In this class and in many others, you will be asked to write papers in which you examine a subject by presenting an argument based upon evidence.  In these essays, you will also have to develop a distinct thesis statement, which will serve as the main idea of the paper, and the central point of your argument.

What is an Argument? 

An argument is an explanation of a position of an issue based upon evidence. An argument is not a summary or a description of the evidence, nor is speculation about a topic without evidence. It is a claim based upon the author’s analysis of sources that seeks to answer an overarching research question or problem.

An Argument:  Many Americans feared nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and some even panicked, but the situation was even more dangerous than the public knew.

X Not an Argument:  In this paper, I will discuss the capabilities of the nuclear missiles that the Soviets assembled in Cuba.

X Not an Argument:  In this paper, I will describe the communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev that took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What is a Thesis?

Now that you have an idea of what you will argue in your paper, the next step is to create a thesis. Your thesis serves as the main idea of your paper, and is the central point of your argument. Your thesis serves as an evidence-based claim that you then explore and “defend” by providing logically organized, clearly explained evidence in the essay or presentation that follows. In most essays and presentations it is customary to include a thesis statement – a 1-2 sentence encapsulation of your thesis – at the end of your introduction.  Remember, the thesis is a statement of what you will demonstrate through logical argumentation; it is not a description of what you will “do.” Thus, your thesis should not appear as a statement of purpose: “in this paper, I will” or “this paper will show.”

A thesis (or thesis statement) is comprised of the main point of your argument and the subtopics (usually 2-4 in number) you will examine to prove your argument.

Your subtopics must be provable; that is, they must be based on evidence (sources), not on opinion. Your thesis should be one to two sentences long. For example:

Argument: While many American women left the workforce in the years immediately after World War II, a significant number of women continued to work outside the home.

Thesis: While many American women left the workforce in the years immediately after World War II, a significant number of women continued to work outside the home because they needed to earn an income, they had marketable knowledge and skills, and they enjoyed the independence.

Why Do You Need a Thesis?

A thesis tells your readers what to expect in the paper; it lets them know what main points to look for to follow your argument. A thesis gives you a map to write your paper. The subtopics that you set out in your thesis are the points that you will use in the body of your paper to prove your thesis.  Each subtopic should be the basis of at least one paragraph in your essay, and each body paragraph should incorporate a topic sentence that lays out your subtopic specifically, and its connection to your thesis.

How Do You Write a Thesis?

Method 1:  Brainstorm

Write down the main idea for your paper or, if you aren’t sure about that, list arguments and ideas for main points that you want to make.  Try putting them together in different combinations to create a logical thesis.  Make sure that your thesis addresses your assignment.

Method 2: Use the assignment

If your assignment is stated as a question, revise it to be a statement and add the subtopics that you will use to prove your statement. 

Method 3:  Use a formula. 

These are some formulas for writing a thesis (this not an exhaustive list).  However, you are likely to need to revise if you use a formula, such as the one below.

______ [group of people] say that _______.  However, _________ proves __________.

____________is caused by ____________, _________, and __________.

____________can be __________ [increased, decreased, etc.] through ________, ___________, and __________.

Another example of a formula can be found at the UAGC Writing Center’s Thesis Generator.

Revise Your Thesis

You will often need to revise your thesis, usually because the first attempt (or two) will be lacking one or more elements required of a thesis.  Remember, your thesis must have an argument and the subtopics you will use to prove that argument.  Your thesis should be no more than two sentences.

As you work on your paper, you may find that your conclusion about your topic has changed.  That’s okay.  You can change your thesis as you work on your paper. 

X Napoleon failed to conquer Russia. 

This thesis has an argument but does not include any points or subtopics that the author will use to prove the argument.  It is too vague.

Napoleon failed to conquer Russia because of a lack of supplies for his military, the extreme cold of the Russian winter, and persistent attacks by Russian Cossacks, all of which eroded the strength and morale of his military. 

This thesis contains an argument and the points/subtopics that the author will use to prove that argument in the paper.  All are clearly stated and the points are clearly provable

X Because domesticated rats are so cute, they make excellent pets.

This thesis is not provable. While it has an argument and one point/subtopic that the author will use to prove the argument, that one point is the author’s opinion that domesticated rats are cute.  You need points/subtopics that are backed by evidence (sources). In addition, one subtopic is unlikely to be enough to fully address an assignment.

Because domesticated rats have been bred to be sociable with humans, are very responsive to positive reinforcement training, and are instinctually clean, they make excellent pets for many people.

This thesis has an argument and three points/subtopics that can be proven with evidence (sources).

X In this paper, I will discuss the importance of class sizes in high school and how class size affects learning math. 

This example tells us the topic that the author will be discussing but does not tell us the argument or the main points/subtopics that the author will use to prove that argument. This is too vague.

For high school students, large math classes can have a significant negative and lasting effect on the rest of their lives.  For students in math classes over the optimal size, the effects can be that learning differences are overlooked and may never be detected, some students do not receive the help they need to understand math concepts and pass the course, and, as a result of failing math, some students will never graduate from high school.

This thesis is quite a bit longer than the previous version but it has an argument and the main points/subtopics that the author use to prove that argument.

From Thesis to Organizing Your Essay

Part of developing your thesis is developing the subtopics that make up your argument.  These subtopics, in turn, can be used to organize your entire essay.  A 2-3 page paper might be organized like this:

Introduction that includes your thesis

Body Paragraph #1: Subtopic 1

Body Paragraph #2: Subtopic 2

Body Paragraph #3: Subtopic 3

Conclusion that restates your thesis, and demonstrates how you defended it.

From an organizational standpoint, longer essays, such as those that are 5-6 pages, or even 7-8 pages, are organized exactly the same way.  The only difference is that instead of only being examined in one paragraph, subtopics are expanded upon in multiple paragraphs.

Inspired by and based on:

Department of History. (n.d.). Writing a Thesis and Making an Argument. University of Iowa.

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