How to Write a Thesis Statement: A Step-by-Step Guide

January 3, 2023
Updated: Jan 24, 2023
How to Write a Thesis Statement: A Step-by-Step Guide

With the exceptions of poetry and fiction, every piece of writing needs a thesis statement. 

Opinion pieces for the local newspaper? Yes. 

An essay for a college class? You betcha.

A book about China’s Ming Dynasty? Absolutely.

All of these pieces of writing need a thesis statement that sums up what they’re about and tells the reader what to expect, whether you’re making an argument, describing something in detail, or exploring ideas.

But how do you write a thesis statement? How do you even come up with one?

This step-by-step guide will show you exactly how — and help you make sure every thesis statement you write has all the parts needed to be clear, coherent, and complete.

Let’s start by making sure we understand what a thesis is (and what it’s not).

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis, or thesis statement, is a one or two sentence long statement that concisely describes your paper’s subject, angle or position — and offers a preview of the evidence or argument your essay will present.

A thesis is not:

  • A question
  • An exclamation
  • A simple fact

Think of your thesis as the road map for your essay. It briefly charts where you’ll start (subject), what you’ll cover (evidence/argument), and where you’ll land (position, angle). 

Writing a thesis early in your essay writing process can help you keep your writing focused, so you won’t get off-track describing something that has nothing to do with your central point. Your central point is your thesis, and the rest of your essay fleshes it out.

Different Kinds of Papers Need Different Kinds of Theses

How you compose your thesis will depend on the type of essay you’re writing. For academic writing, there are three main kinds of essays:

  • Persuasive, aka argumentative
  • Expository, aka explanatory
  • Narrative

A persuasive essay requires a thesis that clearly states the central stance of the paper, what the rest of the paper will argue in support of. 

Paper books are superior to ebooks when it comes to form, function, and overall reader experience.

An expository essay’s thesis sets up the paper’s focus and angle — the paper’s unique take, what in particular it will be describing and why. The why element gives the reader a reason to read; it tells the reader why the topic matters.

Understanding the functional design of physical books can help ebook designers create digital reading experiences that usher readers into literary worlds without technological difficulties.

A narrative essay is similar to that of an expository essay, but it may be less focused on tangible realities and more on intangibles of, for example, the human experience.

The books I’ve read over the years have shaped me, opening me up to worlds and ideas and ways of being that I would otherwise know nothing about.

As you prepare to craft your thesis, think through the goal of your paper. Are you making an argument? Describing the chemical properties of hydrogen? Exploring your relationship with the outdoors? What do you want the reader to take away from reading your piece?

Make note of your paper’s goal and then walk through our thesis-writing process.

Now that you practically have a PhD in theses, let’s learn how to write one:

How to Write (and Develop) a Strong Thesis

If developing a thesis is stressing you out, take heart — basically no one has a strong thesis right away. Developing a thesis is a multi-step process that takes time, thought, and perhaps most important of all: research

Tackle these steps one by one and you’ll soon have a thesis that’s rock-solid.

1. Identify your essay topic.

Are you writing about gardening? Sword etiquette? King Louis XIV?

With your assignment requirements in mind, pick out a topic (or two) and do some preliminary research. Read up on the basic facts of your topic. Identify a particular angle or focus that’s interesting to you. If you’re writing a persuasive essay, look for an aspect that people have contentious opinions on (and read our piece on persuasive essays to craft a compelling argument).

If your professor assigned a particular topic, you’ll still want to do some reading to make sure you know enough about the topic to pick your specific angle.

For those writing narrative essays involving personal experiences, you may need to do a combination of research and freewriting to explore the topic before honing in on what’s most compelling to you.

Once you have a clear idea of the topic and what interests you:

2. Ask a research question.

You know what you’re going to write about, at least broadly. Now you just have to narrow in on an angle or focus appropriate to the length of your assignment. To do this, start by asking a question that probes deeper into your topic. 

This question may explore connections between causes and effects, the accuracy of an assumption you have, or a value judgment you’d like to investigate, among others.

For example, if you want to write about gardening for a persuasive essay and you’re interested in raised garden beds, your question could be:

What are the unique benefits of gardening in raised beds versus on the ground? Is one better than the other?

Or if you’re writing about sword etiquette for an expository essay, you could ask:

How did sword etiquette in Europe compare to samurai sword etiquette in Japan?

How does medieval sword etiquette influence modern fencing?

Kickstart your curiosity and come up with a handful of intriguing questions. Then pick the two most compelling to initially research (you’ll discard one later).

3. Answer the question tentatively.

You probably have an initial thought of what the answer to your research question is. Write that down in as specific terms as possible. This is your working thesis

Gardening in raised beds is preferable because you won’t accidentally awaken dormant weed seeds — and you can provide more fertile soil and protection from invasive species.

Medieval sword-fighting rituals are echoed in modern fencing etiquette.

Why is a working thesis helpful?

Both your research question and your working thesis will guide your research. It’s easy to start reading anything and everything related to your broad topic — but for a 4-, 10-, or even 20-page paper, you don’t need to know everything. You just need the relevant facts and enough context to accurately and clearly communicate to your reader.

Your working thesis will not be identical to your final thesis, because you don’t know that much just yet.

This brings us to our next step:

4. Research the question (and working thesis).

What do you need to find out in order to evaluate the strength of your thesis? What do you need to investigate to answer your research question more fully? 

Comb through authoritative, trustworthy sources to find that information. And keep detailed notes.

As you research, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your thesis — and see what other opposing or more nuanced theses exist. 

If you’re writing a persuasive essay, it may be helpful to organize information according to what does or does not support your thesis — or simply gather the information and see if it’s changing your mind. What new opinion do you have now that you’ve learned more about your topic and question? What discoveries have you made that discredit or support your initial thesis?

Raised garden beds prevent full maturity in certain plants — and are more prone to cold, heat, and drought.

If you’re writing an expository essay, use this research process to see if your initial idea holds up to the facts. And be on the lookout for other angles that would be more appropriate or interesting for your assignment.

Modern fencing doesn’t share many rituals with medieval swordplay.

With all this research under your belt, you can answer your research question in-depth — and you’ll have a clearer idea of whether or not your working thesis is anywhere near being accurate or arguable. What’s next?

5. Refine your thesis.

If you found that your working thesis was totally off-base, you’ll probably have to write a new one from scratch. 

For a persuasive essay, maybe you found a different opinion far more compelling than your initial take. For an expository essay, maybe your initial assumption was completely wrong — could you flip your thesis around and inform your readers of what you learned?

Use what you’ve learned to rewrite or revise your thesis to be more accurate, specific, and compelling.

Raised garden beds appeal to many gardeners for the semblance of control they offer over what will and will not grow, but they are also more prone to changes in weather and air temperature and may prevent certain plants from reaching full maturity. All of this makes raised beds the worse option for ambitious gardeners. 

While swordplay can be traced back through millennia, modern fencing has little in common with medieval combat where swordsmen fought to the death.

If you’ve been researching two separate questions and theses, now’s the time to evaluate which one is most interesting, compelling, or appropriate for your assignment. Did one thesis completely fall apart when faced with the facts? Did one fail to turn up any legitimate sources or studies? Choose the stronger question or the more interesting (revised) thesis, and discard the other.

Thesis Check: Look for These Three Elements

At this point, you should have a thesis that will set up an original, compelling essay, but before you set out to write that essay, make sure your thesis contains these three elements:

  1. Topic: Your thesis should clearly state the topic of your essay, whether swashbuckling pirates, raised garden beds, or methods of snow removal.
  2. Position or angle: Your thesis should zoom into the specific aspect of your topic that your essay will focus on, and briefly but boldly state your position or describe your angle.
  3. Summary of evidence and/or argument: In a concise phrase or two, your thesis should summarize the evidence and/or argument your essay will present, setting up your readers for what’s coming without giving everything away.

The challenge for you is communicating each of these elements in a sentence or two. But remember: Your thesis will come at the end of your intro, which will already have done some work to establish your topic and focus. Those aspects don’t need to be over explained in your thesis — just clearly mentioned and tied to your position and evidence.

Let’s look at our examples from earlier to see how they accomplish this:

Raised garden beds appeal to many gardeners for the semblance of control they offer over what will and will not grow, but they are also more prone to changes in weather and air temperature and may prevent certain plants from reaching full maturity. All of this makes raised beds the worse option for ambitious gardeners. 

While swordplay can be traced back through millennia, modern fencing has little in common with medieval combat where swordsmen fought to the death.

Notice how:

  1. The topic is mentioned by name. 
  2. The position or angle is clearly stated. 
  3. The evidence or argument is set up, as well as the assumptions or opposing view that the essay will debunk.

Both theses prepare the reader for what’s coming in the rest of the essay: 

  • An argument to show that raised beds are actually a poor option for gardeners who want to grow thriving, healthy, resilient plants.
  • An exposition of modern fencing in comparison with medieval sword fighting that shows how different they are.

Examine your refined thesis. Are all three elements present? If any are missing, make any additions or clarifications needed to correct it.

It’s Essay-Writing Time!

Now that your thesis is ready to go, you have the rest of your essay to think about. With the work you’ve already done to develop your thesis, you should have an idea of what comes next — but if you need help forming your persuasive essay’s argument, we’ve got a blog for that.

P.S.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.

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