The Writing Center
University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb
What this handout is about...
This handout describes what
a thesis statement is, how it works in your writing, and how you can discover or refine one for your draft.
Writing in college often
takes the form of persuasion, i.e. convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you
are studying. Persuasion is a skill you practice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up, your
parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favorite candidate or policy. In college, course assignments
often ask you to make a persuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your point of view. This form
of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictable pattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your
topic, you state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement
and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper.
What is a thesis statement?
A 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 that
others might dispute.
• is usually a single
sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the
essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.
If your assignment asks you
to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement
near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor
may assume you will include one. When in doubt, ask your instructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an
assignment asks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstrate cause and effect, or to take a stand
on an issue, it is likely that you are being asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively. (Check out our handout,
How to Read an Assignment, for more information.)
How do I get a thesis?
A thesis is the result of
a lengthy thinking process. 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. Once you do
this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you
can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way.
Writers use all kinds of
techniques to stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships or comprehend the broader significance of a
topic and arrive at a thesis statement. For more ideas on how to get started, see our handout on Brainstorming.
How do I know if my thesis is strong?
If there’s time, run
it by your instructor or make an appointment at the Writing
Center to get some feedback. Even if you do not have time to get advice
elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft and its working thesis, ask yourself
• 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? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not
have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could
be more specific: Why is something “good”; What makes something “successful”?
• 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 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. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
• Does my thesis pass the how or 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.
Suppose you are taking a
course on 1 9th-century America, and the
instructor hands out the following essay assignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought the Civil
War. You turn on the computer and type out the following:
The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.
This weak thesis restates
the question without providing any additional information. You will expand on this new information in the body of the essay,
but it is important that the reader know where you are heading. A reader of this weak thesis might think, “What reasons?
How are they the same? How are they different?” Ask yourself these same questions and begin to compare Northern and
Southern attitudes (“The South believed slavery was right, and the North thought slavery was wrong”). Now, push
your comparison toward an interpretation-why did one side think slavery was right and the other side think it was wrong? You
look again at the evidence and you decide the North believed slavery was immoral while the South believed it upheld their
way of life. You write:
While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the
South fought to preserve its own institutions.
Now you have a working thesis!
Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of how the two sides disagreed over this reason. As
you write the essay, you will probably begin to characterize these differences more precisely and your working thesis may
seem vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moral reasons, they just saw morality in different contexts. You end
up revising the working thesis into a final thesis that really captures the argument in your paper:
While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused
on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own rights to property and self-government.
Compare this to the original
weak thesis. This final thesis presents a way of interpreting evidence that illuminates the significance of the question.
Keep in mind that this is one of many possible interpretations of the Civil War-it is not the one and only right answer to
the question. There isn’t a right answer; there are only strong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses
Let’s look at another
example. Suppose your literature professor hands out the following assignment in a class on the American novel: Write an analysis
of some aspect of Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. “This will be easy,” you think. “I loved Huckleberry
Finn!” You grab a pad of paper and write:
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.
Why is this thesis weak?
Think about what the reader would expect from the essay that follows: you will most likely provide a general, appreciative
summary of Twain’s novel. The question did not ask you to summarize, it asked you to analyze. Your professor is probably
not interested in your opinion of the novel; instead, she wants you to think about why it’s such a great novel-what
do Huck’s adventures tell us about life, about America, about coming of age, about race relations, etc.? First, the
question asks you to pick an aspect of the novel that you think is important to its structure or meaning-for example, the
role of storytelling, the contrasting scenes between the shore and the river, or the relationships between adults and children.
Now you write:
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.
Here’s a working thesis
with potential: you have highlighted an important aspect of the novel for investigation; however, it’s still not clear
what your analysis will reveal. Your reader is intrigued, but is still thinking, “So what? What’s the point of
this contrast? What does it signify Perhaps you are not sure yet, either. That’s fine-begin to work on comparing scenes
from the book and see what you discover. Free write, make lists, jot down Huck’s actions and reactions. Eventually you
will be able to clarify for yourself, and then for the reader, why this contrast matters. After examining the evidence and
considering your own insights, you write:
Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find
the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.
This final thesis statement
presents an interpretation of a literary work based on an analysis of its content. Of course, for the essay itself to be successful,
you must now present evidence from the novel that will convince the reader of your interpretation.
Anson, Chris M. and Robert
A. Schwegler. The Longman Handbook for Writers. 2nd ed. New York:
Hairston, Maxine and John
J. Ruszkiewicz. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. New York:
Lunsford, Andrea and Robert
Connors. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s,
Rosen, Leonard J. and Laurence
Bebrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn
& Bacon, 1997.
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