Myths About the Thesis Statement

Thesis statements are given a lot of attention in academic writing. We’re often told by our professors that they should be “strong” and “clear.” We need to “argue” for and “support” our thesis statements. They get all the spotlight in our papers because they have to be right in our first paragraph, and repeated in our conclusion. But why are they so hard to write?

Probably because we approach our writing with these restrictive ideas about what a thesis is supposed to do, when it’s supposed to be written, and where it needs to be presented. Here’s a list of some of the biggest myths about the thesis statement:

MYTH #1: It has to go in the introduction

Negatory. In many genres of writing you have creative and stylistic freedom about where your thesis should go. I’ve written papers in which it appears in the introduction. I’ve written papers where it appears one or two paragraphs later. On a few occasions I don’t state my thesis until the very end, after I’ve parsed out my thoughts in real time on the page. You can make any of these work, so long as you consider the effect of placing the thesis statement where you do.

MYTH #2: The thesis statement is the first thing you write

I vehemently discourage this thinking, especially when it comes to any assignment that involves research. You can’t purport what is true before you’ve found the evidence.

Imagine you come up with a thesis statement for a paper. To raise the stakes, let’s say this paper is due tomorrow. You think, “Great, now I need to find sources that confirm my thesis.” You start researching. You look at articles in the library’s databases, you find books in the stacks, you find some sources online…and they support the exact opposite of your thesis. So now you either have to totally rethink your whole approach to this paper (whose deadline is fast approaching), or you move forward with your original statement and ignore established consensus (which is a really bad look).

Instead of coming up with a thesis first, try coming up with research questions instead. That way you don’t lock yourself down to early in the writing process, and you approach research with an open mind.

MYTH #3: Your paper must follow your thesis statement to the letter

Your thesis statement contains your main point–your primary perspective or idea that you’re exploring in your paper. The body of your paper, however, can go on tangents, contradict and resolve itself, and explore facets of that idea or perspective that aren’t explicitly addressed in the thesis statement. Likewise, your thesis statement doesn’t have to function like a roadmap for the structure of the paper. You don’t need to break down exactly what will be discussed in each section or paragraph within that statement. Your introduction can set up the expectation of what your audience will be reading, but it’s rare that you have to lay out the exact organization to the letter. If this is necessary, I recommend writing the body of the paper before writing the thesis statement or introduction.

MYTH #4: Every thesis statement needs to follow the same formula

The nature of your thesis statement depends on the genre you’re writing in. You’re likely to see thesis statements in research papers, analyses, persuasive essays, literature reviews, and a host of other genres, and the thesis statement functions very differently for each of them. A thesis statement for a literature review may distill the connections between multiple contemporary pieces of scholarship, while the thesis for an opinion piece argues a particular point of view to convince a reader. And, not every genre even features a thesis statement! Annotated bibliographies, for example, are written to organize research for the benefit of other scholars. News reports are meant to report events, but not to draw conclusions about them–that’s where op-eds come in. All genres have a purpose, but perhaps not an argumentative thesis.

And just like the thesis statements of different genres function differently, so do those genres’ formats and organizational styles. Many of us were taught to write the five-paragraph essay: An introduction containing a thesis statement, followed by three body paragraphs, which contain three different points defending the thesis statement, followed by a conclusion where the thesis statement is repeated. But has your professor ever given you a five-paragraph essay to read for class? Probably not. Speaking personally, none of the scholarly material I encountered in college or grad school was written that way. It’s time to graduate from the five-paragraph essay and start writing genre-specific papers with genre-specific thesis statements like those you’re assigned to read for class.

MYTH #5: A thesis statement must be one sentence

Your thesis statement is large, it contains multitudes. Sometimes all the ideas in your thesis statement need a couple sentences to be expressed, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes it’s hard to extract the sentence containing your thesis statement from the sentence that comes before or after it. That’s okay!

Write as much as you need (though editing may be necessary later).

MYTH #6: Your thesis statement is a hill to die on

Chill. Academic conversation is built on informed criticism and debate. You can defend your thesis statement by supporting your ideas through evidence without getting defensive. You’re also allowed to change your mind on a topic after you’ve submitted a paper on that topic to your professor. You could even write a response to your own work if you were so inclined. It’s also a good idea if you acknowledge other ideas and their underlying philosophies in your paper and directly respond to them, as it demonstrates comprehension and good faith.

So now I’ve dispelled these myths about thesis statements, how should you get started on writing a better one? Luckily, I’m not just here to tell you what not to do.

STRATEGY #1: Write a purpose statement

Say what you want to do in the document you’re writing. Are you persuading your audience? Are you informing them of new research? Do you want to expose trends in your field of study? Do you want to analyze other works? Try to avoid statements like “I want to get a good grade”, or anything else that’s strictly related to class. It’s important to achieve all the assignment requirements, but thinking like this tends to devalue your important ideas.

STRATEGY #2: Be specific

You don’t want a thesis statement that could be transplanted into several different papers and still make sense. It should be uniquely suited to your claims and any sources that you use to support them. Refine it with who, what, when, where, why questions. Take a look at this example, which I’ve borrowed from our Writing Center workshop What’s Good Feedback:

The university should do more for second-language speakers

The university should do more for second language speakers because the city’s immigrant population is growing.

Because planners predict an influx of Bosnian, Hispanic, and Lithuanian immigrants in the next five years, the university should do more to develop its English as a Second Language program.

The first statement is vague about both why and what should happen, although it answers the question of where (at the university). The second version offers a why, but not a what. But the third version says why this is important, to specific groups of ESL learners (who), makes a concrete suggestion as to what should happen at the university, and specifies when these changes should be expected occur.

STRATEGY #3: Say why it matters

I find that all good thesis statements stand up to this question: What’s the point? Come up with a thesis statement that could have some bearing or influence on how others understand the subject or topic you’re writing about. Maybe you’re amalgamating research on a topic to make a policy recommendation, which has real-world applications. Maybe you’re applying a new feminist critical theory to a piece of classic literature that will affect that work’s standing in the literary canon. Formulate a thesis statement as if at any moment, someone’s going to ask you: “Who cares?”

Now that your understanding of thesis statements has been deconstructed, I hope these steps will allow you to employ a new, more successful approach for future dissertations, journal articles, and research papers.

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