Aphorisms on Thesis Statements

A Good Thesis is Hard to Write: Even expert writers don't get it right all the time. 

Your Thesis is the Most Important Sentence(s) in Your Essay: That's why you should spend a lot of time working it until it's good.

Having a Good Thesis Makes Writing a Paper Easy: Everything else falls into place once you've got a well-thought-out, well-written thesis. 

Put Your Thesis Early: When you’re writing an academic paper, state your thesis early in your paper, and state it clearly. Don’t save it until the end of the paper. You're not writing the great American novel: don't try to keep your reader in suspense. 

No Rabbit in the Hat Arguments: That is, don’t fall victim to “rabbit in the hat” argumentation. A magician, because he or she is trying to create suspense, shows you an empty hat, and then, after much trickery and sleight of hand – voila! – pulls out a rabbit at the end of the trick. When you’re writing an academic paper, you’re not a magician. Don’t try to create suspense; don’t save your rabbit until the end of the trick. Just show us your damn rabbit at the start of the paper.

Thesis at the End of the Intro: The most popular place to put a thesis statement is at the end of an introduction, though it is important to remember that the end of your introduction may not necessarily be the end of your first paragraph. Putting a thesis statement at the end of an introduction allows you to frame a question or problem in that introduction, to offer an answer or response in your thesis statement, and then to support that thesis with evidence and analysis in the body of your paper.

Thesis at the Start of the Essay: But you need not save your thesis statement until the end of your introduction. It could appear earlier in your introduction. It could even be the first sentence of your paper.

Thesis as a Positioning of Yourself: But what is a thesis statement? What is it supposed to accomplish? The word thesis comes from the Greek tithenai, “to place, put, set”: a thesis is a setting down of yourself, a placing of yourself, a positioning of yourself on an important question or issue. Thus, the Greeks used the word thesis to refer to a proposition.

A Thesis Should be Either True or False: As a proposition, a thesis is either true or false, and it should be demonstrable as one or the other based on the evidence you have available to you.

A Thesis Should be Consequential, Concise, and Clear: A thesis needs to be consequential, concise, and clear. Being all three is not easy. It must be consequential, meaning that it makes a powerful and potentially transformative claim about the text at hand. But it must also be concise because detailing your argument in full in your introduction would confuse and alienate your reader. Being consequential (big and powerful) and concise (short and punchy) at once is no easy task; the way to do so is to be clear. Clarity involves the use of concepts to synthesize and organize your major claims into logical systems of contrast and continuity.

Using Contrast and Continuity in Thesis Statements: As such, there are two important logical paradigms to keep in mind when thinking about theses: contrast and continuity. The logic of contrast is that this is true; that is not. The logic of continuity is that this leads to that. Most thesis statements can be boiled down a version of one or both of these logical paradigms.

A Roadmap to Your Paper is Not a Thesis: Your thesis statement is not a roadmap to your paper; it is a roadmap to your logic. Sometimes it can be helpful, especially in longer papers, to provide a roadmap to your paper – that is, to summarize your organization – somewhere near (before or after) your thesis, but your thesis statement should be detachable from your paper.

Make Your Thesis Quotable: In other words, make your thesis statement quotable. Try to boil your argument down to a simple, clean proposition that uses big concepts to make a big claim.

Your Argument May be Complex; Your Thesis Must be Simple: Pretty much any issue that is difficult enough to need an academic paper to be written about it is going to require an argument that is complex and nuanced, but you can’t allow all that complexity and nuance into your thesis. You can’t argue your case in full in your thesis, but you should report a simple version of the position at which you’ll arrive by the end of the paper. 

Multi-Sentence Thesis Statements are OK: It is perfectly fine to have a multi-sentence thesis statement. In fact, a good thesis statement can rarely be written in one simple sentence. When articulating your thesis, exploit the organizational tools of complex and compound sentences, semicolons, and multiple sentences.

State What Is Not True, Not Just What Is: Just as I try (in these aphorisms) to tell you what not to do in your papers as well as what to do, try to tell your reader in your thesis statement what is not going on in your text (i.e., what is not true) as well as what is.

Truth Claim--Explanation: A good thesis statement usually has two components: a truth-claim and an explanation. The truth-claim is an argument that X is the case; the logic-claim is the argument that X is the case because of Y and Z.

The Truth Claim: The truth-claim of your thesis is demonstrated through inductive reasoning, the marshaling of evidence (facts, data, statistics, examples, cases, summaries, quotations, paraphrases, etc.) that, when taken together, allows a reasonable person to conclude that X is the case.

The Explanation: The explanation part of your thesis is demonstrated through deductive reasoning: the use of inference to suggest that A leads to B, B to C and D, C to E, F, and G and D to H, I, J, and K, etc. 

Answer What, How, and Why:  When writing your theses, try to answer the questions what, how, and why. A social science paper might have a thesis that articulates what is the case (a truth-claim) as well as how and why it came to be the case (the explanation). A literary studies paper might have a thesis that articulates what an author did in a text (a truth-claim), how the author did it (another truth-claim), and why the author did it that way (an explanation).

"By" for How, "Because" for Why: Consider answering how and why questions in your theses by using certain key prepositions: use the word “by” to articulate how, and the word “because” to articulate why. Using the word “by” requires you to establish procedural connections: “The author did A; the author did A by doing B, C, and D.” Using the word “because” requires you to establish causal connections: “X is the case; X is the case because Y and Z.”

Thesis vs. Argument: Keep in mind the difference between a thesis statement and an argument statement. Consider giving a very brief (one- or two-sentence) thesis statement at the end of your introduction, then providing the evidence and analysis that support your argument in the body of your paper, and finally offering a longer (one paragraph or so) argument statement at the beginning of your conclusion.

Write Your Thesis First and Last: When drafting a paper, write your thesis statement first and last. That is, write a thesis statement to guide the analyses you write in the body of your paper. Write those body paragraphs. And then write an argument statement that provides an overview of your ideas. But then be sure that, after you have written your argument statement, you return to your thesis statement, revising it to reflect exactly what you argue in your paper (often you will discover your argument in the course of articulating its parts, i.e. you will better understand the information you address, and you need to make sure your thesis reflects your best understanding of the topic under consideration).

Avoid Multi-Factorial Thesis Statements: Be careful taking a “multi-factoral” approach to your thesis. Consider this example of a multi-factoral thesis: “Shakespeare and ballet work so well together because of their shared base in aristocracy and Shakespeare’s unique and poignant use of imagery.” Either write the aristocracy paper, or write the imagery paper. It may be true that many different elements factor into an argument, but it’s probably better to pick one line of thought and pursue it fully. I usually try to avoid such theses because they result in a soft argument for a number of causes as opposed to a strong argument for a single, most-important cause. Those other things may be going on, but perhaps they would be different arguments for different papers.

What to Do in a Thesis: In sum, a good thesis statement should be: 


  • True
  • Clear
  • Consequential
  • Not obvious
  • Quotable / Detachable
  • Big and bold: pushed as far as possible while maintaining, I believe this to be true.
  • Direct: no fluff. 
  • Use key terms.
  • Not too short, not too long.
  • Analytical, not ethical or political. 
  • Make one (and only one) central claims, though it may have several parts.
  • Answer the driving question/problem of the essay.
  • Explain how and why something came into existence. 
  • Use “by” to indicate how something came into existence (Y is true; X did Y by Z).
  • Use “because” to indicate rationale (X is true because Y and Z).
  • About author’s intent, if possible
  • Include a tag?

What Not to Do in a Thesis: 


  • Write something that’s not true.
  • Write a multi-factorial thesis.
  • Write a moralistic thesis. 
  • Use thought-terminating clichés (“truth,” “reality,” “human nature”)
  • Be suggestive, coy, or vague.
  • Be cute or clever.
  • Be too short. 
  • Be too long. 
  • Ask a question instead of giving an answer/explanation.
  • Rely to much on the surrounding writing for the thesis to make sense. 
  • Quote in the thesis.

Top Five Thesis Strategies: My top five strategies for thesis statements are: 

1.Truth Claim / Explanation

2.Surface Reading / Closer Reading

3.Not X but Y

4.Use Key Terms

5. Less is More