Forming a Thesis

Students sometimes struggle with the thesis for their papers, and this can be understandable if we consider what a thesis statement is and the placement of a thesis in most academic writing.


~ The thesis is the main point, the argument, of an essay.

First consider the word argument. In academics, the term argument is different than what it often means in the general sense. An argument in academics is not an emotionally driven angry discussion. In fact, a good argument in academics is nearly the opposite. It is the writer’s opinion about a debatable topic, and that opinion is backed up by logic and research.

Next, consider that we use writing to arrive at our argument. This means that for most of us, doing the research about a topic and then writing about the topic leads us to an educated opinion. That educated opinion becomes our thesis.

But wait! Many formal essays have the thesis statement in the first page or two of the paper. Many students, therefore, presume that they need to have their thesis before they actually start writing their papers. This is not the case.

~ A thesis develops through research and writing. It is best to begin with a “working thesis” so that as one writes and researches, the thesis begins to emerge as a more solid statement.

Writing is a process, and good papers take time to craft. A good thesis will also take time to take shape, so rest assured that the thesis can be “tightened up” in the later drafting stages.

Once a student has a working thesis and has drafted a paper, it’s time to revise that thesis as needed. Perhaps the student’s opinion has changed once researching and writing occurred. Such a shift in opinion is not uncommon. What is important is that the student has remained open to researching and understanding other scholar’s opinions.

~ A thesis statement should meet the following criteria.

  The thesis should be debatable. It should not be mere fact.

Fact: Pollution is a problem for modern society.

Thesis: Air pollution should be brought under control by legislation and by citizen actions.

The first statement is not arguable. Starting with such a statement indicates the paper will simply be a collection of facts gathered, but the student has not done any thinking/analysis of the facts.

The second statement could be argued. Notice the use of the word “should” in the thesis. This suggest that there are other options which could be suggested to control air pollution, but that this writer will be making an argument to take two approaches to controlling it: legislation and the actions of citizens.

This paper may include some of the research about how air pollution is a problem, but it will go further; this paper will suggest a solution to the problem. This thesis statement indicates the student has given some thought and done some analysis with the researched material.

2.  A thesis should indicate the main points that will be made in the essay.

In addition to indicating the argument to be made, many thesis statements allude to what will come in the essay. This provides a “road map” for the reader so that readers can follow the idea being developed by the writer. It can assist the reader, and will help the writer stay focused on the topics and main points. Keep in mind that the “working thesis” may not provide an accurate road map and will need to be revised during the revision stage.

Thesis: Air pollution should be brought under control by legislation and by citizen actions. The combination of legislative action and citizen action has proven effective in other social problems, the success of grass-roots work is well documented, and legislation provides check points for industry compliance.

The first sentence provides the argument, and the second sentence provides the outline of what is to come in the essay.

3.  Depending on the length of the paper, modifications can be made to the thesis statement and where it is placed. For shorter papers, it is often at the end of the introductory paragraph. For longer papers, it is usually placed within the first two pages. Many informal essays that appear in popular magazines do not clearly indicate the thesis until the midway point or even the end of the essay. Such shifts in writing practices do occur, but for academic writing, particularly in the first two years of undergraduate work, the thesis should be clearly stated within the first page or two of the essay.

4.  Topic sentences in the essay should make reference back to the thesis statement so that the essay sections are connected. References back to the thesis also provide the reader with an organizational pattern to assist with understanding the writer’s argument.

5.  The thesis statement is often restated in the conclusion of the essay. Again, trends in writing may vary, but in general, it is wise to include a reiteration of the argument and the main points of an essay in the conclusion.


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