What this handout is about
This handout describes what a thesis statement is, how thesis statements work in your writing, and how you can craft or refine one for your draft.
Writing in college often takes the form of persuasion—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?
- 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.
- makes a claim that others might dispute.
- is usually a single sentence near the beginning of your paper (most often, at the end of the 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 on understanding assignments for more information.)
How do I create 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&” that presents a basic or main idea and an argument that you think you can support with evidence. Both the argument and your these are likely to 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 the following:
- 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? If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
- Is my thesis statement specific enough? 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 likely to be &”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’s 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.
Suppose you are taking a course on 19th-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. It does not tell the reader 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 (perhaps you first think &”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 that you are going to argue that the North believed slavery was immoral while the South believed it upheld the Southern 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 start to seem too vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moral reasons, and that they just focused on different moral issues. 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 right to 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 one right answer; there are only strong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses of evidence.
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: most likely a general, appreciative summary of Twain’s novel. But 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, 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.
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.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial .
Anson, Chris M. and Robert A. Schwegler. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2010.
Ruszkiewicz, John J. et al. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 2010.
Lunsford, Andrea A. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Ramage, John D. John C. Bean, and June Johnson. The Allyn Bacon Guide to Writing. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 2014.
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The introduction is the first chapter of your thesis and thus is the starting point of your thesis. You describe the topic of your thesis. formulate the problem statement and write an overview of your thesis .
Purpose of the introduction:
- Introduce the topic. What is the purpose of the study and what is the topic?
- Gain the reader’s interest. Make sure that you get the reader’s attention by using clear examples from recent news items or everyday life.
- Demonstrate the relevance of the study. Convince the reader of the scientific and practical relevance.
Parts of the introduction
A clear introduction often consists of the following parts:
Motivation (Problem indication)
What is the motive for your research. This can be a recent news item or something that has always interested you. By choosing an interesting example, the reader is immediately encouraged to read the rest of your introduction.
Based on the motivation or problem indication, you describe the topic of your thesis. Make sure that you directly define the topic of your research. Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to research too much, but rather always look for a niche.
Theoretical and practical relevance of the research
Using arguments, state the scientific relevance of your research. You can do this by citing scientific articles and combining them. Also, highlight here the discussion chapters of studies that you are going to use for your own research.
Next, explain the practical use of your research. If you find this difficult to do, then try to pose the question of your research’s use to friends or acquaintances. They often have a completely different view of your topic.
When you are writing a thesis for a company, you will find that the scientific relevance is much more difficult to demonstrate. On the other hand, it should be easier to show the practical benefit. Don’t think just of the company at which you are doing an internship, but think of, for example, practical applications for the entire industry.
Scientific situation related to the theme of your research
In this element of the introduction, you specify the most important scientific articles that relate to your topic and you briefly explain them. Thus, you show that many studies have been conducted around the topic, and that you won’t get stuck due to finding too little information on your topic.
Objective, problem statement and research questions
In this part, you describe the objective of your study and the problem statement that you have formulated. Pay attention: there is a difference between the objective and the problem statement. To answer the problem statement, you can use research questions. These are sometimes also called sub questions. If you use hypotheses instead of research questions, you can also note them here.
The basis of the hypotheses is the conceptual framework. However, sometimes you are not yet able to formulate hypotheses, because you are first going to conduct a literature review. In this case you develop the hypotheses and the conceptual framework later, after the literature review .
Brief description of the research design
Later in your research, you develop the research design in detail. However, in the introduction you also provide a brief summary of your research design. How, where, when and with whom are you going to conduct your research?
Here, you briefly describe how your thesis is constructed. Summarize each chapter briefly in one paragraph at the most, but preferably in one sentence. Make sure your thesis outline is not repetitively phrased because it does not vary its word choice.
Begin with your research proposal
Often, the research proposal or the action plan is a good start for writing your introduction. You will notice that you already have written many parts of the introduction in your research proposal.
Although the introduction is at the beginning of your thesis, this placement doesn’t mean that you must finish the introduction before you can start the rest of your research. The further you get in your research, the easier it will be to write a good introduction that is to the point. Thus, it’s no disaster if you can’t write a perfect introduction right away. Take up the introduction again at a later time and keep writing and editing until you arrive at a nice whole.
To introduce your subject and indicate what you wish to discuss, you should use the simple present tense. Background information is written in the simple past tense or present perfect tense .
Length of the introduction
There are no specific requirements with regard to the length of your introduction. Thus, there’s no need to squeeze everything together on just one page, like with the abstract .
But you do need to write to the point. Don’t repeat yourself and only write down what’s actually important to introduce your topic and research.
Checklist for the introduction
The introduction of the research is written with a stimulating topic.