Writing a Thesis Sentence: An Introduction
Few sentences in your paper will vex you as much as the thesis sentence. And with good reason: the thesis sentence is typically that one sentence in the paper with the potential to assert, control, and structure the entire argument. Without a strong, thoughtful thesis or claim, a paper might seem unfocused.
Complicating the matter further is that different disciplines have different notions of what constitutes a good thesis sentence. Sometimes you'll encounter differences not only from discipline to discipline, but also from course to course. One of your professors might frown on a thesis sentence that announces your process: "This paper will argue X by asserting A, B, and C." Another professor might prefer this approach.
So what makes a good thesis sentence?
Despite the differences from discipline to discipline and from course to course, a good thesis will generally have the following characteristics:
A good thesis sentence will make a claim.
A good thesis rarely turns an intellectual problem into a black & white, "either/or" proposition that the writer will then defend. Rather, a good thesis offers a nuanced and interesting perspective that the writer can develop via careful analysis. This perspective must be more than an observation. For example, "America is violent" is an observation. "Americans are violent because they are fearful" (the position that Michael Moore takes in Bowling for Columbine) is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.
Put another way, a good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view. One might argue that America is violent because of its violent entertainment industry. Or because of the proliferation of guns. Or because of the disintegration of the family. In short, if your thesis is positing something that no one can (or would wish to) argue with, then it's not a good thesis.
A good thesis sentence will define the scope of your argument.
Your thesis sentence determines what you will discuss in your paper. It also determines what you won't discuss. Every paragraph in your paper exists in order to support your thesis and its claim. Accordingly, if one of your paragraphs seems irrelevant, you have two choices: get rid of the paragraph, or rewrite your thesis so that it is complex enough to embrace the whole of your argument.
A good thesis will shape your argument.
A good thesis not only signals to the reader what claim you're making, but also suggests how your argument will be presented. In other words, your thesis sentence should suggest the structure or shape of your argument to your reader.
Say, for example, that you are going to argue that "American fearfulness expresses itself in two curious ways: A and B." In this case, the reader understands that you are going to have two important points to cover, and that these points will appear in a certain order. If you suggest a particular ordering principle in your thesis and then abandon it, the reader could become confused.
Developing A Thesis: Sample Methods
Professors employ a variety of methods to teach students how to compose good thesis sentences. Your professor has likely demonstrated several methods to you. Here we offer sample methods employed by three instructors from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric: John Donaghy, Sara Biggs Chaney, and Karen Gocsik. Please note that these methods do not represent a program-wide sense of the thesis and how it should be taught or practiced. In fact, no such program-wide method exists. Instructors in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric believe that there are many approaches which can help students compose a good thesis. We offer you these examples with the hope that you will think about their underlying principles and consider how these principles might transfer to the work that you're doing in your classrooms.
JOHN DONAGHY: FINDING PATTERNS, SOLVING PROBLEMS
Professor John Donaghy's method is founded on the understanding that a good thesis comes from good analysis. In his view, analysis is a complicated process that requires readers to break down a text (event, object, or phenomenon) into parts, discovering patterns among the parts, and coming up with a theory for why these patterns exist. Professor Donaghy believes that students are initially afraid of analysis. He's puzzled by this fear. In fact, Professor Donaghy argues, we are analyzing all the time: life presents us with data that we are continually sorting by finding patterns, creating categories, and making meaning. Analysis is necessary for something as simple as crossing the street. Students can be encouraged to see that they already possess analytical skills that can be transferred to writing papers.
To illustrate how analysis brings us to the development of a thesis, Professor Donaghy suggests three steps regarding a simple reading of the following Gary Snyder poem, "Pine tree tops:"
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots. Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
First, when analyzing, students need to be conscious of examining parts of a text, looking for patterns (or repeating elements). In a short poem, students can make a number of simple observations, including:
- Number of words (34)
- Number of syllables in words (mostly single syllable)
- Parts of speech: mostly nouns; adjectives are scarce; surprisingly few verbs
Second, students need to try to determine how these parts and patterns are speaking to each other. Do these parts and patterns illustrate a similarity? Draw a contrast? Create an emphasis? Together form a new observation or idea? In terms of the poem:
- Nouns: so many nouns emphasizes the "thing-ness" of the poem
- Adjectives: very few; one (blue) is attached to a noun
- Verbs: the verbs (glows, bend, fade) are gentle, yielding verbs
Finally, students can put forward a proposition. For instance: Snyder builds his poem on nouns to give power to the "things" in his scene. Or Snyder chooses verbs that seem to yield to the nouns in order to tell us how to behave in the presence of nature. This proposition, with some tweaking, can become a working thesis.
SARA BIGGS CHANEY: EVOLVING THE THESIS BY UNPACKING THE ASSUMPTIONS & MAKING COUNTER-CLAIMS
Professor Sara Chaney uses various methods to help her students arrive at a thesis. One that has proven successful is requiring students to examine their assumptions. Professor Chaney begins this instruction by introducing the student to the enthymeme. Like the syllogism (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal), the enthymeme has three parts: the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The difference is that in the case of the syllogism, the major premise is based on fact (All men are mortal), while in the enthymeme it's based on a commonly held belief (cheating is unethical, smoking around children is a danger to their health, etc.). As Professor Chaney notes, in many cases the enthymeme is presented with the major premise left unstated: She smokes around her daughter; she endangers her daughter's health. Professor Chaney illustrates the importance in finding the "missing" major premise, arguing that unpacking an argument's unstated assumptions can help students to better analyze the texts they're writing about, and to create better texts of their own.
The key question to ask is: What must be true about the world in order for this statement to be true? Students are asked to put forth all hidden assumptions, large and small. This forces the students to dig beneath the surface of the text, to explore the structure and the nuance of the argument. In the process, ideas for a thesis will present themselves.
Once the students have drafted a thesis, Professor Chaney has a strategy (borrowed from David Rossenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically) for evolving the thesis by putting forward counter-claims. Students sometimes make the mistake of forcing evidence to fit an overly rigid claim, or of presenting their claim in the form of a list, with few connections between the points. To evolve the thesis, Professor Chaney asks students to begin with their basic claim and then to methodically increase the complexity of that claim through the introduction of complicating evidence. This new evidence forces students to redefine their initial claims and to determine how the counter-claim might or might not be accommodated by their thesis.
For instance, a student may have written the following thesis: "Reported cases of autism in children have increased by almost 200% in the last twenty years because autism has been redefined to include less severe forms of the disorder." Professor Chaney presents students with this complicating evidence: "Some research also suggests that autism may be linked to mercury exposure in childhood vaccines." Students may weigh the evidence to see which has more merit; they might expand their thesis to point to two reasons for rising autism; they might acknowledge the truth in both statements but want to subordinate one argument to the other; they might point out a causal relationship between the two sentences (i.e., has the frequent levels of mercury exposures led to a new definition of autism in the DSM-IV, which in turn has increased the numbers of reported cases of autism?). Using any of these methods, students will have improved their thesis sentences.
KAREN GOCSIK: FINDING THE UMBRELLA IDEA
Professor Karen Gocsik advises that developing a good thesis is often the result of finding the "umbrella idea." Finding this idea requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is then summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.
For instance, in an exploration of the Gospels as rhetoric, a student makes the specific observation that, in three of the four gospels, Jesus is reported as saying dramatically different things during his crucifixion. This observation by itself won't produce a paper - it's simply a statement of fact, with which no one will disagree. Nevertheless, this observation provokes a broader question: do these differences constitute a contradiction in the text? And if so, how do we understand this contradiction? What are the conditions of religious truth? Is there room for a contradiction as important as this?
Of course, these questions are too big to be addressed in an academic paper. And so the student returns to the text, still with these too-big questions haunting him. Reviewing the specific contradictions of the text, he crafts another set of questions: How should we understand the differences we see across the four gospels? What might have inspired these writers to craft this important crucifixion scene differently - particularly when, as is true of the authors of Matthew and Luke, they were using the same sources? The student posits that these differences arise from a difference in audience, historical moment, and rhetorical purpose. He turns to scholarship and finds his interpretation confirmed.
But the bigger questions persist. If the gospels are constructed to serve the earthly purposes of converting or supporting the beliefs of specific audiences, how can they also be considered as true? After doing a great deal of sketching, the student posits that perhaps the differences and contradictions are precisely what communicates the texts' truth to its audience of believers. After all, if the truth of a supreme being is beyond human grasp, then perhaps it requires a many-voiced or polyglossic narrative. With this idea in mind, the student produces a paper that not only details the variances across the texts, but offers a claim about why an audience of believers are not deterred by the differences. It is this claim that serves as the umbrella idea, synthesizing the student writer's various observations and ideas.
To sum up, successful employment of the umbrella method depends on four steps:
- Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
- Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
- Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
- They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.
Alternatives to the Thesis Sentence
Sometimes, the purpose of a piece of writing is not to make a claim but to raise questions. Other times, a writer wants to leave a matter unresolved, inspiring the reader to create his or her own position. In these cases, the thesis sentence might take other forms: the thesis question or the implied thesis.
The Thesis Question
As we've said, not every piece of writing sets out to make a claim. If your purpose as a writer is to explore, for instance, the reasons for the 9/11 attacks (a topic for which you are not prepared to make a claim), your thesis might read: "What forces conspired to bring these men to crash four jetliners into American soil?"
You'll note that this question, while provocative, does not offer a sense of the argument's structure. It permits the writer to pursue all ideas, without committing to any. While this freedom might seem appealing, in fact you will find that the lack of a declarative thesis statement requires more work: you need to tighten your internal structure and your transitions from paragraph to paragraph so that the essay is clear and the reader can easily follow your line of inquiry.
The Implied Thesis
One of the most fascinating things about a thesis sentence is that it is the most important sentence in a paper - even when it's not there.
Some of our best writers never explicitly declare their theses. In some essays, you'll find it difficult to point to a single sentence that declares the argument. Still, the essay is coherent and makes a point. In these cases, the writers have used an implied thesis.
Writers use an implied thesis when they want to maintain a light hand. However, just because the writer doesn't delcare the thesis doesn't mean that she was working without one. Good writers will have their thesis clearly stated - either in their own minds, or in their notes for the paper. They may elect not to put the thesis in the paper, but every paragraph, every sentence that they write is controlled by the thesis all the same.
If you decide to write a paper with an implied thesis, be sure that you have a strong grasp of your argument and its structure. Also be sure that you supply adequate transitions, so that the reader can follow your argument with ease.
Will This Thesis Sentence Make the Grade? (A Check List)
In the end, you may have spent a good deal of time writing your thesis and still not know if it's a good one. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
- Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
- Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
- Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
- Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
- Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis? If I am writing a research paper, does my introduction "place" my thesis within the larger, ongoing scholarly discussion about my topic?
- Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear? Have I structured my sentence so that the important information is in the main clause? Have I used subordinate clauses to house less important information? Have I used parallelism to show the relationship between parts of my thesis? In short, is this thesis the very best sentence that it can be?
What else do you need to know about thesis sentences?
A good thesis usually relies on a strong introduction, sharing the work.
As your writing becomes more sophisticated, you will find that a one-sentence thesis statement cannot bear the burden of your entire argument. Therefore, you will find yourself relying increasingly on your introduction to lay the groundwork. Use your introduction to explain some of your argument's points and/or to define its terms. Save the "punch" for your thesis. For more information about creating good introductions that can support your thesis sentences, see Introductions and Conclusions elsewhere in this website.
The structure of your thesis, along with its introduction, should in some way reflect the logic that brought you to your argument.
It's helpful when structuring your thesis sentence to consider for a moment how it was that you came to your argument in the first place. No matter what discipline you are working in, you came to your idea by way of certain observations. For example, perhaps you have noticed in a History of Education course that female college students around the turn of the century seem very often to write about the idea of service to the community. How did you come to that observation? What did you observe first? And, more importantly, how did you go about exploring the significance of this observation? Did you investigate other college documents to see if the value of service was explicitly stated there? Or was this value implied in course descriptions, extra curricular possibilities, and so forth? Reconstruct for yourself how you came to your observations, and use this to help you to create a coherent introduction and thesis.
A good working thesis is your best friend.
Those writers who understand the concept of "working thesis" are way ahead of the game. A "working thesis" is a thesis that works for you, helping you to see where your ideas are going. Many students keep their working thesis in front of them at all times to help them to control the direction of their argument. But what happens when you stumble onto an idea that your thesis isn't prepared for? Or, more important, what happens when you think everything is going well in your paper and suddenly you arrive at a block? Always return to your working thesis, and give it a critical once-over. You may find that the block in your writing process is related to some limitation in your thesis. Or you may find that hidden somewhere in that working thesis is the germ of an even better idea. Stay in conversation with your thesis throughout the writing process. You'll be surprised at what you can learn from it.
Developing an Implied Thesis Statement and Topic Sentences
Different types of writing require different types of thesis statementsA brief statement that identifies a writer's thoughts, opinions, or conclusions about a topic. Thesis statements bring unity to a piece of writing, giving it a focus and a purpose. You can use three questions to help form a thesis statement: What is my topic? What am I trying to say about that topic? Why is this important to me or my reader?. Most academic essaysA formal writing that the author composes using research, a strong thesis, and supporting details in order to advance an idea or demonstrate understanding of a topic. require the writer to include a stated thesis statementA thesis statement that has been explicitly written in an article, essay, or other reading. while other pieces, such as personal narrativesA story or account of events that is written or told. , allow the writer to use an implied thesis statementAn indirect overall argument, idea, or belief that a writer uses as the basis of an essay or dissertation but is never stated directly in the writing., one that is not directly stated but one that the reader can inferTo reach a conclusion based on context and your own knowledge. from reading. Both types of thesis statements tell the reader the authorA person who wrote a text.'s topicThe subject of a reading. and purposeThe reason the writer is writing about a topic. It is what the writer wants the reader to know, feel, or do after reading the work. for writing about it.
Both an implied and stated thesis in an academic essay may sound like this: Preparing a weekly schedule helps students to be successful because it allows them to structure their class and work schedules, plan ahead for busy periods, and build in some free time for themselves. Both types of thesis statements provide direction for the remainder of the essay. The difference is that as a stated thesis, the statement actually appears in the introductionThe first paragraph of an essay. It must engage the reader, set the tone, provide background information, and present the thesis. of the essay. An implied thesis statement, on the other hand, does not appear in the essay at all.
The introductory paragraphThe first paragraph of an essay. It must engage the reader, set the tone, provide background information, and present the thesis. written for a narrative using the above thesis as an implied thesis statement may sound like this:
My first week in college taught me many things about my new, busy schedule. I got caught up in socializing and missed a few important assignments. I also thought I could work more at my part-time job like I had during high school. I soon learned, however, that I needed to schedule my activities better in order to be successful.
An opening paragraphA selection of a writing that is made up of sentences formed around one main point. Paragraphs are set apart by a new line and sometimes indentation. like this one in a narrative does not come out and state the author's exact thesis. It does, however, provide similar direction for the reader, resulting in an implied thesis.
A narrative is a story that has a purpose for being told. In other words, when a writer chooses a topic for a narrative, he or she must have a reason for writing about it. For example, if you wanted to write about a significant event in your life by telling a story about how you got your first job, you would need to think about your audience reading the narrative and ask yourself, "What do I want my readers to take away from this story?"
Using a variety of starting strategies such as brainstormingA prewriting technique where the author lists multiple ideas as he or she thinks of them, not considering one more than another until all ideas are captured. The objective is to create one great idea, or many ideas, on which to base a writing., listing ideas, freewritingA prewriting technique where the author begins writing without regard to spelling or grammar about ideas, topics, or even characters, descriptions of events, and settings. Often the writer will freewrite for a set period of time. The objective is to develop a storyline through the writing process itself., clusteringA prewriting technique where the author creates an informal visual layout of possible ideas, grouping them together. The objective is to create visual clusters of information on which to base a writing., or webbingA prewriting technique where the author creates an informal visual layout of possible ideas and then draws lines to connect them into a type of "web." The objective is to see connections between events and characters. can help you to begin thinking about a topic. Then, you can ask yourself questions about your topic using the five "Ws and the H – who, what, where, when, why, and how" to gather more ideas to write about. From there, you can begin the writing process by writing one paragraph about your topic, including a clear topic sentenceA group of words, phrases, or clauses that expresses a complete thought. A complete sentence has these characteristics: a capitalized first word, a subject and a predicate, and end punctuation, such as a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!).. That paragraph should reveal the main pointsThe most important idea in a paragraph. Main points support the main idea of a reading. you would like to expand on in multiple paragraphs. The topic sentence in the paragraph can be used as your implied thesis statement for a narrative essay.
To write an implied thesis statement in response to a narrative promptInstructions for a writing assignment given by an instructor., follow these steps:
Step 1: Brainstorm.
Brainstorm possible ideas from your life experience that could potentially answer or respond to the prompt.
Step 2:Choose a topic and write a paragraph.
Choose one of the topics and write a brief paragraph explaining how that particular topic applies to the prompt.
Step 3:Write an implied thesis statement.
Using the topic sentence of the paragraph as a guide, write an implied thesis statement that explains why the details of the paragraph are important.
Step 4:Develop the topic sentences.
Begin outliningA preliminary plan for a piece of a writing, often in the form of a list. It should include a topic, audience, purpose, thesis statement, and main and supporting points. the essay by developing topic sentencesA sentence that contains the controlling idea for an entire paragraph and is typically the first sentence of the paragraph. from the supporting details in the paragraph. This ensures that the implied thesis works as the guiding idea for the narrative.
There are many approaches to writing a narrative essay, but using the steps above can help you respond effectively to a typical narrative prompt in a college class.
+ PRACTICAL APPLICATION
Sometimes it works better for writers to write an implied thesis statement instead of a stated one because of the nature of the contentThe text in a writing that includes facts, thoughts, and ideas. The information that forms the body of the work.. For example, a report including large amounts of data that seeks to persuade the reader to draw a certain conclusion would be more likely to include a stated thesis. However, a narrative essay that explains certain events in a person's life is more likely to include an implied thesis statement because the writer wants to engage the reader in a different way. College students are often asked to write narrative essays to make connections between their personal experiences and the content they are studying, and an implied thesis statement helps to organize narratives in the same way a stated thesis statement organizes other essays.
Let's examine the process of developing a narrative essay that includes an implied thesis statement.
Prompt from instructor: Write about an important life lesson you have learned.
Step 1: Brainstorm.
First, create a list of possible narrative essay topics from the prompt given by the instructor.
- A little kindness goes a long way.
- Being patient can bring rewards.
- I am a role model in everything I do.
Step 2: Choose a topic and write a paragraph.
Next, choose one of the ideas related to a life lesson to be your topic.
Topic: How I learned to be a role model in everything I do.
Now, begin to create the implied thesis using this topic. To do this, write a short paragraph describing how you will tell this narrative and what you learned or are trying to explain to the reader.
Narrative: I will tell the story of when I worked at the daycare center last summer. When I worked as a childcare assistant, I learned the children were watching me and would mimic my actions. This taught me to be careful of what I said and did because I learned that children act like those around them.
Step 3: Write an implied thesis statement.
Now, write the implied thesis statement: "My experience at the daycare center taught me to always be a good role model because children are always watching."
Step 4: Develop the topic sentences.
From here, develop topic sentences that support the implied thesis statement for the paragraphs of the essay.
- Paragraph 1, Introduction, Topic Sentence:
"I learned many lessons when I worked at the community daycare center."
- Paragraph 2, Topic Sentence:
"My first day on the job was the most important of them all."
- Paragraph 3, Topic Sentence:
"Little Johnny taught me what it meant to be a bad role model for children."
- Paragraph 4, Topic Sentence:
"I changed my actions and saw immediate results with the children."
- Paragraph 5, Conclusion, Topic Sentence:
"I’ve worked at the daycare center for three summers now and continue to learn lessons from the children each year."
From here, a draft of the narrative essay can be created using the topic sentences.
+ YOUR TURN
Now, follow the process to choose a topic, write an implied thesis statement, and develop topic sentences that support the implied thesis statement for a potential narrative essay.
Step 1: Brainstorm.
List three potential narrative topics from the following prompt:
Write about an important life lesson that you have learned.
Step 2: Choose a topic and write a paragraph.
From the list created in Step 1, choose one as your topic.
Write a three- to four-sentence paragraph about the topic.
Step 3: Write an implied thesis statement.
From the short paragraph above, write an implied thesis statement.
Step 4: Develop the topic sentences.
Develop topic sentences that would be used in a narrative essay to support the implied thesis statement.
- Learning how to benefit from your failures creates success.
- Patience leads to perfection.
- Real happiness comes not from things, but from giving and receiving love.
I learned how to play the piano, but it took many years to develop this skill. I had to be patient to sit down and practice daily. I also had to be patient with myself to realize I would learn how to play the piano in time. Only through repeated practice can a person really perfect a talent. Therefore, patience is essential to perfection.
+ METACOGNITIVE QUESTIONS
How can an implied thesis statement be just as effective as a stated thesis?
Why do implied thesis statements work well in a narrative essay?
Like a stated thesis, an implied thesis will include the topic and purpose of the piece of writing and will help the writer structure his or her supporting details.
Narratives are about something personal that is happening to the writer. Sometimes it is more effective for a writer to draw the reader into the narrative. Doing so can create a stronger connection between the writer and the passage and can help the reader find the meaning by becoming personally connected with the piece.
Developed by The NROC Project. Copyright ©2018 Monterey Institute for Technology and Education