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Writing Tips: Developing a Thesis

June 6, 2013

The What and How of Theses

By: Kayla Webb and Meg McSwain, with Consultant Contributions

You’re ready to write your paper. You have all of your research, a plan for your paper, a cup of coffee, and maybe even a few introductory sentences, but now you’re stuck. You know that you need a thesis statement, but how do you go about writing one? How do you put the entire point of your paper into one statement?


A thesis statement is a one or two-sentence summary of the central analysis or argument of a text, offering its central idea that is then supported through appropriate evidence and analysis. An effective thesis statement is not just a statement of fact or a description of a topic, but a really good thesis statement also explains what your particular position is on an issue or your interpretation of the significance of a particular idea. While some general principles can be offered for writing a thesis statement, the structure of the thesis statement depends on the type of text you are writing. To determine what kind of thesis statement your writing needs, consider the genre in which you are writing and your purpose, or what you want your writing to accomplish. “Genre” simply means “type.” The most common genres or types of academic essays are argumentative, analytical, expository, or narrative. Each genre requires a slightly different kind of thesis statement. Although the traditional location for a thesis is the last sentence of the first paragraph of a piece of writing, a thesis can be anywhere in the first paragraph, in most cases, where it is effectively understood by the reader.

The process of writing a thesis statement may seem daunting and a bit overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When I am faced with writing a difficult thesis statement, I have a couple of things that I like to do.

First, I ask myself why I am writing the paper and what I am trying to prove. This usually means consulting the assignment sheet and making sure that I understand what exactly the professor wants me to write about. I try to brainstorm some ideas on my own by writing them all down. I write out all of the things that I think will answer the question of what I am trying to prove. This usually gives me the direction I want to go with a paper and leads me to a thesis statement. At this point, I develop a working thesis, jotting it down at the beginning of my text. From this point, I shift my focus to the body of my argument, allowing myself to come back to my thesis once I have more of the argument’s trajectory formed.

If I am still stuck, I sift through any research I have collected and see if anything sparks an idea or fits together. This will usually happen when a piece of research sticks out to me, and I am able to form my own original thesis, even if this thesis isn’t as original or insightful as I would like. With all writing, I can always come back and revise it before its deadline. The most important part of thesis development, though, is making sure that your final thesis and your text work together, meaning the body of your writing actually supports the specific thesis statement in the introduction.

Advice from University Writing Center Consultants

Kyle: Usually, after doing some preliminary research and planning, I start with a general topic and write about it for a couple pages without any direction. Once I have some nonsense on paper, I either reread it or talk it over with somebody else; then, I actually get something resembling a thesis together.

I find that starting in the middle and working backwards from there is a lot better for me. As odd as it sounds, it feels more structured overall; maybe it just feels less forced. If I start in the middle, that’s the stuff that I want to talk about, and if my thesis isn’t  initially exactly what I want it to be, it can affect how I end up writing later on down the road.

Usually, clients are already married to their thesis statements or have no clear direction for the paper. The thesis, after all, should be the root argument of every sentence in the entire paper, and I should know as a reader what to expect throughout the paper after I’m done reading the introduction. Sometimes I think if the thesis is the absolute first thing you write, it can prevent you from thinking about anything other than the thesis, which can cause dissonance later down the line. That’s where issues of clarity or organization come in.

I usually tell writers to be clear in their introductions more than anything else. Again, I should know everything I need to know after I read the introduction regarding the paper at hand. Ultimately, I should know what the argument of the paper is within the thesis. If this isn’t clear, it throws off everything else within the paper and I lose focus. Therefore, if thesis problems exist, usually we end up reading through the entire paper before we can even start to talk about thesis revisions.

Allie: I usually have a vague idea of what I want to write about when I start researching, so I’ll have a preliminary thesis that I sort of work off of that guides my research. As I research and write, though, I rewrite my thesis and introduction multiple times as I recognize new connections or new evidence for my topic. By the end of my writing process, my thesis has almost always evolved to become more focused or has shifted focus entirely. While I find theses incredibly difficult to write at the beginning of the process, I find it’s important to have a jumping off point. I rarely, if ever, use my original thesis in my finished product, but having some idea written down no doubt guides my research and prompts me to write a more focused paper.

In my UWC experience, clients have theses that are too broad. When people come in with this issue, they also usually complain about not having enough content. While it seems counterintuitive, narrowing the focus of the paper often allows the writer to expand more on a focused subject, and it allows the writer to take a stand. For example, switching from “therapy techniques” to “an examination of the validity of therapy dogs on patients with PTSD” will often produce a more focused, in-depth paper that examines a questionable issue and comes to a conclusion.

It’s a difficult concept to explain, and often writers are pretty attached to what they’ve already written, so persuading them to change their paper on that front can be a tad difficult. What I usually fall back on is talking about something broad, then narrowing it and using that as an explanation. For example, what can we say about Netflix? Many things, but what people usually focus on is a specific show they watch or what’s not available on the site. Immediately the focus shifts to something narrower than just Netflix. Using this conversation as a model usually helps with emphasizing the importance of narrowing the focus of the thesis.

Catherine: I typically write my thesis statement last, after drafting pretty much the rest of my paper.  I inevitably will find my thesis living in my conclusion, and ironically, my first paragraph usually ends up turning into my conclusion. For clients, I explain that a thesis is a promise that the writer makes to her reader.  Whatever is promised in the thesis should be the only thing that the rest of the paper engages.
Emily: There’s no rule that you have to write the thesis statement first. I also recommend that if a writer has a hard time writing a thesis statement, then planning can be a really helpful tool. It’s also really important to understand your writing’s purpose and identify the thread that is present  throughout a text. This understanding and recognition typically helps with thesis statement writing.
Whitney II

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