What is a Thesis Statement?

At the most basic level, a thesis statement answers the question, “What do you plan to accomplish with this paper?”  When a reader picks up your paper, beyond your title, they have very little idea what they should expect as they read.  A thesis statement will provide a clear and concise answer to the reader about the direction of your paper.  To get started, begin writing a sentence that begins with: “In this paper, I will…”  While somewhat unrefined, writing a thesis sentence in this way will put you in the right frame of mind to develop a solid thesis.

How long should my thesis statement be?

It really depends on the length of your paper.  If your writing a 3-5 page paper, one sentence will probably suffice.  However, if you are writing a longer research paper, your thesis may be an entire paragraph.  Unless you are doing graduate or post-graduate work, it’s probably a good idea to keep it to 1-2 sentences.  Remember, the goal is to provide a rock solid and clear statement about what you wish to accomplish in your paper.  Continue to refine your thesis statement down until it is obvious to the reader what main point your paper will focus on.

Why do we need to use thesis statements?

As a college professor, I get asked this question all the time! I try to remind students that a good thesis statement will help them as much as it will help their readers.  Your thesis statement is your road map for writing your entire paper.  Everything that you write about should go to completing your thesis statement.  For example, if my thesis statement is: “Slavery before the Civil War was the biggest influence on the economy in the South,” everything I write about should go to provide evidence of that statement.

What happens if I get stuck and can’t think of a thesis statement?

There are lots of exercises you can do to get un-stuck.  One of the ways I deal with this problem is to continue writing and let the direction of my paper develop as I go.  Usually, the reason I get stuck is because I am trying to do to much in one paper.  For example, if I am writing a 3 page paper, I don’t want a thesis that is too broad.  Remember, the goal of the thesis is to provide clear direction to your paper.  If your thesis is too broad, you will lose direction.  Think of your thesis as drawing a straight line between the subject of your paper and the conclusion of your paper.  If you get stuck, just start writing a rough draft and ask yourself, “Where I am going with all of this?”  Because students try to write a final paper in one draft, they don’t allow themselves the freedom to explore with their writing.  May I just say, as a professor, we can tell when a student turns in a paper that is the first draft!  One of the best things you can do for your writing is to eliminate hurry from your writing process.

Can I change my thesis statement?

Yes!  Writing is just as much an art as it is a science.  Think of your writing as sketch – nothing is ever final until you say it is final!  When I was writing for college, my thesis statements would change 3-6 times as I wrote my paper.  Because your thesis should only include the things you address in your paper, be willing to narrow your thesis down as you write.

Where does the thesis statement go in my paper?

Most often the thesis statement will go in your introduction paragraph.  For more about this, see my article on Introduction Paragraphs.

How do I develop a thesis statement?

As you continue to write papers, you will get better at this.  However, it can be difficult when you first try developing a thesis.  Here are some tips to consider:

  • Decide what topic you are going to write about

Let’s say I have a 3 page paper due and my professor says that I need to write about Buddhism.  But Buddhism is a HUGE topic – there are entire books written about Buddhism, so we will have to narrow this down.  But, it’s a good topic so we can move along.  For college courses, often the topic is simply given to you and it’s your job to narrow it down.

  • Pick a main idea

One way to continue narrowing down your topic is to think about one big idea that stuck with you as you were learning about Buddhism (in this case).  For our example, let’s say that it was the concept of eliminating suffering that stuck with us.  Buddhism teaches that we can eliminate suffering from our lives by eliminating desire.  Now, we’ve narrowed down Buddhism to the concept of eliminating suffering.  This is something very specific to Buddhism and will give our paper a good direction.

  • What do you think about the main idea?

This is where you add your own unique thoughts to your paper.  Buddhism says that we can eliminate suffering, but what is your opinion about this?  If you agree, start thinking an researching 2-3 reasons why you are convinced.  For a 3 page paper, 2-3 lines of evidence is usually plenty.  Here are the reasons I came up with:

  1. Suffering is caused by desire.
  2. Desire is not necessary to experience joy
  3. The way to eliminate desire is by practicing the 8-fold path.
  • Look for patterns in the way you naturally present the information. 

Boil those patterns down into a thesis statement.  So, let’s take a step back and see what kind of theses we can develop.  Notice, we just went from a huge subject, Buddhism, down to very specific tenants of Buddhism!

Thesis Statement Examples

If you’ve been following the process above, we’re now at a place where we can start constructing different kinds of thesis statements.

A basic thesis statement

Because we said that our paper was only going to be 3 pages long, we could settle for a very basic thesis.  Given the way we have developed our thoughts on Buddhism above, here are various ways to develop a thesis statement for our short paper:

  • By practicing Buddhism, we can live our lives free of suffering.  Very basic, but short and concise.
  • Even though eliminating desire is not easy, by practicing Buddhism, we can live our lives free of suffering. This thesis makes a concession while still affirming Buddhism.  This is effective because the reader will, no doubt, conclude that eliminating desire is difficult.  You are telling the reader that you understand that, but still see Buddhism as a viable way to eliminate suffering.  Anytime you can identify with the reader, do it!
  • By practicing Buddhism, we can live our lives free of suffering because Buddhism says that suffering is caused by desire, desire is not necessary to experience joy, and by practicing the 8 fold path we can eliminate desire.  Here we use “because” to state our argument for the entire paper up front.  This is clearly more detailed and previews our argument right from the beginning of our paper.

These are all just suggestions about how to build a thesis.  As long as you end up with a statement that is clear, gives direction to your paper, you are on the right path.



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