One of the first tasks you need to perform when preparing to write a new paper is deciding what kind of argument you want to make. Even if the piece you are writing is explanatory or exploratory rather than making some kind of proposal or arguing about the cause of a thing, your project needs to have some kind of point that it is making. You need to give your reader a reason to read your writing and to care about your topic. Often the way we identify this essential point is by writing a working thesis statement, which may go on to serve as the primary claim of your paper (note that thesis, claim, main point and argument are used synonymously in this handout)but will also serve as your motivation to write the paper.
A good thesis is…
Contestable—A thesis is contestable if another person, looking at the same evidence as yourself, could reasonably disagree with it. It is not a statement of fact (there’s no reason to write the paper if it is). Facts can be used as evidence when sources properly, but they should be contextualized by a broader claim about what the facts mean and why they matter.
Supportable—A thesis is supportable if you can build it using solid evidence. It is not blind speculation (“I just have a feeling that this is going to happen”), a statement of unfounded personal belief (“I just know this is true regardless of what anyone else says”), or a statement of personal opinion or preference (“Chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla”).
Specific—A thesis is specific enough if you can manageably present a convincing case within the space allotted to you. You will not be able to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union in a five page paper, but you might be able to cover one aspect of it.
Interesting—Your thesis should be compelling enough for the reader to want to keep reading past the first paragraph. This is achieved due to the exigency of your claim (its timeliness or relevance to current issues in your field or community) or the originality of your particular take on the subject matter.
A thesis can do many things, though many students assume that a thesis needs to tell us what to do about a problem. Sometimes a thesis merely defines the scope of a problem. Here are some (but not all) of the many things your arguments can do:
- Explain—“What do we really know about this thing?”
- Define—“How should we talk about the thing and what terms should be use?”
- Evaluate—“Is the thing bad or good?
- Compare or Contrast—“Is this thing similar or different from another thing? Is it better or worse?”
- Argue Causality—“What made this thing happen?”
- Propose—“What should be do about the thing?”
- Explore—“What important questions should we be asking about the thing and how should we attempt to answer them?”
- Inform—“What do you think we need to know about the thing?”
The basic formula for a thesis statement is claim + reasons. The claim is the thing you are attempting to persuade your audience to accept, and your reasons are (obviously) the reasons why they should listen to you. These are the reasons that you will develop in the body paragraphs of the paper:
“X is true because of Y and Z.” (There isn’t always a Z, and sometimes there is more than just Y and Z)
How you adapt this formula depends, obviously on the type of project you are working on:
“The government should place tighter regulations on investment banks, because as we saw during the 2008 crisis, unfettered risk-taking poses a serious threat to the global economy.” (Proposal argument)
“Charles Dickens uses nature metaphors in order to equate groups of people to forces of nature in order to show how the fervor of a mob can eclipse the free will of individual agents.” (Literary analysis)
“David Brooks’ argument about the Federal Reserve is specious because he fails to account for some basic principles of economics.” (Evaluation of an argument)
Many students fear giving away their reasons in their thesis statement because they fear that they will have nothing to write about once they’ve said it already. But note that in the preceding examples, removing the reason(s) from the equation makes the thesis far less compelling and interesting and can even make it sound like a bald assertion rather than a true argument:
“The government should place tighter regulations on investment banks.”
“Charles Dickens uses nature metaphors.”
“David Brooks’ argument about the Federal Reserve is specious.”
After “why?” the most likely response of a reader to a paper that begins this way is “who cares?” Reasons contextualize your claim and give it a solid foundation. There is plenty of opportunity to flesh it out in the rest of your essay.
Faigley, Lester & Jack Selzer. Good Reasons: Designing and Writing Effective Arguments. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2006.
Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, & Keith Walters. Everything’s an Argument. 4th ed. New York: Bedford, 2007.