Finding the Thesis
You have plucked one idea (or closely related group of ideas) out of all of your possible ideas to focus on. Congratulations! Now what? Well, now you might write about that topic to explore what you want to say about it. Or, you might already have some idea about what point you want to make about it. If you are in the latter position, you may want to develop a working thesis to guide your drafting process.
What Is a Working Thesis?
A thesis is the controlling idea of a text (often an arguable idea—you will learn more about this in a bit). Depending on the type of text you are creating, all of the discussion in that text will serve to develop, explore multiple angles of, and/or support that thesis.
But how can we know, before getting any of the paper written, exactly what thesis the sources we find and the conversations we have will support? Often, we can’t. The closest we can get in these cases is a working thesis, which is a best guess at what the thesis is likely to be based on the information we are working with at this time. The main idea of it may not change, but the specifics are probably going to be tweaked a bit as you complete a draft and do research.
So, let’s look at one of the examples from “Strategies for Getting Started” from the “Prewriting—Generating Ideas” section of this book: the cluster about the broad central idea of danger. If the main idea is “danger,” maybe the conversation you decide you want to have about it after clustering is that sometimes people step into danger intentionally in order to prove ourselves in some way. Next, you might make a list of possible thesis statements. For the sake of example, let’s say this is for an assignment in response to the film The Hunger Games. Some thesis statements that fit this situation might look like this:
- Ultimately, The Hunger Games is a film about facing fears.
- In the 2012 film The Hunger Games, the main character’s fear of losing her sister drives her to face a different set of dangers.
- Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, creates as much danger for herself as she faces from others over the course of the film.
If you were writing a summary, the first example in that list might be a good thesis to work with. If you were writing a review, the second one might be the better option. Let’s say, though, that you’ve been assigned to write a more traditional college essay, something a little more focused on analysis. In that case, the final example in this list looks like a good working thesis. It might not be quite the same as the thesis you end up with in later drafts, but it looks like a strong idea to focus your ideas around while you’re first getting them on the page.
Thesis Statements: Your Main Point
A thesis statement needs a topic and an opinion/claim about that topic:
- Summer in Guanajuato very educational
- MHCC nursing school quality program
- Michael Phelps best swimmer in history
- Damian Lillard best Blazer in history
- Women in sports broadcasting have come a long way
- A longer school day several benefits
Once you have your topic and opinion, develop a thesis statement.
- My summer in Guanajuato was a wonderful educational experience.
- Mt. Hood Community College School of Nursing provides a quality education for its students.
- Michael Phelps is without a doubt the most accomplished swimmer in the history of swimming.
- Damian Lillard is the best basketball player to wear a Trailblazers jersey.
- Women are playing a much more integral role in sports broadcasting.
- A longer school day for the elementary school children has several advantages.
A Strong 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 at the end of your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader.
How Do I Write a Thesis?
Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Then you can start developing your thesis, but you might change it as you go.
How Do I Know if My Thesis is Strong?
When reviewing your essay, 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, you need be more specific or perhaps choose another topic.
- Is my thesis statement specific enough? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument.
- 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 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.
- 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.
Your essay usually needs a specific thesis about a narrow topic (here are a few examples):
- “The fates of Montag and Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 exemplify the danger in resisting cultural uniformity.”
- “Johnson’s use of extreme language makes her arguments emotionally difficult to disagree with, but her exaggeration and sentiment undermine the rational strength of her argument.”
- “Although Bizarre Foods avoids Othering by showing cultural similarities and through its cinematography, it participates in Othering through its colonial attitudes toward individuals and their cultures.”
- “Austen uses male-female relationships and a courtship theme to give characters reason to assess their own values and the character of others in order to promote devotion to family, loving marriages, and wisdom based in reality.”
Your thesis is the engine of your essay. It is the central point around which you gather, analyze, and present the relevant support and philosophical reasoning which constitutes the body of your essay. It is the center, the focal point. The thesis answers the question, “What is this essay all about?”
A strong thesis does not just state your topic but your perspective or feeling on the topic as well. And it does so in a single, focused sentence. Two tops. It clearly tells the reader what the essay is all about and engages them in your big idea(s) and perspective. Thesis statements often reveal the primary pattern of development of the essay as well, but not always.
An effective thesis statement has several key components:
- States the central idea of the essay in a complete sentence
- Reveals the author’s opinion or attitude about the topic
- Often lists subtopics/ provides a general outline of the essay
- Is usually found atthe end of the introduction
- Ask the reader a question (i.e. “What is beauty?”}
- State the obvious (i.e “This essay will be about my definition of beauty” or “In this essay I will define beauty.”)
Important Things to Consider When Writing a Thesis:
- Does your thesis respond to the assignment? Are you doing what the professor has instructed? Be sure you are addressing the assigned task. Follow/read the instructions very carefully and do exactly what is assigned. If the professor has an outline for you, follow it. If not, you need to figure out your own plan for your writing. Very often you will find you can develop your thesis from the assignment prompt.
- Make sure your thesis is not too much to handle, and be sure you have enough to say. You may have to revise your thesis after you continue to write your main ideas and your detail.
- Your topic and your opinion are your key words to be repeated throughout your paper. You can come up with synonyms for your topic and opinion, but you absolutely need to repeat these words.
Main Supports (Topic Sentences)
Main supports are the general reasons for your opinion in each topic sentence. You need to repeat your topic and opinion (your key words) in every topic sentence, which is usually the first sentence of each body paragraph.
- My summer in Guanajuato was a learning experience because I attended classes at the university.
- The communication department provides top-notch education for its students due to the highly credentialed faculty.
- A longer school day would be a benefit to children/students.
Notice the repeating topic and opinion (your key words, which are underlined). Also notice that only one support is given in each sentence (italicized). You may also note the use of the words “because” and “due to.”
Generally, you should have at least 3 main supports for any assignment that requires you to support an opinion. You may have more, especially for a longer paper.
After you write your topic sentences, go back and see if they really do support your thesis:
Thesis: My summer in Guanajuato was a wonderful educational experience.
Main support (topic sentence): My summer in Guanajuato was a learning experience because I attended classes at the university.
Main support (topic sentence): While in Guanajuato, I improved my Spanish because I was living with a host family.
Main Support (topic sentence): My time in Guanajuato allowed me to learn about the local historical sites.
As you can see, each sentence gives one general support for your opinion that your time in G was an educational experience AND each repeats your key words.
Your detail support is the bulk of your paper. Here is where you provide the specific evidence to support each main idea and thus your opinion of your topic.
Detail support includes:
- specific examples
- proper names
- clear descriptions: colors, sizes, dimensions, exact locations
Remember that your detail is to give credence to each main support.
My summer in Guanajuato was a learning experience because I attended class at the university.
Detail: I was enrolled at the University of Guanajuato in the summer Spanish class for intermediate Spanish speakers. My teacher was Ms. Rodriquez and we met four times a week for six hours a day. The class was structured around both writing and speaking. We wrote two hours a day, and she had us doing speaking exercises the remainder of the time. Ms. R would often read from the local newspaper The Guanajuato Times and have us discuss in Spanish what we thought of the subject matter. This was sometimes difficult, but we learned much about both Spanish and the local area. For example, one article was about the history of Guanajuato’s tunnel system. We learned that the tunnels aid in flood control during the rainy season and are an engineering wonder. Several of us explored the tunnels after that class! (underlined sections good detail)
Stop here and review:
- Be very careful that you stay on point, meaning you make sure your detail relates to the item italicized. You can do this by simply reviewing your outline/what you write – is your detail related to your main support?
- Depending on the length of the paper, detail support may be organized into one or more paragraphs. In the above example, you could have enough to write one paragraph about a typical class day, another paragraph about what you found most helpful about the class.
When you get here, you’re almost done with your planning/outline! Look again at your thesis and re-write it.
- My summer studying in Guanajuato was a fantastic educational experience.
- My experience in Guanajuato was a wonderful educational opportunity.
- My education has been greatly enhanced by my summer of study in Guanajuato.
As you can see, any of these could also serve as your thesis statement.
In your concluding paragraph you should re-emphasize your main supports, re-state your thesis statement, and perhaps provide some comments about why the reader should consider all that you have written (this will depend on the assignment). The order of these items is up to you.
My time in Guanajuato was such a wonderful experience. I learned so much from my classes, living with my host family, and traveling around the local area. My education has been greatly enhanced by my summer of study in Guanajuato. I would definitely encourage my classmates to consider a summer studying in this wonderful city.
Note: The italicized section re-caps the main supports. The bold type is your re-write of your thesis statement (repeating your key words). The underlined sentence provides a comment for readers to consider.
For any writing assignment, you absolutely need to determine that you have enough to say about your topic. You can do that by planning first. What you will find is that planning is writing. Outlining in the following format will help you “see” your paper and determine whether your plan makes sense.
Main support (Topic Sentence)
Main support (Topic Sentence)
Main support (Topic Sentence)
- Read your assignment and take great care to do exactly what you are being asked to do. If your instructor provides a topic, use it. If your instructor provides an outline, follow it. You can still use the ideas here to help you plan.
- Write thesis with topic and opinion.
- Write main ideas/supports (topic sentences) and make sure they support your thesis.
- Stop here and make sure:
- these main supports really support your thesis,
- you repeat your topic and opinion in each main support, and
- you give one reason/support in each main supporting sentence
- Provide clear, specific detail for each main support. This is the bulk of your paper – make it good!! Be sure to include examples, data, numbers, quotations, citations, proper nouns…create “pictures” in your readers’ minds with clear descriptions using sizes, colors, locations.
- Conclusion: re-write your topic sentence and use it in your concluding paragraphs. Your concluding paragraph should re-cap your main supports, not all your detail!
- Consult the Purdue .
- Consult the UNC Writing Center page on writing strong thesis statements.
- Consult this handout on crafting proper thesis statements from the BYU Writing Center.
- Consult the link from the Purdue OWL site: Developing Strong Thesis Statements
- Consult these Thesis Writing Exercises for more help in crafting a strong, relevant thesis statement.
BEST: A thesis is strongest when the writer uses both the specific topic, and their educated opinion on it, for writing a detailed and clear main point.
Check Your Understanding: Thesis Writing
Use the criteria of an effective thesis to identify which of the following pairs of theses are strongest:
- Cancun is a popular vacation spot in Mexico.
- Cancun is one of the best vacation spots in Mexico because of its comfortable climate and proximity to some well-known archeological sites.
Which is more effective? Why?
- The large influx of people to California has had major effects on the state.
- The large influx of people to California has had major effects on the ability of the state to provide housing, electricity, and jobs for all residents
Which is more effective? Why?
- This essay will discuss some ways teachers can fight teenage drug abuse.
- Teachers can fight teenage drug abuse by educating young people on its dangers and by being good role models.
Which is more effective? Why?
- I learned to play many musical instruments when I was young.
- Learning to play many musical instruments when I was young helped me to become a more intelligent and well-rounded person.
Which ls more effective? Why?
When you’re finished, See the Appendix, Results for the “Check Your Understanding” Activities, for answers.
(adapted, in part, from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. This OER text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.)