Establishing A Thesis Statement

Developing a Thesis Statement

What thesis statements do

Almost all academic papers contain a thesis - an assertion you make about your topic that your paper is dedicated to defending. Before you start writing, you should do some prewriting to develop a working thesis. Remember, it doesn't need to be perfect before you start writing. You'll develop and refine your thesis as you write and revise.

A good paper is analytic and interpretive. It is analytic because it makes an argument (the thesis); it is interpretive because it bases its analysis on interpretation of texts, facts, or data. The focus of a paper should NOT be a repetition of facts or simple plot summary.

Consider these sample thesis statements:

  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Bartolomé de las Casas were radical critics of the colonial world.
  • Because Sor Juana advocated eliminating an existing social tradition, while las Casas advocated reforming the colonial system, Sor Juana can be viewed as a more radical social critic.

Statement 1 is simply an observation that many readers might make about these authors' writing. This is not a particularly good thesis for a paper because you don't have to convince your reader that it's true; you're merely stating a fact that few people would contest. On the other hand, statement 2 identifies some limitations of Sor Juana's and las Casas' social critiques, distinguishing them in a controversial way. It proposes an interpretation of the two authors based on the observation made in the first statement. Statement 2 is, therefore, a much more viable thesis.

How to develop a thesis

Developing an argument requires thoughtful reflection on evidence you gather. This will probably take some time! You don't have to come up with the best argument right away. It often takes an outline or a draft before you develop your thesis. Sometimes your professor will give you a well-defined prompt for your essay. This makes your job easier, but it doesn't mean you don't have to do any work.

For example, consider the following prompt:

"Did gender roles play a part in the French Revolution?"

Your answer should not simply say:

"Yes, they did, in the following ways..."

That thesis would be summary of facts, not analysis or interpretation. Consider the following example:

"Primary sources detailing the personal exchanges of women in late-18 th century France reveal that women exerted considerable influence on political events, not just as the wives of important men, but also as independent agents of change."

This is a successful thesis. Even when you're answering a concrete question, the argument still needs to be based on your analysis and interpretation of the prompt.

If you're stuck trying to come up with a point to argue, these general types of argument might help you frame your thesis:

  • What someone or some entity should or should not do. This kind of argument is the answer to "We have a problem. What should we do? How can we solve this problem?" For example, an argument addressing the question "How should the government respond to the increase in homelessness in major cities?" could be "The government must increase funding for social programs to adequately reduce the number of homeless in major cities." This argument describes an action that the author believes should be taken, and the essay will go on to explain why that action is the correct one.
  • An attempt to understand something better. This kind of argument isn't action-oriented; instead, you target a conceptual or academic problem. For example, you might try to answer "Were gender issues a significant cause of the French Revolution?" An answer to this question will be an argument, but it will be based on evaluation and exploration of scholarship, historical facts, and other relevant information you will collect. Many academic essays will fall into this category.
  • An interpretation of scientific data you have collected. A thesis can be your conclusions based on scientific results. That's right! Lab reports have arguments too. Your argument is the conclusion or conclusions that your data and results support. For example, you might use spectroscopic evidence to support the claim "Nitrogen is the preferred donor atom in cobalt(III) pentammine complexes."

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The thesis statement is the center around which the rest of your paper revolves; it is a clear, concise statement of the position you will defend.

Getting Started:

If you’re just beginning to think about a thesis, it may be useful to ask yourself some of the following questions. This list is not exhaustive; anything that helps you consider your text or subject in a complex, unusual, or in-depth manner will get you on the right track:

  • Do I have a gut response to the prompt? Does anything from my reading jump to mind as something that could help me argue one way or another?
  • What is the significance of this text or subject? Why did my professor choose it? How does it fit into the broader themes or goals of the course?
  • How does this text or subject relate to the broader context of the place or time period in which it was written or in which it occurred?
  • Does this text or subject challenge or complicate my ideas about race, class, gender, or religion? About political, carceral, or educational institutions?
  • Does anything in this text seem to not “fit in” with the rest of it? Why could that be?
  • Are there aspects of the text (or two separate texts) which, when I compare and contrast them, can illuminate something about the text(s) that wasn’t clear before?
  • Does the author make any stylistic choices– perspective, word choice, pacing, setting, plot twists, poetic devices– that are crucial to our understanding of the text or subject?

Developing Your Ideas:

At this point you should have some potential ideas, but they don’t have to be pretty yet. Your next goal will be to play with them until you arrive at a single argument that fulfills as many of the above “Components of a Strong Thesis” as possible. See the following examples of weak or unfinished thesis statements:

Setting is an important aspect of Wuthering Heights.

Britain was stable between 1688 and 1783.

The first example is argumentative, but it’s not that argumentative– most critics agree that setting is important to Wuthering Heights. Both examples are too broad. One way to develop them is to consider potential conjunctions that would help you complicate your ideas:
 

See below for examples of stronger or more complete thesis statements. In part due to the addition of conjunctions “because” and “as,” these are more argumentative, more specific, and more complex:

Because the moors in Wuthering Heights are a personification of Heathcliff’s personality, their presence suggests that human emotion and the natural world are intricately entwined in the novel.

Corruption was a major source of stability in Britain between 1688 and 1783, as landed elites controlled every aspect of British government and ensured political stability at the cost of social equality.

I Have a Thesis. Now What?

Once you feel confident about your final thesis statement, you have conquered the most important (and usually, the most difficult) part of writing a paper. Here are two ways your thesis can help you figure out what to do next:

By Sarah Ostrow ’18. Definition of thesis statement adapted from earlier Hamilton College Writing Center Resource “Introductions and Thesis Statements.”
© Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center, Hamilton College

Components of a Strong ThesisComponents of a Weak Thesis
  • Argumentative, debatable
  • Specific
  • Original, goes beyond class discussion
  • Can be supported with textual evidence
  • Answers the prompt
  • Clearly and concisely stated
  • Summarizes, states a fact
  • Broad, makes a generalization
  • Repeats class discussion or other critics
  • Unrelated to or contradicted by the text
  • Unrelated or partial response to prompt
  • Language is vague, wordy

Conjunction

Conjunction’s Purpose

  • Because, so, as
  • But, however, yet, although, despite
  • When, where
  • Unless, except
  • Before, once, until
  • Specifies your reasoning
  • Introduces nuance
  • Confines idea to specific time or place
  • Introduces an exception to your idea
  • Specifies order in which things occur

 

Wuthering Heights Examples

British History
Examples

Gathering evidence: Look back at your text(s) and begin compiling a list of quotations or ideas that would support your thesis statement.

  • Descriptions of the moors
  • Descriptions of Heathcliff, or moments when other characters talk about him
  • Instances of political corruption from 1688-1783 that led to stable government
  • Instances of social inequality from 1688-1783

Considering structure: See if your thesis statement gives you any clues about how to organize your thoughts into body paragraphs.

The moors and Heathcliff can each have their own paragraph. Or separate paragraphs can tackle separate qualities, i.e. the wild nature of both, the morose nature of both, etc.

Political corruption and social inequality can each have their own paragraph. Or, if there are cause-and-effect relationships between specific instances of corruption and inequality, each pair can have its own paragraph.

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