August 2006. Revised, December 2007
A thesis is an argument that can be supported by evidence. It must have three qualities:
A thesis cannot be a mere statement of fact. It must explain facts to show their significance. In historical writing, a thesis explains the words or deeds of people in the past. It shows cause and effect; it answers the question, why?
A good thesis is specific to the facts being discussed and shows the precise relationship among them. If the thesis makes as much sense for a paper on the French Revolution as for one on the spread of VCRs (e.g., “the world is always changing”), it is too vague. If it states that two ideas were similar or different, without explaining how they were similar or different, it is too vague. If the thesis is specific to the assigned documents, it is precise.
Lists of factors make poor theses; decide what factors were most important. Likewise, avoid the term different in your thesis in favor of more precise comparisons.
A thesis must change a reader’s mind to be of value. If it presents only facts or an obvious finding, it will merely confirm what the reader already believes. If it presents a shocking finding without supporting evidence, it will again fail, for the critical reader will dismiss the claim. An effective thesis, then, makes a claim an informed reader might not believe at first, but which she will find persuasive once she has read all the evidence that follows.
For more on developing a thesis, see “A Thesis-Statement Template” and “Dialectical Thesis Statements.”
A research essay cannot simply report on historical events or ideas, it must have a particular point. The reader wants to know, “Why am I reading this?” “What is the author arguing here?” You may think about it in this way: a prosecuting attorney would not simply present a host of evidence to a jury without arguing a particular case. The evidence itself does not constitute an argument – it must be presented to the reader after they have been advised of the argument, or “charges” at hand. When formulating a thesisstatement, consider the kinds of questions that students typically have:
- What is a thesis? A thesis is the central, core argument being made by the author. The thesis should provide the research paper with a point, or reason for presenting the evidence uncovered during the investigation of the topic. It is the “case” being made for the consideration of the jury of the author’s peers. Writing a paper without a thesis is like reviewing evidence without prosecuting a case – the reader will be confused and may even grow irritated, and will question the author’s point.
- Are a thesis statement and an introduction the same thing? No, they are not, however the thesis, or statement of the author’s argument, is expected by the reader to appear early in the paper – in the introduction, or very soon thereafter. The introduction presents the topic to the audience, defines the subject, period, and event or ideas to be discussed. The thesis statement makes clear to the reader exactly what is being argued by the author.
When formulating a thesis statement, the author should consider the following angles:
- What is it about this topic that is problematic? Many topics are naturally problem-based, and are readily debatable. Determining on which side of the debate you stand can lead to the formulation of an argument. Other subjects involve causal relationships between events. These subjects are often chronologically oriented, and while there may be several competing schools of thought on why a particular event took place in the way it did, you may see one or two of them as primary. Focusing upon them and arguing for their preeminence as causal factors would constitute a thesis for your paper.
- Do I agree with the scholarship? Determining where you stand on the chosen topic can be a starting point when developing an argument. Some topics are widely documented, but their sources may disagree with one another or present contrasting hypotheses or explanations. Some sources are much more recent than other works of prior scholarship, and they may involve revised or “revisionist” theories. Examine them carefully. Are you convinced by the newer approaches to a particular topic? Are they based upon newly discovered evidence that you find persuasive?
- Are there specific themes within this topic that I can investigate? Many topics, such as wars, social or political revolutions, or aspects of societal change, involve many different actors or agents. You may wish to examine such a topic by focusing upon a particular sub-theme such as the role of women or minorities, the state of political or gender relations, or the influence of science and technology. This can be further explored in light of causative or consequential effects – that is, how did the actors or agents affect events, or how did the events affect the actors?
- Can the evidence that I have uncovered support the claim I am making? It would be wise to consider the evidence you have found during your investigation and weigh it objectively before writing your essay. Devising an argument before fully considering the material could lead to an unexpected discovery: your argument is flawed or unsupportable. Working in reverse order to substantiate an uncertain argument is the equivalent of finding your suspect guilty or innocent before deciding on the case you wish to make. Read your sources critically, and take careful notes of what you have discovered. These notes will become crucial to the formulation of your thesis, or case. After you have made your initial determination and formulated an argument, these notes will then help you to form the body of your essay. The more notes you have, and the more carefully you have kept track of the key evidence you have uncovered, the more easily you will be able to construct and link together the main points of your paper.