Back to Tips and TechniquesoWriting Center Home Page
A writing assignment is designed to make an argument of some sort. In order to do that, it must be well organized and make a clear point. The framework and structure of the paper must be clear so as to direct the reader along the path of your argument. To accomplish this task, you need to develop a clear thesis. A thesis is the central argument. It is essential that it be concise and well written. It should be provided early on in your paper, so as to give the reader a road map and a sense of direction. Don't bury it, state it clearly and visibly. Developing a well-written thesis, and then revising and revisiting it, will help you develop a clearer understanding of your paper and your argument.
Thesis statements must make a claim. Thesis statements are not statements of fact, and they should be more than a simple point of view. For example:
Statement of fact: "Karl Marx was a political thinker who believed that capitalism exploits working people." This is a point that is essentially undisputeable.
Similarly, the claim "The United Nations is an organization comprised of different nation-states around the world" is not likely to inspire much debate.
Opinion statements: On the other hand, the sentence "Marx was wrong about capitalism because capitalism is good for people" is closer to a thesis statement because it makes a claim - it takes a stand or a perspective on a particular topic. But in this format it is too much of an opinion and not enough of an argument.
Similarly, "The United Nations is an ineffective organization" is closer to a thesis statement than the factual statement about the United Nations because it raises a point that is debateable. But again, in this format it doesn't offer the reader much information and, thus, it sounds like the author is simply stating their viewpoint which may or may not be substantiated by evidence.
The key difference between an opinion statement and thesis statement is that the latter conveys to the reader that the claim being offered has been thoroughly explored and is defendable by evidence.
Thesis statements: Thus, in the first example, you need to indicate that you have a clear sense of which of Marx's views were wrong and why they were wrong (by "wrong" do you mean incorrect, inaccurate, silly, ridiculous, unsupported...?). Furthermore, you would need to specify what you mean by capitalism being "good" for people. Good in what sense? It makes them happy? successful? productive? Being specific in your claims means that you will have to think through your evidence to be sure it supports your conclusions. By doing this, you will make it clear to your reader that your thesis is something that you have considered and are able to support through the knowledge you have acquired in the course.
Thus, you may end up with:
Marx's views about capitalism were rooted in a specific time and place, neither of which are true today; his arguments that capitalism exploits working people, when re-examined in contemporary society, do not account for the high standard of living enjoyed by a great many workers around the world.
Note: You should always think about what another argument (perhaps the opposite one) would look like if you were to try to counter your own. This will ultimately strengthen your argument because it requires you to justify to yourself and others why you think what you think. For example, one could counter the above thesis statement with:
Marx's critique of capitalism, though written over 100 years ago, is still devastating today; with the gap between rich and poor increasing even in the world's richest countries such as the U.S., it has become clear that a capitalist economic system can only result in massive exploitation of the working class.
Of course, one can re-work a thesis statement indefinitely and one can almost always find something at fault with it. But the point is that you must be sure that your thesis statement is indicating to your reader that you have an argument to make.
In addition, your thesis should also help you organize your paper. As you present your argument in your thesis, it should lay out how you will organize your paper. For example if your thesis is, "The organization of the UN makes it incapable of preventing war between major powers," this then gives the central structure to your paper. First you will explore the UN's organizational structure. Then you will examine why that structure hampers the UN's ability to keep peace. After laying the foundations of your central argument, you can elaborate on the specific logical steps within your thesis. You can add to the argument above, by describing the organizational structures you wish to explore, such as the Security Council, funding of the UN, and other assorted points that you are going to explore more fully in your paper. Always be sure to present them in order as they will appear in order as they will appear in your paper. In the end, your thesis should lay out your argument and provide the reader with a map to the paper.
Back to techniques
A thesis statement is a single sentence, preferably a simple declarative sentence, that expresses the basic idea around which the paper will develop.
The thesis statement declares the main purpose of the entire paper. It should answer the questions: "What is my opinion on subject X? What am I going to illustrate or define or argue in this paper?" It is the single most useful organizational tool for both the writer and the reader.
Although the thesis statement is a valuable organizing tool, it does not have to be the first sentence you write when you begin your paper. If you find yourself getting bogged down trying to zero in on your thesis statement, start writing background or detail paragraphs. Then come back and work on the thesis statement
Like any other sentence, the thesis statement has a subject and a verb. After you have decided upon the subject, write a verb to go with that subject. It should indicate what assertion you are making about that subject. A good thesis statement is clear, restricted, and precise. It must deal with only ONE dominant idea.
The thesis statement should be phrased in words that permit only ONE interpretation. Verbs made up of is or are plus a vague complement, such as good or interesting, are too imprecise to be useful. Also, avoid sentences with subordinate clauses. Subordinate clauses set booby traps for most writers because it takes so much time to explain the subordinate idea that there is often neither the time nor the space to do justice to the main idea.
Notice how this topic is pared down to a workable size:
- The college marching band
- My first week with out college marching band
- The day I won the tryout for the marching band
- Making the marching band gave me new confidence in my musical talent
- The day I made the marching band I decided to major in music
Finding the right thesis statement is like fishing; you may have to throw many back before you hook a satisfactory one—one that says exactly what you want it to. A well-thought-out thesis statement controls and directs the paper; it indicates both the writer's purpose and attitude. Here, clarity and precision are preferred to effect.
- There are serious objections to tracking students.
(This is too broad; what objections will be presented?)
- Benjamin Franklin had a colorful career.
(Colorful could mean anything; you have no control over the subject.)
- Paris is one of the most interesting cities in Europe.
("Interesting" is so vague that you may write about Paris with no point.)
- The United Nations has major weaknesses and cannot prevent a major war.
(This requires two you to do two things, not one).
- Comprehensive examinations encourage student cramming.
- A college education is a life-long benefit.
- In European nations that have adopted national health insurance, the cost of this program has always been much greater than that estimated by its supporters.
Summary of Do's and Don'ts
As you develop your thesis statement, keep the following "Do's" and Don'ts" in mind
A Good Thesis Statement Should
- Fulfill the assignment
- Assert one main idea
- Be clearly stated in specific terms
- Say what it means
- State an attitude or opinion
It Should Not
- Be unreasonable.
- Insult the reader
- Use general statements
- Be a figure of speech
- Consist of facts or data
- Start with "My purpose is...," "I intend to show ...," "In my opinion ...," "I feel ...," etc.