Strategies for Writing a Compelling Thesis Statement

Strategies for Writing a Compelling Thesis Statement

  • A thesis statement encapsulates what an essay is about and how it will defend its claim.
  • In academic writing, the thesis most commonly appears in the first paragraph.
  • A strong thesis statement makes a debatable claim others may disagree with.
  • Your introduction should give readers a glimpse into how your essay is laid out.

A thesis statement, or thesis claim, is what answers the question, “What is this essay about and what will it prove?” If the essay fails to answer this question within the first paragraph — or within the first few paragraphs for a long paper or dissertation — the reader will have no reason to continue reading.

Professors are obligated to read your work, but even they would like to know what and why they are reading. Convention leads college instructors to expect a thesis statement at the beginning of a paper — though, as we’ll discuss, some essays may call for it in the conclusion instead.

Knowing when and how to include a thesis statement will not only help you get better grades on your papers, but will also train you to write for future situations in which readers are not paid to read your work.

Where Does the Thesis Statement Go?

College students have two options for where to put their thesis statement in an academic essay: the introduction (deductive essay) or the conclusion (inductive essay).

An inductive essay offers relevant facts and information before gradually narrowing them down to a specific claim, usually found in the conclusion; this is also called a “delayed thesis.” Unless an assignment explicitly calls for the inductive model, do not use it.

Academic writing generally prefers the deductive model, in which the essay begins with a claim and then devotes its remainder to proving that assertion. While some disciplines, like creative writing, may prefer subtlety, opacity, deliberate confusion, or other efforts to misguide the reader, academic writing prizes clarity and information offered in an ordered and incremental manner.

Weak vs. Strong Thesis Statements

For most college essays, your thesis must include an argument. A purely descriptive claim or a statement of opinion will make for a weak and unconvincing thesis statement. If you’re not sure whether your thesis is appropriate, consult your professor.

An argument is a claim that reasonable people can agree or disagree with. Sometimes this is a value claim, meaning it comes from your personal understanding or your opinion of the world or subject. Other times it may be an intellectual claim, offering scholarly evidence to change or add a level of understanding to a particular topic.

Here’s an example of a weak thesis statement that lacks a clear, debatable assertion:

This thesis highlights an empirical fact that the student can prove by listing examples, making it adequate for an expository paper or a report; however, it would be weak for an argumentative essay, since no reasonable person could theoretically disagree with it.

This narrower thesis claim attempts to affirm a connection between two facts — social classes and successful warriors — using several pieces of evidence. Even if the writer succeeds in proving this claim, reasonable people may disagree with it and propose other reasons the student didn’t consider. Similarly, the student may refute others’ counterarguments.

This intellectual debate is what it means to be involved in an academic conversation — and what it means to have a strong thesis statement.

Here are two more examples of argumentative thesis statements on the same subject. Note that I changed the focus from sociology to archeology and geography, respectively, to illustrate how one subject can be approached through a different lens. The underlined parts are the thesis statements.

The above thesis statement examples are more in line with what you’d be expected to write for doctoral-level work, so don’t panic if you’re an undergraduate. Just know that no matter the degree you’re going for, you’ll be expected to forge arguments that go deeper than the obvious or literal level.

Using the First Person to Enhance Your Thesis Claim

Generally, formal writing does not use first- and second-person pronouns, such as “I” and “you.” One exception, however, is the essay’s introduction.

Even then students are usually advised to avoid “you” altogether unless it appears in the hook, and to limit the use of “I” or “my” to just once. This single use of the first person — inserted at a crucial moment in the introduction — can go a long way toward sharpening your argument and establishing the strength of your voice.

You’ll see that I didn’t use any second-person pronouns (i.e., “you,” “your,” “yours”) in any of the four thesis statement examples above; however, I did use one first-person pronoun in the last example (“It is my contention, however, that …”). In this sentence, using the word “my” followed by “however” highlights the fact that my idea is distinct from those of the sociologists mentioned in the first sentence.

The use of “my” also signals to the reader that the upcoming clause likely contains something important: the thesis claim. The final sentence in that paragraph further develops that claim.

Perhaps you’ve been taught that a thesis statement should only be one sentence long, but this doesn’t always work well for longer or more complicated research papers. Ultimately, you should use as many words as you need to for your thesis, as long as you avoid sounding repetitive or self-contradictory.

Remember that clarity is key. The more work you do in your introduction, the clearer your thesis will be to you and your reader — and the more focused the rest of your essay will be.

Organizing Your Introduction and Thesis Statement

In addition to explaining what your essay will be about, a good introduction should answer the question, “How will the essay prove this claim?” Giving the reader an idea of the organization of what you’ll be discussing is like handing a map to a driver headed someplace new: It makes the journey clearer and more enjoyable.

Moreover, by providing answers to the “how” question, students often end up augmenting the answer to the “what” question. In other words, they develop their thesis claim — an essential part of a compelling college essay.

Let’s return to the third thesis statement example above:

This final sentence instructs the reader to expect the essay to focus on military objects first, tapestries and clay remnants second, and literary analysis third. It also clarifies that the student will be using artifacts to prove their stated claim: that this culture believed sharing brings success, whereas exploitation or exclusion brings failure.

If the student wanted to start with literary analysis, they should go back to the introduction and make sure that topic is listed first. Put simply, the sequence of the topics listed in the introduction should match how they’re laid out in the body of the essay. This format will lead the student to prove their thesis three times, each in a different manner, making the essay strong and convincing.

But this isn’t the only way to answer the “how” question. Let’s return to the fourth thesis example above:

The “hows” of this thesis break down the claim into component parts in order to compare and contrast the evidence of class hierarchy with the evidence of food production to illustrate which was more impactful.

There are many ways you can frame your essay’s introduction and thesis statement. The point is that the clearer and more developed your introduction is, the easier the rest of the essay will be, both for you to write and for the reader to follow.

Feature Image: Prostock-Studio / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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