Decide on a thesis

Decide on a thesis

The thesis or claim is the central idea of your project. It should communicate a specific point about your topic and suit the purpose of the assignment and the rhetorical situation.

As you explore your topic, ideas for your thesis will begin to emerge.

You can focus these ideas by drafting a preliminary, or working, thesis statement, which is typically one to two sentences long. As you draft and revise, you may change your thesis several times.

thesis fits the purpose of the assignment

1. Making sure your thesis fits the purpose of the assignment

All theses make an assertion about a topic.

But these assertions differ: a thesis for an informative or interpretive paper usually previews the paper’s content or expresses the writer’s insight, while a thesis for an argument takes a position on a debatable issue or recommends an action.

Thesis to inform The exhibit Migrations offers images of the world’s poor people. [what it does]
Thesis to interpret Sebastião Salgado’s photographs ask us to understand the pain and suffering that refugees experience. [what it means]
Thesis to argue Military intervention by the United States and other nations can prevent further increases in the number of refugees. [why it matters]

A Strong Thesis

A strong thesis or claim does the following:

It fits the purpose of the assignment.
It makes a specific point about the topic and gives readers a sense of the direction of your project.
It asserts something that could make a difference in what readers know, understand, or believe.

State Your Thesis Directly

In U.S. academic and business settings, readers usually expect the statement of the main idea to appear early in the text.

Some other cultures may prefer a more indirect style that involves telling stories and giving facts without stating the central idea in an obvious way.

Assess the rhetorical situation, considering your readers’ expectations and values.

thesis is specific

2. Making sure that your thesis is specific

Avoid thesis statements that simply announce your topic, state an obvious fact about it, or offer a general observation.

Example: Photography exhibit Migrations by Sebastião Salgado

photography exhibit Migrations by Sebastião Salgado
Announcement I will discuss the photography exhibit Migrations by Sebastião Salgado. [What is the writer’s point about the photography exhibit?]
Statement of fact The exhibit of photographs by Sebastião Salgado depicts people in migration. [This information does not make a specific point about the exhibit.]
General observation Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of people in migration are beautiful and informative. [This point could apply to many photographs. What makes these photographs special?]

By contrast, a specific thesis signals a focused, well-developed composition.

Specific Like a photojournalist, Salgado brings us images of newsworthy events, but he goes beyond objective reporting, imparting his compassion for refugees and migrants.

In this example, the thesis expresses the writer’s particular point — Salgado’s intention to move the viewer.


A thesis statement can be longer than one sentence (if necessary) to provide a framework for your main idea.

All of the sentences taken together, though, should build to one specific, significant point that fits the purpose of your assignment and the circumstances of the rhetorical situation.

By the way, some instructors may prefer that you limit your thesis statements to one sentence.

Finding a Thesis through Questioning

Think of the thesis as an answer to a question. In the following examples, the topic of the thesis is in italics, and the assertion about that topic is underlined.

Question What did Alfred Stieglitz contribute to the art of photography?
Thesis Alfred Stieglitz’s struggle to promote photography as an art involved starting a journal, opening a gallery, and making common cause with avant garde modernist artists.
Question What makes a photograph significant?
Thesis The significance of a photograph depends on both its formal and its documentary features.
Question Is Susan Sontag right that photography obstructs critical thinking?
Thesis Susan Sontag’s critique of photography is unconvincing, partly because it assumes that most people are visually unsophisticated and thoughtlessly voyeuristic.
thesis is significant

3. Making sure your thesis is significant

A significant thesis makes an assertion that could change what readers know, understand, or believe.

A topic that makes a difference to you is much more likely to make a difference to your readers, though you should be sure to connect your interest to theirs.

When you are looking for possible theses, be sure to challenge yourself to develop one that you care about.

Evaluating thesis statements

Evaluate the thesis statements that accompany each of the following assignments.

If the thesis statement is inappropriate or weak, explain why, and suggest how it could be stronger.

Assignment For a social ethics course, find an essay by a philosopher on a contemporary social issue, and argue either for or against the writer’s position.
Thesis In “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” James Rachels argues against the standard view that voluntary euthanasia is always wrong.
Assignment For an economics course, find an essay on the gap between rich and poor in the United States, and argue either for or against the writer’s position.
Thesis George Will’s argument that economic inequality is healthy for the United States depends on two false analogies.
Assignment For a nutrition course, report on recent research on an herbal supplement.
Thesis Although several researchers believe that echinacea supplements may help reduce the duration of a cold, all agree that the quality and the content of these supplements vary widely.
Assignment For a literature course, analyze the significance of setting in a short story.
Thesis William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, a once-elegant town that is in decline.
Assignment For a history course, describe the factors that led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.
Thesis Governments that attempt to build far-flung empires will suffer the same fate as the Achaemenids.