The successful production of academic writing depends on achieving a certain level of clarity; the thesis statement is a device for enhancing clarity. It is helpful to think about the thesis statement in terms of what it is used to accomplish. To enhance clarity, a thesis statement should
- state the objective of your paper,
- tell the reader what to expect from your paper, and
- present a clear position on the topic.
Typically, the thesis statement occurs early in a text—usually in the introduction—and it should be
- specific, stating your thesis in concrete terms,
- concise, providing necessary information without going into excessive detail, and
- unambiguous, avoiding vague or contradictory language.
The thesis statement should guide your readers into your paper and give them a clear idea of how to relate to it. Are they to expect a persuasive, argumentative text, for example, or is it a primarily descriptive text? In your thesis statement, you help shape your readers’ expectations.
As an example, imagine that you are writing a discussion essay. Your essay will discuss social media from various perspectives. Here is a very simple thesis statement:
A) Social media are a complex phenomenon with both positive and negative aspects.
This tells us something about what your paper will deal with, but not very much. In fact, it does little more than restate the topic. Contrast A) with the following alternative:
B) Social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are proliferating, and this essay will discuss how they take up more and more of our time and what they give us in return.
This is a stronger thesis statement, since it tells us something concrete that the essay will accomplish. Rather than simply reiterating the topic, it provides concrete examples and gives the reader a better idea of what aspects of the topic it will deal with.
Now compare example B) to example C):
C) While providing entertainment, information and an opportunity for us to keep track of old friends, social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also becoming tools for various organizations that want to keep track of us.
This example points to the positive and negative aspects of social media by means of examples. It also indicates that there is reason to be skeptical of social media. By rephrasing the sentence slightly, it can be made to indicate a much more positive attitude to social media:
D) While social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are certainly tools for organizations that want to track our interests on the web, they also provide entertainment, information and an opportunity for us to keep track of old friends.
Both C) and D) are strong thesis statements, which indicate effectively what your essay will be about and what your perspective will be. Compared with A), they are also much more effective in arousing your reader’s interest.
While you are writing, you should be prepared to change your thesis statement if necessary. Perhaps your emphasis will change as you write, or maybe a certain perspective will emerge as more important than the others. Remember to revise your thesis statement during the writing and editing processes to make sure that it is representative of the finished essay.
The thesis statement makes clear for the reader the topic, perspective, and objective of your text.
You may wonder why the thesis statement is placed at the beginning of the text, rather than at the end. It might seem like a good idea to build up to it, or that the text will seem anti-climactic, if you “give away the secret too soon”. The problem with this reasoning is that academic writing, above all in the English-speaking world, is not about mystery, but rather about clarity. Readers are busy people with a great many things competing for their attention. You should therefore make an attempt to interest your reader in your topic and then give her an idea of what to expect. This will not only increase the likelihood that she will want to continue reading, but will also help her to make sense of the text, since each of the topics that follow will be be construed in light of the thesis that you have presented. In other words, a good thesis statement will help you to win the reader over and make your text more convincing.
A strong thesis makes a claim that (1) requires analysis to support and evolve it and (2) offers some point about the significance of your evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers. By contrast, a weak thesis either makes no claim or makes a claim that does not need proving.
Five kind of weak thesis statements—ones that
- make no claim (“This paper will examine the pros and cons of…”);
- are obviously true or are a statement of fact (“Exercise is good for you”);
- restate conventional wisdom (“Love conquers all”);
- offer personal conviction as the basis for the claim (“Shopping malls are wonderful places”);and
- make an overly broad claim (“Individualism is good”).
Weak Thesis Type 1: The thesis makes no claim. Problem examples…
I’m going to write about Darwin’s concerns with evolution in The Origin of Species.
This paper will address the characteristics of a good corporate manager.
These examples name a subject and link it to the intention to write about it, but they don’t make any claim about that subject. There is, in short, nothing at stake, no issue to be resolved.
Solution: Raise specific issues for the essay to explore. Possible examples:
Darwin’s concern with survival of the fittest in The Origin of Species leads him to neglect a potentially conflicting aspect of his theory of evolution—survival as a matter of interdependence.
The very trait that makes for an effective corporate manager—the drive to succeed—can also make the leader domineering and therefore ineffective.
Weak Thesis Type 2: The thesis is obviously true or is a statement of fact. Problem examples…
The jeans industry targets its advertisements to appeal to young adults.
The flight from teaching to research and publishing in higher education is a controversial issue in the academic world. I will show different views and aspects concerning this problem.
If few people would disagree with the claim that a thesis makes, there is no point in writing an analytical paper on it.
Solution: Find some avenue of INQUIRY—a question about the facts or an issue raised by them. Make an assertion with which it would be possible for readers to disagree. Possible examples…
By inventing new terms, such as “loose fit” and “relaxed fit”, the jean industry has attempted to
normalize, even glorify, its product for an older and fatter generation.
The “flight from teaching” to research and publishing in higher education is a controversial issue in the academic world. As I will attempt to show, the controversy is based to a significant degree on a false assumption, that doing research necessarily leads teachers away from the classroom.
Weak Thesis Type 3: The thesis restates conventional wisdom. Problem examples...
An important part of one’s college education is learning to better understand others’ points of view.
From cartoons in the morning to adventure shows at night, there is too much violence on television.
“I was supposed to bring the coolers; you were supposed to bring the chips!” exclaimed ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, who appeared on TV commercials for Sun County Wine Coolers a few years ago. By using rock music to sell a wide range of products, the advertising agencies, in league with corporate giants such as Pepsi, Michelob, and Ford, have corrupted the spirit of rock and roll.
All of these examples say nothing worth proving because they are clichés. (Conventional wisdom is a polite term for clichés.) Most clichés were fresh ideas once, but over time they have become trite, prefabricated forms of non-thinking. There is some truth in all of the problem examples above, but none of them complicates its position.
Solution: Seek to complicate—see more than one point of view on—your subject. Avoid conventional wisdom unless you can qualify it or introduce a fresh perspective on it. Possible examples…
Although an important part of one’s college education is learning to better understand others’ points of view, a persistent danger is that the students will simply be required to substitute the teacher’s answers for the ones they grew up uncritically believing.
Although some might argue that the presence of rock and roll soundtracks in TV commercials has corrupted rock’s spirit, this point of view not only falsifies the history of rock but also blinds us to the ways that the music has improved the quality of television advertising.
Weak Thesis Type 4: The thesis offers personal conviction as the basis for the claim. Problem examples…
The songs of the punk rock group Minor Threat relate to the feelings of individuals who dare to be different. Their songs are just composed of pure emotion. Pure emotion is very important in music, because it serves as a vehicle to convey the important message of individuality. Minor Threat’s songs are meaningful to me because I can identify with them.
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia treats individualism as a serious but remediable social problem. His radical treatment of what we might now call “socialization” attempts to redefine the meaning and origin of individual identity.
Although I agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument that environmentalists and businesses should work together to ensure the ecological future of the world, and that this cooperation is beneficial for both sides, the indisputable fact is that environmental considerations should always be a part of any decision that is made. Any individual, if he looks deeply enough into his soul, knows what is right and what is wrong. The environment should be protected because it is the right thing to do, not because someone is forcing you to do it.
Like conventional wisdom, personal likes and dislikes can lead inexperienced writers into knee-jerk reactions of approval or disapproval, often expressed in a moralistic tone. The writers of the problem examples above assume that their primary job is to judge their subjects or testify to their worth, not to evaluate them analytically
Solution: Try on other points of view honestly and dispassionately; treat your ideas as hypotheses to be tested rather than obvious truths. Possible examples…
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia proposes an unworkable set of solutions to society’s problems because, like communist Russia, it suppresses individualism.
Although I agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument that environmentalists and businesses should work together to ensure the ecological future of the world, her argument undervalues the necessity of pressuring businesses to attend to environmental concerns that may not benefit them in the short run.
Weak Thesis Type 5: The thesis makes an overly broad claim. Problem examples…
Violent revolutions have had both positive and negative results for man.
There are many similarities and differences between the Carolingian and the Burgundian Renaissances.
Othello is a play about love and jealousy.
It is important to understand why leaders act in a leadership role. What is the driving force? Is it an internal drive for the business or group to succeed, or is it an internal drive for the leader to dominate others?
Overly generalized theses avoid complexity. At their worst, as in the first three examples above, they settle for assertions broad enough to fit almost any subject and thus say nothing in particular about the subject at hand.
Solution: Convert broad categories and generic (fits anything) claims to more specific assertions; find ways to bring out the complexity of your subject. Possible examples…
Although violent revolutions begin to redress long-standing social inequities, they often do so at the cost of long-term economic dysfunction and the suffering that attends it.
The differences between the Carolingian and Burgundian Renaissances outweigh the similarities.
Although Othello appears to attack jealousy, it also supports the skepticism of the jealous characters over the naïveté of the lovers.
Consider the following statement:
The economic situation is bad.
Such weak thesis statements (broad noun, weak verb, vague modifier) can be put to the test for revision.
Try a specific noun: The tax policies (of the current administration) [instead of “the economic situation”]
Pick an active verb: threaten to reduce (the tax burden on the middle class) [much better than “is”]
Choose a specific modifier: by sacrificing education and health-care programs for everyone. [much more specific than “bad”]
Two strategies can help you write your way into a better thesis:
- Specify—Replace the overly abstract terms—terms such as positive and negative (or similar and different)—with something specific; name something that is positive and something that is negative instead.
- Subordinate—Rank one of the two items in the pairing underneath the other. When you subordinate, you put the most important, pressing, or revealing side of the comparison in what is known as the main clause and the less important side in what is known as the subordinate clause, introducing it with a word such as although.
GUIDELINES FOR RECOGNIZING AND FIXING WEAK THESIS STATEMENTS
- Your thesis should make a claim with which it would be possible for readers to disagree. In other words, move beyond defending statements your readers would accepts as obviously true.
- Be skeptical of your first (often semiautomatic) response to a subject. It will often be a cliché (however unintentional). Avoid conventional wisdom unless you can introduce a fresh perspective on it.
- Convert broad categories and generic (fits anything) claims to more specific assertions. Find ways to bring out the complexity of your subject.
- Submit the wording of your thesis to this grammatical test: if it follows the “abstract noun + is + evaluative adjective formula” formula (“The economic situation is bad”), substitute a more specific noun and an active verb that will force you to predicate (affirm or assert) something about a focused subject (“Tax laws benefit the rich”).
- Routinely examine and question your own key terms and categories rather than simply accepting them. Assume that they mean more than you first thought.
- Always work to uncover and make explicit the unstated assumptions (premises) underlying your thesis. Don’t treat debatable premises as givens.
- As a rule, be suspicious of thesis statements that depend on words such as real, accurate, believable, right, and good. These words usually signal that you are offering personal opinions—what “feels” right to you—as self-evident truths for everybody.
- One way to assess the adequacy of a thesis statement is to ask yourself where the writer would need to go next to develop his or her idea. If you can’t answer that question, the thesis is still too weak.
- Qualify your claims; you will avoid the global pronouncements—typical of the dangers of overly categorical thinking—that are too broad to be of much use (or true).
For a more detailed discussion, please see
Rosenwasser, D. and Stephen, J. (2006). Writing Analytically. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.