Developing Strong Thesis Statements
These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.
Contributors: Stacy Weida, Karl Stolley
Last Edited: 2018-01-31 03:32:44
The thesis statement or main claim must be debatable
An argumentative or persuasive piece of writing must begin with a debatable thesis or claim. In other words, the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on. If your thesis is something that is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact then there is no reason to try to persuade people.
Example of a non-debatable thesis statement:
Pollution is bad for the environment.
This thesis statement is not debatable. First, the word pollution means that something is bad or negative in some way. Further, all studies agree that pollution is a problem; they simply disagree on the impact it will have or the scope of the problem. No one could reasonably argue that pollution is good.
Example of a debatable thesis statement:
At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on limiting pollution.
This is an example of a debatable thesis because reasonable people could disagree with it. Some people might think that this is how we should spend the nation's money. Others might feel that we should be spending more money on education. Still others could argue that corporations, not the government, should be paying to limit pollution.
Another example of a debatable thesis statement:
America's anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars.
In this example there is also room for disagreement between rational individuals. Some citizens might think focusing on recycling programs rather than private automobiles is the most effective strategy.
The thesis needs to be narrow
Although the scope of your paper might seem overwhelming at the start, generally the narrower the thesis the more effective your argument will be. Your thesis or claim must be supported by evidence. The broader your claim is, the more evidence you will need to convince readers that your position is right.
Example of a thesis that is too broad:
Drug use is detrimental to society.
There are several reasons this statement is too broad to argue. First, what is included in the category "drugs"? Is the author talking about illegal drug use, recreational drug use (which might include alcohol and cigarettes), or all uses of medication in general? Second, in what ways are drugs detrimental? Is drug use causing deaths (and is the author equating deaths from overdoses and deaths from drug related violence)? Is drug use changing the moral climate or causing the economy to decline? Finally, what does the author mean by "society"? Is the author referring only to America or to the global population? Does the author make any distinction between the effects on children and adults? There are just too many questions that the claim leaves open. The author could not cover all of the topics listed above, yet the generality of the claim leaves all of these possibilities open to debate.
Example of a narrow or focused thesis:
Illegal drug use is detrimental because it encourages gang violence.
In this example the topic of drugs has been narrowed down to illegal drugs and the detriment has been narrowed down to gang violence. This is a much more manageable topic.
We could narrow each debatable thesis from the previous examples in the following way:
Narrowed debatable thesis 1:
At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on helping upgrade business to clean technologies, researching renewable energy sources, and planting more trees in order to control or eliminate pollution.
This thesis narrows the scope of the argument by specifying not just the amount of money used but also how the money could actually help to control pollution.
Narrowed debatable thesis 2:
America's anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars because it would allow most citizens to contribute to national efforts and care about the outcome.
This thesis narrows the scope of the argument by specifying not just what the focus of a national anti-pollution campaign should be but also why this is the appropriate focus.
Qualifiers such as "typically," "generally," "usually," or "on average" also help to limit the scope of your claim by allowing for the almost inevitable exception to the rule.
Types of claims
Claims typically fall into one of four categories. Thinking about how you want to approach your topic, in other words what type of claim you want to make, is one way to focus your thesis on one particular aspect of your broader topic.
Claims of fact or definition: These claims argue about what the definition of something is or whether something is a settled fact. Example:
What some people refer to as global warming is actually nothing more than normal, long-term cycles of climate change.
Claims of cause and effect: These claims argue that one person, thing, or event caused another thing or event to occur. Example:
The popularity of SUVs in America has caused pollution to increase.
Claims about value: These are claims made of what something is worth, whether we value it or not, how we would rate or categorize something. Example:
Global warming is the most pressing challenge facing the world today.
Claims about solutions or policies: These are claims that argue for or against a certain solution or policy approach to a problem. Example:
Instead of drilling for oil in Alaska we should be focusing on ways to reduce oil consumption, such as researching renewable energy sources.
Which type of claim is right for your argument? Which type of thesis or claim you use for your argument will depend on your position and knowledge of the topic, your audience, and the context of your paper. You might want to think about where you imagine your audience to be on this topic and pinpoint where you think the biggest difference in viewpoints might be. Even if you start with one type of claim you probably will be using several within the paper. Regardless of the type of claim you choose to utilize it is key to identify the controversy or debate you are addressing and to define your position early on in the paper.
Give yourself some space from your essay. Ideally, you should take a few days off in between drafting your essay and revising it. Effective revision has to be done while you are rested, refreshed, and after you have a little bit of distance from your essay. This is an excellent time to work on other projects, catch up on sleep or housework, or do some fun activities with friends.
Pretend like you are a member of a jury. As you sit down with your thesis draft, pretend like you are somebody objective, like a jury member or a journal editor. Try to put yourself into a different mind-space than where you were when you originally wrote the thesis. This will help you identify unclear sentences, sloppy thinking, and poor phrasing more easily.
Read your essay out loud. It can be easy to miss typos, grammatical errors, and unclear or incomplete sentences when you are reading a piece of paper. Take the time to read the essay out loud to yourself, at a slow pace. Use a highlighter to mark every word, sentence, or paragraph that seemed confusing or wrong when you said it out loud.
- Changing your thesis statement to reflect the evidence more accurately
- Finding new sources of evidence to help prove your case
- Adding more of your own analysis to the evidence you have already provided
- Dealing more thoroughly with potential counterarguments
Consider whether each sentence makes sense. Each sentence should be clear and concise. Stay away from long-winded, abstract, or repetitive sentences. Limit your use of jargon when possible.
Consider whether each paragraph is well organized. Remember that each paragraph should be unified, should have an effective transition sentence to relate it to the previous paragraph(s), should have a topic sentence to describe the paragraph, compelling pieces of evidence, and compelling analysis of the evidence. You might find that some paragraphs require more detail, and other paragraphs have irrelevant sentences that should be cut. Other paragraphs might need to be split into two separate paragraphs if they include too much information.
Write a "reverse outline." In order to determine whether a thesis's overall structure is convincing, write a "reverse outline." A reverse outline is made up of the individual topic sentences of each paragraph that you have already written. (This is opposed to a regular outline that you write before you have drafted an essay.) Copy and paste each topic sentence into a separate document, in the order you present them in your essay draft. If the "reverse outline" makes logical sense and is convincing, it is likely that you have a solid structure for your paper. If your reverse outline is jumbled up, repetitive, or disorganized, you might have to rearrange your body paragraphs.
Use appropriately formal language. A thesis should not use contractions, slang, or swear words. Keep your essay appropriate for its scholarly context: it should be professional and objective.
- It can sometimes help to change your font or use a different color of ink when you proofread. Your eyes are more likely to catch an error when your essay is presented in a different format from when you originally typed it.
Make sure all sources are properly cited. Double-check that every quotation and citation is properly referenced and that your bibliography is accurate. Use whatever citation format your instructor suggests, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago. There are many citation guides that can help you ensure that your citations and bibliography are formatted correctly.
- Sometimes those who edit your paper will provide you with helpful notes. At other times, it might be best for you to follow your own instincts: do not make changes just because a fellow student tells you to. Think carefully about the suggestions, and make corrections as you see fit.
- Sometimes you are required to submit a draft of your thesis to an advisor or external reader, who will provide you with comments to help you revise the thesis.