Helping Students Write Effective Thesis Statements

All writers have had, at some point, difficulty locating and confidently stating their point of view—in other words, difficulty composing a well-stated thesis.  For students composing writing for class, the reality of articulating their argument can be a particular challenge.  Below, we offer some tips for instructors looking to help students find and state their argument confidently and convincingly.

Encourage your students to read, research, and prewrite to develop their point of view.

Writers often need to learn more about their topic before they can effectively state and support their position.  Moreover, it is often helpful for writers to hold on taking a position before they research.  Instead, they might explore the perspectives and approaches that already exist on their topic and position their argument based on what they find.

Remind students that a thesis usually has two parts: a statement of the writer’s point of view and a summary of the reasons/evidence the writer will draw on to develop that point of view.

It’s not uncommon to see a half-completed thesis statement--one that offers a claim but doesn’t pair that claim with any support.  So readers are left knowing what the writer thinks about a topic without having a sense of why the writer thinks the way he or she does.  We try to emphasize to writers that they must explain “why” they think they way they do about a given topic, issue, problem.  Though many thesis statements don’t include the word “because,” a thesis using this word can serve as an example of answering the “why” part of the question.  We sometimes use the example of a lawyer in court arguing on behalf of a client.  Simply claiming that her client is innocent won’t be enough for the jury; the lawyer must also explain that her client is innocent because...   

Writers can think of their thesis as a short summary of their entire essay—a summary that accounts for their position and their support for that position.  In this way, a thesis serves as the essay’s road map, as something that can help guide the reader through the text.

Offer students examples of the kinds of arguments they can make in their essays.

Most academic writing contains some kind of argument, but the arguments can differ in both content and form.  These differences are guided by genre conventions, disciplinary approaches, and by the writer’s individual goals.  It is often useful to give your students examples of arguments that are acceptable and unacceptable for the assignment you’ve given them.  More specifically, you may find yourself needing to talk about the types of evidence you want to see them use to support the arguments they are making—or the types of claims that are appropriate for the assignment.

On a related note, students might have problems differentiating a thesis statement that takes a clear position from a thesis statement that is, in reality, a statement of fact.  To help writers make this distinction, we often ask them to consider whether their thesis has a counterargument—whether their thesis could be disagreed with or altered in some way.

Advise students to rewrite their thesis when they revise their essays.

Many writers need to draft an introduction, including a thesis, before they can feel comfortable moving to writing the body of their essay.  But most writers discover their argument as they draft, so their initial introduction and thesis often don’t accurately foreground the body of the essay once the draft is complete.  As a result, writers should think of their initial thesis as being in the “working” stage.  They can also think about the kind of work their working thesis may do for them.  Specifically, a thesis can guide the writer just as handily as it guides the reader.  We like writers to be mindful of the argument they are trying to make as they compose, as this mindfulness helps them stay focused on providing relevant evidence and reasoning to support their argument.

We have some useful resources about writing thesis statements and making arguments.

•    Common Writing Situation: “My teacher wants me to make an argument, but I’m not sure if I’m doing that in my paper”
•    Thesis Statements
•    Revision

The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center also has a helpful handout on thesis statements.