Academic Writing: The Thesis Statement
Does this sound familiar? You’ve got a paper to write. You've picked a topic--let's say, for example, women and alcoholism. You go to Google and type women and alcoholism into the search box and hit Enter. In less than a second, you get several million “hits” and even the first few are from a range of sources--government agencies, non-profit organizations, for-profit treatment centers, and more. You feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start.
So you try another approach. You do a search for women and alcoholism in your college library's databases. You get fewer than 10,000 "hits," and they seem to be from reputable sources, but they cover every aspect of the topic that you can imagine -- and more. You need help!
First things first: you need more than a topic to conduct effective research and to write a well-crafted paper. You need a thesis statement--the main idea that you want to convey to your audience about your topic. A paper without a clear thesis statement typically drifts from point to point, leaving readers confused and even frustrated.
TOPIC ==> RESEARCH QUESTION
Most of us find it far easier to think up a topic than a thesis statement, especially when writing a research paper. We rarely know what we want our audience to believe or learn about our topic until we've done some reading, writing, and thinking about it. But if we simply search our topic, we'll probably get too many results to wade through even the reputable material and find a coherent focus for our essay. Fortunately, we can start with something between a topic and thesis statement: a research question.
Let's consider the topic women and alcoholism. A research question as simple as this can help: How is alcoholism different in women than men? To answer that question, we might search the terms women, alcoholism, and gender differences. Our results would likely prompt sub-questions and suggest additional search terms, like this:
- Why do women become alcoholics? (women, alcoholics, risk factors)
- Why do alcoholic women die at a higher rate than alcoholic men? (women, alcoholics, death rates, causes of death)
- Why does alcohol cause grave physiological damage to women more quickly than men? (women, alcoholics, physiological effects, organ damage, medical problems)
- Why do fewer alcoholic women seek treatment than men? Why do these women wait longer to enter treatment than men? (women, alcoholics, treatment, barriers)
>TIP: Click here for a helpful guide to using the "W" questions to develop your topic into an interesting and focused research question. <- COMING SOON!
RESEARCH QUESTION ==>THESIS STATEMENT
Your research findings will help you transform your research question and sub-questions into a thesis statement. At first, your thesis statement might be basic, like this: There are significant gender differences in alcoholism. But over time, you'll be able to develop your basic thesis statement into a multi-part thesis statement, like this: Women alcoholics have different risk factors for developing the disease than men; suffer grave physiological damage more quickly than men; and face greater barriers to seeking treatment than men.
Like this example, many multi-part thesis statements have three parts, but they can have fewer or more.
You can use your multi-part thesis statement to create an outline for your paper. For instance, you could develop this outline from the multi-part thesis statement given above:
II. Women’s Risk Factors for Developing Alcoholism
III. Physiological Damage that Women Experience from Drinking
IV. Women’s Barriers to Treatment
TIP: If you aren't comfortable with outlining, you might prefer to make a cluster, web, or map. Click here to learn more about them. Click here for an essay map you might find useful. Click here, here, or here to try an excellent application for making clusters, webs, or maps.
Next, you could use the items in your outline to develop topic sentences for the paragraphs in the body of your essay that connect back to and develop, explain, support, or prove your thesis. For example:
II. Women have different psycho-social risk factors than men for developing alcoholism, including higher rates of depression and anxiety and also of sexual abuse.
III. Due to biological differences between men and women-- including women's smaller average overall mass, lesser concentrations of water and greater concentrations of fat, and different hormones and enzymes--women suffer great physiological damage after less exposure to alcohol.
IV. Women--especially single mothers--face different and sometimes greater barriers to seeking treatment than men, including: fear of losing custody of children for admitting to an addiction; difficulty securing childcare while in treatment; and higher levels of stigma, guilt, and shame.
TIP: Click these links to read more on WHALE about constructing effective paragraphs and also developing and supporting main ideas. <-- MORE COMING SOON!
THESIS STATEMENT TIPS
Now that we've seen how to develop and use a thesis statement, let's look at qualities of effective thesis statements.
Most thesis statements are:
Thesis statements are usually assertions--statements that call for proof and support. For example: Alcoholic women face greater stigma, guilt, and shame than alcoholic men even today. Are you wondering, "Is that true? What kind of research was done to determine that? Why would that be the case?" Statements that prompt these types of questions about evidence are usually assertions.
A thesis statements can be informative, like this: Williams Syndrome is a rare and misunderstood genetic disorder. However, thesis statements that are simply well-known statements of fact--like there are 12 inches in a foot--rarely make for interesting essays.
- Narrow or Focused
You'll have to decide if you want to create a focused or a broad thesis statement. Here’s the difference.
A broad thesis statement provides a general overview of a topic. Let's go back to the thesis statement Williams Syndrome is a rare and misunderstood genetic disorder. The author of an essay with this thesis would likely introduce many aspects of Williams Syndrome, such as:
- What genetic mutation causes Williams Syndrome?
- How many people have it?
- What symptoms are associated with it?
- What do people misunderstand about them?
- What research is being done on the syndrome?
In a short paper, the writer would be able to dedicate just a paragraph or two to each aspect. Readers would learn a little about each one, but not much about any particular aspect.
Broad thesis statements can lead to rambling and superficial essays, in which the writer touches on several ideas but explores none in depth. These works can leave readers feeling that they have not gained much from the piece. It can be very difficult to write a strong essay with a broad thesis statement. Need proof? Imagine trying to research and prove a broad thesis like Love can overcome any obstacle." Where would you begin? What kind of research would you use?
Effective thesis statements are usually narrow--focused on just one aspect of a topic or on a very specific idea. A narrow thesis statement allows the writer to delve in more deeply. Here’s an example: Stigma, guilt, and shame prevent many women alcoholics from seeking treatment until much later than men, which contributes to women’s higher death rate from the disease. A writer could research and discuss this one facet of alcoholism in depth; readers would likely come away feeling like they had learned a lot that they didn't previously know.
The better you develop your thesis statement, the easier you'll find it to write your paper. A well-developed thesis lays out the main and supporting ideas, in the order you will take them up in the essay.
The well-developed thesis statement given above--Stigma, guilt, and shame prevent many women alcoholics from seeking treatment until much later than men, which contributes to women’s higher death rate from the disease--lays out each idea the writer will explore in the paper. As you saw previoulsy, it is easy to convert a well-developed thesis statement into a useful outline.
- Convincingly and Credibly Supported
As an adult student with expertise in your field of work and study, you might find yourself doing some primary research--posing questions and constructing studies, surveys, and interviews to find the answers. Most of the time, though, you’ll do secondary research: you’ll look for answers in existing studies, surveys, interviews, reports, data sets, and more. Both primary and secondary research go better when you craft a narrow, well-developed thesis statement that you can support with credible, convincing evidence.
Think back to the example of the (overly broad and under-developed) thesis statement Love can overcome all obstacles. If you wanted to do primary research, what kinds of questions could you ask to get useful data? How would you select a representative sample? If you wanted to do secondary research, where would you look? You'd probably find personal anecdotes of couples who overcame extraordinary challenges, but few studies that an academic audience would consider credible evidence. No doubt the stories would be inspiring and moving, but they wouldn’t likely prove your thesis. (In fact, you’d probably find at least as many examples of the antithesis--Love cannot overcome all obstacles.)
By contrast, you could find credible evidence that proves the specific assertions that people in satisfying long-term relationships report higher levels of happiness, enjoy better physical health, and live longer than their single or their unhappily coupled peers.
- Revised and Refined
You’ll probably find that you need to revise your thesis statement several times as you research your topic and write drafts of your paper. The more you learn about your topic, the more specific and developed your thesis statement will become. In fact, you might not write your final version of the thesis until your essay is close to finished.
It can feel like you're "getting nowhere" when you revise or refine your thesis statement; when you do so, you must go back through your whole essay and make necessary "tweaks." But refining and revising are normal and inevitable parts of the writing process.
FINAL NOTE: Carefully crafting your research question(s) and thesis statement takes time and effort, but it's well worth it. A thoughtful, well-written research question can help you target your searches and find better sources more quickly. A specific thesis statement can help you and your readers stay focused, and a well-developed one can provide a clear outline from which to work. Ultimately, you'll "get back" the time you put in, and save yourself much frustration.
TIP: Click the links for brief but useful information on creating effective thesis statements from:
This work by Sherri VandenAkker, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.