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How to Write Great Thesis Statements

Updated on March 1, 2015

Don't Fear the Thesis!

A thesis is usually the last sentence in the introduction of an essay or other academic paper. It is normally just a single sentence, though in exceptionally long papers or books it may be several sentences. Many teachers, tutors, and writers will tell you that a thesis is the most important part of any academic paper you write.

Why is a thesis so important? It tells the reader clearly and concisely the direction the paper will follow by explaining your overall point in a single idea.

Sound a little daunting? It can be at first, but the difference between a strong and a weak thesis can be the difference between highway traveling and getting lost on country roads.

For Example

“Cynthia talked about how she got a present from her grandma. It's a really expensive present, and she loves it. But we got in an argument over it. My grandma never gives me anything, so she just thought I was jealous. She just kept going on about how it was a gift, and she didn't buy so it should be okay. I told her, like it matters who bought a real fur coat.


“Cynthia talked about how she got a present from her grandma. It's a really expensive present, and she loves it. But we got in an argument over it. My grandma never gives me anything, so she just thought I was jealous. She just kept going on about how it was a gift and she didn't buy so it should be okay. I told her, the very existence of fur coats reinforces animal cruelty.

In both of the examples, the author is trying to explain that owning a fur coat supports cruelty to animals regardless of who buys the coat. The first example, however, is less clear about this point than the second. Although both examples are exactly the same until the last sentence, the first example leaves it up to the reader to determine the significance of the fur coat, while the second example makes the point explicit in its clearly stated thesis. As a result, the second example provides a better idea of the author's main point.

So what makes a strong thesis?

First, the thesis should be something that is arguable.

If your thesis does not state something someone could disagree with, then you have a problem. This does not mean you need to write on a controversial issue. Anything that is an opinion can be arguable, but phrasing is important.

For example, “The Princess Bride is my favorite movie because it successfully combines great action, sweet romance, and sharp humor” may be structured like a strong thesis, but the phrase “my favorite movie” is not an arguable statement. Personal preferences cannot be argued by default.

However, if the writer rephrased the beginning to “The Princess Bride is the best movie of all time” then it is an arguable statement. In this instance someone can reasonably say “No. The Princess Bride isn't the best movie,” whereas it would not be reasonable to say “No. The Princess Bride is not your favorite movie.”

But I'm not writing a persuasive paper!

Every paper is persuasive. Everything you write that is intended for others to read is designed to get them to see your point of view. No matter who is reading your paper, they need to understand why you are writing it.

In the above example, it's clear the fur coat paragraphs are not part of an academic essay (at least we hope they aren't), but instead are just a rant. Yet, the author is still trying to make a point, and she still wants her readers to agree that fur coats should not be distributed.

Always Write Drafts and Notes!

Any idea you have for your thesis or your paper as a whole should be written down. Even if you think you'll remember an idea until later, it isn't always likely you will. It is much easier to forget an idea than remember one. Invest in notebooks and pens and have them on hand so you always have a convenient way to jot down ideas before you can forget them.

The thesis shouldn't contain any metaphor.

When you are stating your purpose in a paper, you want that purpose to be clear with no chance of misunderstanding. Metaphor adds interest, and sometimes provides a good avenue of explanation, but the reader has to understand what you are trying to explain before he or she can benefit from the use of metaphor. Save the metaphor for the surrounding text, if you want to use it, but do not include it in the thesis itself.

No: Tiger poachers in Indonesia are parasites who are not stopped by the anti-biotic the government is giving the tiger preserves.

Yes: Despite government efforts to protect tigers in Indonesia, insufficient measures, such as poor training of patrols and many still unprotected areas, leave the Indonesian tigers vulnerable to poachers.

The first example is emotionally charged and provides vivid imagery, but is unclear about the actual argument. While the reader can be relatively sure that tiger poachers are a threat to tigers, the word “poacher” indicates that as well. The government seems to be involved, but what the “anti-biotic” is is unclear, as is whether the government is simply going after tiger poachers or trying to actively protect the tigers.

The second example has all the main points clearly stated. The reader understands what government measures are being taken to protect the tigers and that they are insufficient because poachers are still killing tigers. The emphasis is now on tiger protection versus poachers, and the reader has a clear road map of what to expect in the rest of the paper.

The thesis should be as specific as possible and list the main points of the article in the order they appear.

The five paragraph essay template usually suggests you have three prongs, or main points, for your thesis. This is not necessary. A thesis can contain as few or as many main points as you desire. For the first-time writer, however, the three-pronged approach may be helpful.

For example, if you are writing about the benefits of cloth bags over plastic when shopping, your thesis might be this: "Cloth bags are better than plastic bags when grocery shopping because they help save the environment, they are reusable, and they hold more than plastic bags." Then, in your body paragraphs you would talk first about the environmental benefits, then about re-usability, and finally about their grocery capacity.

You are not chiseling your thesis in stone. You can change it at any point during the essay writing process

So how do I actually write a thesis?

Sometimes theses may come into your brain fully formed, but often that is not the case. Even if you begin with a clear idea of what your thesis should say, you may need to tweak it as your paper progresses. If you don't have a thesis in mind, you should begin with a clear idea of what you wish to write. This is good advice whether your writing requires a formal thesis or not.

Once you have that idea in mind write it down. Don't worry at this point if its one sentence or many, if its disjointed or concise. The main point is to get the idea on paper so that it can be worked into a thesis. When the idea is written down, you can begin to form it into a thesis.

Example: I plan to write about the importance of balanced ecosystems but I want to focus on the effects of unbalanced ecosystems to those animals at the top of the food chain, like tigers.

First, you won't have any “I” statements in your thesis, so those phrases you can take out.

The importance of balanced ecosystems. The effects of unbalanced ecosystems on those animals at the top of the food chain, like tigers.

Now, look at what you have. Is the first phrase, “the importance of balanced ecosystems,” what you are trying to prove, i. e. your main point, or a support for your main point? In this case, it's the main point because your other points revolve around those ecosystems.

So you have your main point now, but we still have a problem. How do you change the phrase into a complete sentence? First, look for the subject. That should be clear since we've been talking about it: balanced ecosystems. Place the subject at the beginning of the sentence and you get "Balance ecosystems importance." Still not a complete sentence. We need a verb after our subject. Since "importance" is a state of being for the ecosystems we should use "are," resulting in: "Balance ecosystems are important."

How about the second phrase? It is clearly supporting the main point, listing the reason balance is important in ecosystems, but right now it is too vague to use as part of the thesis. So before you can combine it with the first portion of the thesis, you have to ask yourself a question. What are these effects of an unbalanced ecosystem in question? You should have a general idea even before you start writing of the supporting points you will use in any paper. If you don't, you should take a minute to do some preliminary research, so you at least know your general direction.

In this case, an unbalance ecosystem can create shortages in resources and overcrowding of species.

Let's tack that on to the end of our thesis start: Balanced ecosystems are important because unbalanced systems can create shortages in resources and overcrowding of species.

That sounds much more specific, but let's look at it critically for a minute. Both our mentions of ecosystems have modifiers “balanced” and “unbalanced” so we know what type of ecosystems we are talking about, but “resources” is still pretty vague, as is “species”. We need to add some modifiers to those words to strengthen our thesis. There are two ways to add modifiers, tack an adjective before the word in question (predator species vs. species) or include a short example after the word (resources, such as food vs. resources). Using both those techniques our final thesis reads:

Balanced ecosystems are important because unbalanced systems can create shortages in resources, such as food, and overcrowding of predator species.

This thesis gives us a clear road map of the exact points the paper will be arguing. We know we'll be hearing primarily why balanced ecosystems are important, and the specific problems that arise when these environments are not balanced.

Alternative solution:

If you find your thesis just not coming to you, or you are required or wish to write an outline before you begin to draft your paper, the outline can help you form a thesis. The main point of each section of outline becomes a point in your thesis. This also works for the mapping/webbing brainstorming technique. The points directly off the center point should become your thesis points.

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