33 What is a thesis statement?

Kathy Boylan

Once the topic has been narrowed to a workable subject, then determine what you are going to say about it; you need to come up with your controlling or main idea.  A thesis is the main idea of an essay.  It communicates the essay’s purpose with clear and concise wording and indicates the direction and scope of the essay.  It should not just be a statement of fact nor should it be an announcement of your intentions.  It should be an idea, an opinion of yours that needs to be explored, expanded, and developed into an argument.

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.
  • 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 somewhere in the introductory paragraph that presents the writer’s argument to the reader. However, as essays get longer, a sentence alone is usually not enough to contain a complex thesis.  The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the readers of the logic of their interpretation.

If an 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 the writer needs a thesis statement because the instructor may assume the writer will include one. 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.

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. (See chapter on argument for more detailed information on building an argument.)  Once you have done this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you can support with evidence.  It is deemed a “working thesis” because it is a work in progress, and it is subject to change as you move through the writing process.  Writers use all kinds of techniques to stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships or comprehend the broader significance of a topic to arrive at a thesis statement.

For example, there is the question strategy. One way to start identifying and narrowing a thesis idea is to form a question that you want to answer. For example, if the starting question was “Do cats have a positive effect on people with depression? If so, what are three effects?

The question sends you off to explore for answers. You then begin developing support. The first answer you might find is that petting cats lowers blood pressure, and, further question how that works. From your findings (research, interviews, background reading, etc.), you might detail how that happens physically or you might describe historical evidence. You could explain medical research that illustrates the concept. Then you have your first supporting point — as well as the first prong of your thesis: Cats have a positive effect on people with depression because they can lower blood pressure . . . .

When you start with a specific question and find the answers, the argument falls into place. The answer to the question becomes the thesis, and how the answer was conceived becomes the supporting points (and, usually, the topic sentences for each point).

How do I know if my thesis is strong?

If there is time, run it by the instructor or make an appointment at the Writing Center (https://tinyurl.com/ybqafrbf) 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 the first draft and its working thesis, ask the following:

  • Is my thesis statement an opinion, and is it a complete thought?  Beware of posing a question as your thesis statement.  Your thesis should answer a question that the audience may have about your topic.  Also, be sure that your thesis statement is a complete sentence rather than just a phrase stating your topic.


  • 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, it is possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.


  • Is my thesis statement provable? Can I establish the validity of it through the evidence and explanation that I offer in my essay?


  • Is my thesis statement specific? 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 specifically 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. It is okay to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.


  • 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.


To create a thesis statement simply follow this formula:



  1. Animals + Dogs make better pets than cats. =When it comes to animals, dogs make better pets than cats because they are more trainable, more social, and more empathetic.
  2. Movies & Emotions + Titanic evoked many emotions. = The movie Titanic evoked many emotions from an audience.
  3. Arthur Miller & Death of a Salesman + Miller’s family inspired the Loman family. = Arthur Miller’s family and their experiences during the Great Depression inspired the creation of the Loman family in his play Death of a Salesman.

For more information on bad, good and better thesis statements from the writing center at the University of Evansville, go here (https://tinyurl.com/y8sfjale).


Exercise: Creating Effective Thesis Statements

Using the formula, create effective thesis statements for the following topics:

  1. Fake News
  2. Drone Technology
  3. Fast Food
  4. Homework
  5. Helicopter Parents

Then have a partner check your thesis statements to see if they pass the tests to be strong thesis statements.


Once a working thesis statement has been created, then it is time to begin building the body of the essay.  Get all of the key supporting ideas written down, and then you can begin to flesh out the body paragraphs by reading, asking, observing, researching, connecting personal experiences, etc. Use the information from below to maintain the internal integrity of the paragraphs and smooth the flow of your ideas.



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