Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Developing a Thesis

Chapter 2: Section 4, Lesson 2

A London art museum once featured an exhibit with a plain canvas, symbolizing the potential of an uncreated work. Writers face the same scenario when staring at an empty page or blank screen. And just as an artist starts a masterpiece with a few strokes, you might begin a paper by writing out a working thesis statement, hoping to encompass the central theme of the essay.

Thesis Statement Basics
All writing, no matter what form it takes, has a primary topic. In a well-developed academic essay, this primary topic is usually expressed in a thesis statement. A thesis is typically a sentence that gives the writer’s main idea about the topic. Depending on the essay’s purpose and audience, the thesis could be an argumentative, analytic, or evaluative claim or a main purpose for exploring the topic. Different assignments and instructors require different approaches to thesis-writing, but a strong thesis will help your readers understand your essay’s main purpose and how it will achieve that purpose.

How to Write a Thesis
Your thesis will depend on the main idea and focus of your assignment. For example, if you’re writing an argument, then your thesis will likely provide the argumentative claim your essay will defend. If you’re analyzing a short story, then your thesis will address the literary elements your essay will discuss.

A thesis should include a clear statement of the essay’s main idea: The setting of Les Miserables foreshadows the outcome of the plot, suggesting that a person’s destiny is determined by their environment. If you are in a composition class or a university prep class, your instructor might also expect that your thesis previews your essay’s subtopics; this is sometimes called a “list thesis” or a “three-point thesis,” if the essay has three subtopics: Through the night scenes, the constant storms, and the war-time background, the setting of Les Miserables foreshadows the outcome of the plot, suggesting that a person’s destiny is determined by their environment. Such structured thesis statements are especially common in five-paragraph essays but less common for most other types of essays.

Before you set up your thesis, determine your main idea and the focus of your assignment, and check for any special requirements your instructor has provided. You may also think about choosing body paragraph topics before writing a thesis because the topics will give a clearer sense of the information the thesis should preview. If you’re using a list-style thesis, then your thesis may outline the exact subtopics you’ll use to support your main idea. If you’re using a different thesis format, your thesis will still provide your draft’s main idea. The two examples above illustrate different forms that a literary analysis thesis might take, but there are many other thesis possibilities depending on your topic and premise:

  • Argument: The campus should implement an outdoor smoking ban because smoking negatively impacts student health and university reputation.
  • Cause/Effect: Although many teens enjoy social networking, it can be detrimental overall because it can lead to several harmful effects.
  • Descriptive Essay: The nature preserve is one of the most relaxing and peaceful places on campus because of several characteristics.

As you frame your thesis, try to avoid announcing thesis statements (The following essay will argue that . . .); simply state your main idea as the examples above demonstrate.

When to Write and Revise a Thesis
You’ll probably work on the thesis during at least two stages of the writing process. As you do, keep these tips in mind:

  • Read the instructions or assignment description and decide what type of main idea and body paragraph topics are appropriate
  • Choose which main idea you’ll develop
  • Choose topics to develop into separate body paragraphs
  • Draft a thesis that gives your main idea and consider whether a preview of the body paragraphs is useful
  • Draft the essay
  • Review the first draft to determine if your main idea or body paragraph topics have changed from your original plan
  • Revise the thesis as needed to reflect the main idea and body paragraph topics you’ll include in the next or final draft

Possible Thesis Variations
As you think more about the thesis and its possibilities, some additional options will be helpful to remember. For example, if you’re having trouble drafting the thesis, you might want to “freewrite” before choosing the main idea and/or body paragraph topics as a way of discovering your intentions and ideas. Also, if you revise, delete, or add body paragraphs to an essay draft, the thesis will need to reflect these changes, evolving as the paper evolves. On the other hand, if the first draft stays close to your original intentions, the thesis may not need to be revised for the second draft.

Where to Place a Thesis
Most instructors and readers expect to see a thesis statement at the end of the introduction. Typically, your thesis will appear in the first or second paragraph to prepare readers for the body paragraphs. Placing the thesis at the beginning of the introduction can be problematic because readers typically need some preparation and background information about the topic; most of the time, then, the thesis closes the introduction and leads to the essay’s body. Personal and narrative essays may save the thesis for the concluding paragraph or even use an implied thesis—a main idea that is clear based on the entirety of the draft but isn’t explicitly stated in any one sentence. When in doubt about where to place the thesis, check with your instructor.

Think About It
  • What main idea do you want to express about your essay’s purpose?
  • How well does the first draft of the thesis express the main idea?
  • As the paper evolves, how should the thesis change to best prepare your readers for what you’ve written?

Drafting and revising a clear thesis benefits you and your readers. A strong thesis tells readers what the essay will achieve but also makes your purpose clearer to you, leading to a more enjoyable writing process.