Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Thesis Statements
Defining the Thesis Statement
What is a thesis statement?
Every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.
How long does it need to be?
A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the paper is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused.
Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis
Where is your thesis statement?
You should provide a thesis early in your essay -- in the introduction, or in longer essays in the second paragraph -- in order to establish your position and give your reader a sense of direction.
Tip: In order to write a successful thesis statement:
- Avoid burying a great thesis statement in the middle of a paragraph or late in the paper.
- Be as clear and as specific as possible; avoid vague words.
- Indicate the point of your paper but avoid sentence structures like, “The point of my paper is…”
Is your thesis statement specific?
Your thesis statement should be as clear and specific as possible. Normally you will continue to refine your thesis as you revise your argument(s), so your thesis will evolve and gain definition as you obtain a better sense of where your argument is taking you.
Tip: Check your thesis:
- Are there two large statements connected loosely by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. "and," "but," "or," "for," "nor," "so," "yet")?
- Would a subordinating conjunction help (i.e. "through," "although," "because," "since") to signal a relationship between the two sentences?
- Or do the two statements imply a fuzzy unfocused thesis?
- If so, settle on one single focus and then proceed with further development.
Is your thesis statement too general?
Your thesis should be limited to what can be accomplished in the specified number of pages. Shape your topic so that you can get straight to the "meat" of it. Being specific in your paper will be much more successful than writing about general things that do not say much. Don't settle for three pages of just skimming the surface.
The opposite of a focused, narrow, crisp thesis is a broad, sprawling, superficial thesis. Compare this original thesis (too general) with three possible revisions (more focused, each presenting a different approach to the same topic):
- Original thesis:
- There are serious objections to today's horror movies.
- Revised theses:
- Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.
- The pornographic violence in "bloodbath" slasher movies degrades both men and women.
- Today's slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.
Is your thesis statement clear?
Your thesis statement is no exception to your writing: it needs to be as clear as possible. By being as clear as possible in your thesis statement, you will make sure that your reader understands exactly what you mean.
Tip: In order to be as clear as possible in your writing:
- Unless you're writing a technical report, avoid technical language. Always avoid jargon, unless you are confident your audience will be familiar with it.
- Avoid vague words such as "interesting,” "negative," "exciting,” "unusual," and "difficult."
- Avoid abstract words such as "society," “values,” or “culture.”
These words tell the reader next to nothing if you do not carefully explain what you mean by them. Never assume that the meaning of a sentence is obvious. Check to see if you need to define your terms (”socialism," "conventional," "commercialism," "society"), and then decide on the most appropriate place to do so. Do not assume, for example, that you have the same understanding of what “society” means as your reader. To avoid misunderstandings, be as specific as possible.
Compare the original thesis (not specific and clear enough) with the revised version (much more specific and clear):
- Original thesis: Although the timber wolf is a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated. [if it's so timid and gentle -- why is it being exterminated?]
- Revised thesis: Although the timber wolf is actually a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated because people wrongfully believe it to be a fierce and cold-blooded killer.
Does your thesis include a comment about your position on the issue at hand?
The thesis statement should do more than merely announce the topic; it must reveal what position you will take in relation to that topic, how you plan to analyze/evaluate the subject or the issue. In short, instead of merely stating a general fact or resorting to a simplistic pro/con statement, you must decide what it is you have to say.
- Avoid merely announcing the topic; your original and specific "angle" should be clear. In this way you will tell your reader why your take on the issue matters.
- Original thesis: In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between fairy tales and early childhood.
- Revised thesis: Not just empty stories for kids, fairy tales shed light on the psychology of young children.
- Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues.
- Original thesis: We must save the whales.
- Revised thesis: Because our planet's health may depend upon biological diversity, we should save the whales.
- When you make a (subjective) judgment call, specify and justify your reasoning. “Just because” is not a good reason for an argument.
- Original thesis: Socialism is the best form of government for Kenya.
- Revised thesis: If the government takes over industry in Kenya, the industry will become more efficient.
- Avoid merely reporting a fact. Say more than what is already proven fact. Go further with your ideas. Otherwise… why would your point matter?
- Original thesis: Hoover's administration was rocked by scandal.
- Revised thesis: The many scandals of Hoover's administration revealed basic problems with the Republican Party's nominating process.
Do not expect to come up with a fully formulated thesis statement before you have finished writing the paper. The thesis will inevitably change as you revise and develop your ideas—and that is ok! Start with a tentative thesis and revise as your paper develops.
Is your thesis statement original?
Avoid, avoid, avoid generic arguments and formula statements. They work well to get a rough draft started, but will easily bore a reader. Keep revising until the thesis reflects your real ideas.
Tip: The point you make in the paper should matter:
- Be prepared to answer “So what?” about your thesis statement.
- Be prepared to explain why the point you are making is worthy of a paper. Why should the reader read it?
Compare the following:
- Original thesis:
- There are advantages and disadvantages to using statistics. (a fill-in-the-blank formula)
- Revised theses:
- Careful manipulation of data allows a researcher to use statistics to support any claim she desires.
- In order to ensure accurate reporting, journalists must understand the real significance of the statistics they report.
- Because advertisers consciously and unconsciously manipulate data, every consumer should learn how to evaluate statistical claims.
Avoid formula and generic words. Search for concrete subjects and active verbs, revising as many "to be" verbs as possible. A few suggestions below show how specific word choice sharpens and clarifies your meaning.
- Original: “Society is...” [who is this "society" and what exactly is it doing?]
- Revised: "Men and women will learn how to...," "writers can generate...," "television addicts may chip away at...," "American educators must decide...," "taxpayers and legislators alike can help fix..."
- Original: "the media"
- Revised: "the new breed of television reporters," "advertisers," "hard-hitting print journalists," "horror flicks," "TV movies of the week," "sitcoms," "national public radio," "Top 40 bop-til-you-drop..."
- Original: "is, are, was, to be" or "to do, to make"
- Revised: any great action verb you can concoct: "to generate," "to demolish," "to batter," "to revolt," "to discover," "to flip," "to signify," "to endure..."
Use your own words in thesis statements; avoid quoting. Crafting an original, insightful, and memorable thesis makes a distinct impression on a reader. You will lose credibility as a writer if you become only a mouthpiece or a copyist; you will gain credibility by grabbing the reader with your own ideas and words.
A well-crafted thesis statement reflects well-crafted ideas. It signals a writer who has intelligence, commitment, and enthusiasm.
What types of information should you include in your introduction?
In the introduction of your thesis, you’ll be trying to do three main things, which are called Moves:
- Move 1 establish your territory (say what the topic is about)
- Move 2 establish a niche (show why there needs to be further research on your topic)
- Move 3 introduce the current research (make hypotheses; state the research questions)
Each Move has a number of stages. Depending on what you need to say in your introduction, you might use one or more stages. Table 1 provides you with a list of the most commonly occurring stages of introductions in Honours theses (colour-coded to show the Moves). You will also find examples of Introductions, divided into stages with sample sentence extracts. Once you’ve looked at Examples 1 and 2, try the exercise that follows.
Most thesis introductions include SOME (but not all) of the stages listed below. There are variations between different Schools and between different theses, depending on the purpose of the thesis.
Stages in a thesis introduction
- state the general topic and give some background
- provide a review of the literature related to the topic
- define the terms and scope of the topic
- outline the current situation
- evaluate the current situation (advantages/ disadvantages) and identify the gap
- identify the importance of the proposed research
- state the research problem/ questions
- state the research aims and/or research objectives
- state the hypotheses
- outline the order of information in the thesis
- outline the methodology
Now read the following two examples from past theses, noting which stages are included in each example. How does example 1 differ from example 2?
Read the following sample sentence extracts from Honours theses Introductions. When you have decided what stage of the Introduction they belong to, refer to the stages in a thesis introduction and give each sentence extract a number. Then check the suggested answer to see if your answer agrees with ours.
Example 3: The IMO Severe-Weather Criterion Applied to High-Speed Monohulls (School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering)
Example 4: The Steiner Tree Problem (School of Computer Science and Engineering)
What does this tell you about thesis introductions?
Well, firstly, there are many choices that you can make. You will notice that there are variations not only between the different Schools in your faculty, but also between individual theses, depending on the type of information that is being communicated. However, there are a few elements that a good Introduction should include, at the very minimum:
- Either Statement of general topic Or Background information about the topic;
- Either Identification of disadvantages of current situation Or Identification of the gap in current research;
- Identification of importance of proposed research
- Either Statement of aims Or Statement of objectives
- An Outline of the order of information in the thesis
Note: this introduction includes the literature review.
Example 5.1 (extract 1): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)
|Stage 1||Sample sentence extracts (the complete Introduction is 17 pages long)|
|Give some background (p.1 of 17)|
1.1 Fluoride in the environment
Molecular fluorine (F2) is the most electronegative of the elements and therefore is highly reactive. Due to its high reactivity it is never found in its elemental form in nature. It combines directly at both ordinary or elevated temperatures with all other elements except oxygen, nitrogen, and the lighter noble gases (Cotton & Wilkinson, 1980).
Example 5.2 (extract 2): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)
|Stage 2||Sample sentence extracts|
|Provide a review of the literature related to the topic (p.2 of 17)||The main source of elevated fluoride in plants comes from atmospheric industrial pollution. Because of its extensive industrial use, hydrogen fluoride is probably the greatest single atmospheric fluoride contaminant and is generally considered to be the most important plant pathogenic fluoride (WHO, 1984; Treshow, 1965)… However, fluorides can cause damage to sensitive plant species even at extremely low fluoride concentrations(Hill,1969), accumulate in large amounts within the plant and cause disease if ingested by herbivores(Weinstein, 1977).|
|Stages 4 and 5||Sample sentence extracts|
|Outline the current situation; Evaluate the current situation and indicate a gap (p.12 of 17)||Doley (1981) summarized several unpublished studies that compared the sensitivity rankings of 24 species according to the responses of photosynthesis and the development of visible injury symptoms. This analysis showed that for nine species, photosynthesis measurements indicated greater sensitivity than was obvious from visible assessment, and for seven species the converse applied. This indicated that, while it may generally be true that physiological responses occur at lower doses than visible injury, this does not always appear to be the case.|
Example 5.4 (extract 4): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)
|Stage 7||Sample sentence extracts|
|State the research problem(p.4 of 17)||In many Australian plant species, young expanding leaves appear much more severely injured by gaseous fluorides than are old leaves. This suggests, either that the young leaf tissues are more sensitive to fluoride than mature tissues, or that sufficient fluoride enters the tissues directly through the cuticle to disrupt normal leaf development before the stomata have fully developed and opened(Doley, 1986a). This question has not been resolved due to the inability to accurately localize low concentrations of fluoride(Doley, 1986a)|
Example 5.5 (extract 5): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)
|Stage 8||Sample sentence extracts|
|State the research aims and /or research objectives (extract p.16 of 17)||Knowledge of the effects of fluoride on the reproductive processes of species within a forest community will help predict potential changes within the community following an increase in atmospheric fluoride due to additional industrial sources, such as aluminium smelters. For these reasons, this project was designed to investigate the reproductive processes of selected species in a woodland near the aluminium smelter at Tomago.|
Example 5.6 (extract 6): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)
|Stage 11||Sample sentence extracts|
|State the outline of the Methodology (extract p.17 of 17).||Germination trials were performed on seeds collected from each species along the fluoride gradient to determine if fluoride has an effect on their viability and hence the regeneration fitness of each species. A density study was used to determine if there were any differences between numbers of mature and immature trees, number of trees producing seed follicles and the number of trees flowering in this season along a fluoride gradient. By using soils collected at various distances away from the smelter the study also investigated differences in germination from the natural soil seed reserve along a fluoride gradient.|