3 for Thursday: 3 Things Thesis Statements Are Not

Writing paper thesis statemetsResearch papers require thesis statements. For some reason, no matter how often I give examples, explain what a thesis statement is in class, and provide resources like UNC’s guide to thesis statements, most of my students still don’t get it. A good thesis statement is not a subject, a question, or ambiguous; it is a proposition which clearly lays out what you will argue and offers a clear direction for your readers.

And for this week’s 3 for Thursday, I explain why.

1) Thesis statements are not simply topics or subjects

Martin Luther, Buddhism, or Huckleberry Finn (to use an example from UNC’s guide) are topics or subjects, but they tell me nothing about what your paper is going to argue. What will you be saying about these topics? What narrow claim will you make that can be disputed by others?

2) Thesis statements are not questions

It is very common for a student to send me an email with a proposed thesis statement that needs further testing and research. Most of the time, however, what they actually send me are just questions. Why did Martin Luther post his 95 Theses? Why is suffering an important concept for Buddhism? Why is Huckleberry Finn a great novel?

I try to remind them that the punctuation at the end of their sentence indicates that these are questions, not statements. When you find your topic and explore it, you should have questions that surface. These are starting places for research and can lead to an eventual statement. If you are only asking a question, however, you haven’t gone far enough; the thesis statement is a very explicit and narrow answer to questions.

3) Thesis statements are not ambiguous

Make your thesis statement as explicit as you can. The more open-ended and ambiguous statements are, the less effective they’ll be for your paper. A narrow thesis is not simply for the reader, it provides a beginning, middle, and end for your paper.

To return to the Huckleberry Finn example from UNC: “Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel” is too broad. It can be taken into a thousand different directions and leave one’s research stranded in a sea of possibilities.

“In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore” is a better start. But a much stronger statement — “Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave ‘civilized’ society and go back to nature” — provides the parameters for your argument and even a structure for your paper. If the statement is narrow, then it will serve as a prime directive for your paper; every paragraph that follows should support your thesis.

So remember, if what you have is simply a topic or just a question, then you need to go further until you can offer a statement that is supported by research. For a more in-depth overview of how to write a thesis statement, see “Thesis Statements” at the UNC College of Arts & Sciences’ Writing Center.


In search of belief changing ideas