Thesis Statements: How to Write Them in Academic Essays

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A thesis statement is the single, specific claim that your essay supports. A strong thesis answers the question you want to raise; it does so by presenting a topic, your precise opinion on the topic, and a reasoning blueprint that sketches out the organization for the rest of the paper. A good thesis is not merely a factual statement, an observation, a personal opinion or preference, or the question you plan to answer.

Yes (good example)Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle through its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.

  • Thesis Statements: How to Frame Academic ArgumentsTopic: The representation of Indian lifestyle in the book Black Elk Speaks
  • Precise Opinion: the book is accurate
  • Reasoning Blueprint: the book pays attention to cultural detail, it uses Indian words, and it uses direct quotations from Black Elk. (The rest of the paper will establish the truth of teach of these supporting points, and then explain why they add up to support the truth of the thesis statement.)

Note about “accurately represents”: After I started assigning this handout, I started seeing the phrase “accurately represents” in a large proportion of student papers. You might try to argue that some text “borrows ineffectively from” or “forces us to question our assumptions about” or “provides a more expensive but more ethical solution than” or “challenges Jim Smith’s observation that ‘blah blah’” instead.

A more complicated thesis statement for a paper that asks you to demonstrate your ability engage with someone else’s ideas (rather than simply summarize or react to someone else’s ideas) might follow a forumla like this:

Although Smith says “quote a passage that makes a specific claim you intend disagree with” (123), in this paper I will use Brown’s concept of X to argue that [your original thesis goes here].”

Notes:

  • Your instructor might not want you to use “I” in your paper. You might instead say “This paper will use…” or “Applying Brown’s concept of X will show…”
  • Rather than promising to “use Brown to argue” (which is too general), this model recommends that you “use Brown’s concept of X to argue” (or “Brown’s case study” or “Brown’s thorough analysis” or “Brown’s unsuccessful rebuttal” — the more speciric you are about how, specifically you will use Brown, the better).
  • It’s not enough to disagree with someone else; a strong paper will go beyond saying “Smith is wrong” and will instead say “Here’s a better solution that avoids problems P and Q that prevent Smith’s solution from working.”

For a short paper (1-2 pages), the thesis statement is often the first sentence. A complex thesis statement for a long paper may be part of a thesis paragraph. But it’s hard to go wrong if you put your thesis first.Useful Formulae for Thesis StatementsIf you’re not sure whether you have a good thesis statement, see whether you can fit your ideas into one of these basic patterns.

  • [Something] [does something] because [reason(s)].
  • Because [reason(s)], [something] [does something].
  • Although [opposing evidence], [reasons] show [something] [does something].

For longer papers, thesis statements can be very complex.

While [a specific, named person] says [a direct quote or paraphrase from the source], [a different, named person] says [something else]. While the two authors disagree over [a minor point], they both share a deep concern over [the topic of your paper]. [Person one's] refusal to accept [a particular point made by person two]suggests that [person one] is [your thesis -- stating the real reason why person one won't agree with person two].

Parts of a Thesis StatementThe thesis statement has 3 main parts: the limited subject, the precise opinion, and the blueprint of reasons.1. Limited Subject2. Precise OpinionThe precise opinion gives your answer to a question about the subject. A good precise opinion is vital to the reader’s comprehension of the goal of the essay.3. Blueprint of ReasonsA blueprint is a plan. It lets the builder know that the foyer will be here, the living room will be to the east, the dining room to the west, and the family room will be north.The blueprint of an essay permits you to see the whole shape of your ideas before you start churning out whole paragraphs.While it’s okay for you to start writing down your ideas before you have a clear sense of your blueprint, your reader should never encounter a list of details without being told exactly what point these details are supposed to support. (For more details on the reasoning blueprint, see Blueprinting.)

Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle by its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.

In the blueprint, the author signals an intention to support the precise opinion. The author of the example above introduces three different kinds of evidence:

  • cultural details
  • Indian words
  • quotes from Black Elk.

Informed by this blueprint, the reader expects to encounter one section (a paragraph or more) devoted to each subtopic.The blueprint determines the shape of your paper.If your thesis statement introduces three reasons, the reader will expect a section on reason 1, a section on reason 2, and a section on reason 3. For a single paragraph, you might only spend one sentence on each reason. For a 2-3 page paper, each reason might get its own paragraph. For a 10-page paper, each reason might contain its own local thesis statement, with its own list of reasons, so that each section involves several paragraphs.To emphasize the structure of your essay, repeat keywords or paraphrased ideas from the blueprint as you introduce the sections in which you expand on each point. Crafting good transitions is a skill that takes time and practice. (See Transitions and Reminders of Thesis).

Note: If you repeat your blueprint phrases and your thesis statement robotically (“The third point I want to talk about is how Black Elk Speaks accurately represents the Indian lifestyle through its direct quotes from Black Elk.”), your writing will be rather dry and lifeless. Dull writing is probably better than aimless rambling, although neither is terribly effective. |

Note: A thesis statement amounts to nothing if the paper is not completely focused on that main point. Blueprinting helps create the coherency of the thesis throughout the entire essay, which makes it a necessary part of the thesis statement.

 

Yes (good example) Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle through its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.
  • Topic: The representation of Indian lifestyle in the book Black Elk Speaks
  • Precise Opinion: the book is accurate
  • Reasoning Blueprint: the book pays attention to cultural detail, it uses Indian words, and it uses direct quotations from Black Elk. (The rest of the paper will establish the truth of teach of these supporting points, and then explain why they add up to support the truth of the thesis statement.)
No (poor example) Is Black Elks Speaks an accurate representation of Indian lifestyle?
This is a question, not a statement. It’s fine to sit down at the keyboard with the intention of writing a paper to answer this question, but before you start churning out the sentences, you should have a clear idea of what answer you’re trying to support.
Weak (questionable example) This paper will look at the book’s attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotations from Black Elk, in order to determine whether Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle.
The above sample is slightly better because it offers more detail, but it still doesn’t say whether the author plans to argue for or againt the book’s accuracy.
Yes (good example) Because the events in the story emphasize Black Elk’s role as a Sioux Warrior, and do not describe his eventual conversion to Catholicism and membership in the Society of St. Joseph, Black Elk Speaks presents a skewed and simplified view of the complex history of Native Americans.
Note that the above sample contains a topic (the accuracy of Black Elk Speaks), opinion (it is skewed and simplified), and reasoning (because the book only tells part of the story). You don’t need to present those three parts in that exact order every time; furthermore, your instructor may have a good reason to ask you for a different organization. But most of the time, including these three parts will help your reader to follow your ideas much more closely.
Yes (good example) Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle through its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.
The limited subject tells the reader exactly on what, or whom the article focuses. The book title (Black Elk Speaks), from the example, is the limited subject of the thesis statement:
No (poor example) Biographies of all types can teach us many things about the past. What was the culture like? What was the language like? And what did the people say? One such book is Black Elk Speaks, which tells the story of a Sioux warrior in the late 1800s. How accurate is this book? This paper will investigate the cultural details, the language, and what Black Elk actually said, in order to determine the answer.
The above sample starts off with a wordy, general statement about biographies. But the main topic isn’t about biographies of all types, it’s specifically about one book, Black Elk Speaks.
Yes (good example) Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle by its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.
In order to demonstrate college-level thinking, your opinion should be non-obvious, and it should be possible for a reasonable person to disagree with you. There aren’t many reasonable counter-arguments for claims like “Drug abuse is bad” or “The Nazi regime’s execution of 6 million innocent Jews was horrible.” That’s because it’s always wrong to “abuse” anything, and it’s always wrong to execute the innocent.
No (poor example) Does Black Elk Speaks accurately represent Indian lifestyle?
A question is not an opinion. You may, of course, wish to argue that a particular question is unanswerable, or not even worth asking — but that would still be an opinion that you would have to back up just like any other opinion.
Yes (good example) Black Elk Speaks fails to represent Indian lifestyle by its lack of attention to cultural detail, its misunderstanding of Indian words, and its lack of quotes from Black Elk himself.
This precise opinion also tells how the author feels, yet it is completely opposite from the original example. Either is acceptable,as long as the rest of the essay supports the opinion.

17 Oct 2000 — originally posted by Nicci Jordan, UWEC Junior
08 Dec 2000 — first posted here. Maintained by Prof. Jerz.
13 Dec 2003 — links updated
22 Sep 2006 — moderate revisions by Jerz
29 Oct 2011 — updated by Jerz

Blueprinting: Planning Your Essay
A blueprint is a rough but specific plan, or outline, which defines the structure of your whole essay. The blueprint, usually located within the thesis statement, is a brief list of the points you plan to make, compressed into just a few words each, in the same order in which they appear in the body of your paper.Hochstein, Jordan, and Jerz

Thesis Reminders
A thesis reminder is a direct echo of the thesis statement. In a short paper, the topic sentence of each paragraph should repeat words or phrases from the thesis statement.Dennis G. Jerz

Timed Essays: Planning and Organizing in a Crunch