals, one must leave "civilized"society and go back to nature.

This final thesis statement presentsan interpretation of a literary work based on an analysis of its content. Ofcourse, for the essay itself to be successful, you must now present evidencefrom the novel that will convince the reader of your interpretation.

How to Write an Introduction

An introduction should generally befour to five sentences long.  Begin your introduction with a generalstatement, and with each sentence that follows get more and more specific untilyou get to the last sentence, which is a clearly stated thesis.  Thisthesis states the point of your paper. The thesis should be like an umbrellawhich spans your essay, including all major points found in the essay.

 After you have brainstormed your topic answerthe following questions:  "Who,"  "What," "When,"  "Where,"  "Why,"  and"How."
Although it is not always necessary orpossible to answer all of these,  you should be able to answer some ofthem, and the questions not only give you a starting point, but provide yourreader the needed background to put your essay into context.

             General Statement




 More specific




During the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East there was much armedconflict between Christians and Muslims. Christians called these conflicts theCrusades because they were fighting under the sign of the cross to save theholy lands of the Bible from being desecrated by non-Christians. However, the true reason for fighting forthese lands was less than holy. It was mainly a desire for economic gain thatprompted the Christian leaders to send soldiers to fight in the Holy Land.





A conclusion should

·        stress the importance of the thesisstatement,

·        give the essay a sense ofcompleteness, and

·        leave a final impression on thereader.



Answer the question "So What?"

Show yourreaders why this paper was important. Show them that your paper was meaningfuland useful.

Synthesize, don't summarize

Don'tsimply repeat things that were in your paper. They have read it. Show them howthe points you made and the support and examples you used were not random, butfit together.

Redirect your readers

Give yourreader something to think about, perhaps a way to use your paper in the"real" world. If your introduction went from general to specific,make your conclusion go from specific to general. Think globally.

Create a new meaning

You don'thave to give new information to create a new meaning. By demonstrating how yourideas work together, you can create a new picture. Often the sum of the paperis worth more than its parts.


If your are having a trouble writinga conclusion try using your introduction as your conclusion an write a newintroduction.


For more tips on how to write ahistory paper look at http://www.sou.edu/history/carney/writing.htm#conclusion