People often say that a thesis statement is like a roadmap or a blueprint. People use these metaphors because a thesis is the part of a paper that introduces the main idea or claim of a text and sets up the organization that will follow, similar to the way a map or blueprint organize a trip or project.

Developing a thesis is important for a couple reasons. First, a good thesis will help readers understand your paper better. Second, the process of developing a clear, concise thesis will help you clarify your thinking and writing. And, if nothing else, readers often look for a thesis to decide whether or not to read the rest of a paper, so having a clear, easy to locate thesis can be very beneficial.

Having a tentative thesis in mind as you begin writing will help you stay focused, but keep in mind that you will likely revise that tentative thesis. Because writing is a learning process, writers often discover what they really want to say as they write.

The criteria below describe the characteristics of a good thesis. Be aware that these criteria are not absolute, but are meant to prevent common mistakes. There may, of course, be exceptions. For example, a paper’s main idea may be too complex for one single sentence. If you are writing for an instructor, it’s probably best to follow these criteria unless your instructor has given you permission to do otherwise.

Criteria for a Good Thesis

From the 2nd edition of Martin Maner’s The Research Process: A Complete Guide and Reference for Writers

Arguable: The thesis should express an idea that can be doubted.
Clear: The thesis should use precise, unambiguous language, and thus it should contain no metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech.
Predictive: The thesis should predict the paper’s plan of development, usually by mentioning the paper’s main subtopics in order of appearance.
Unified: The thesis should make a unified statement expressed as a single sentence.
Narrow: The thesis should be about a topic that you can master thoroughly.
Original: The thesis should be original (at least to some degree).

Useful Questions

  • Does the thesis inspire a reasonable reader to ask “how” or “why”? (arguable)
  • Would a reasonable reader not respond with “huh”? (clear)
  • Does the thesis lead the reader toward the topic sentences or subtopics needed to prove the thesis? (predictive)
  • Does the thesis avoid general phrasing and/or sweeping words such as "all" or "none" or "every"? (narrow)
  • Can the thesis be adequately developed in the required length of the paper or project? (narrow)
  • Would a reasonable reader not respond with “duh”? (original)

Suggested Steps for Forming a Thesis Statement

Adapted from Richard Bullock, The Norton Field Guide (NY: Norton, 2006), p. 251-52

1. State your topic as a question. You may have an idea for a topic, such as “famine,” “gas prices,” or “the effects of creatine on athletes.” Those may be good topics, but they’re not thesis statements, primarily because none of them actually makes a statement. A good way to begin moving from topic to thesis statement is to style your topic as a question:
  • What can be done to prevent famine in Africa?
  • What causes fluctuations in gasoline prices?
  • What are the effects of creatine on athletes?

2. Turn your question into a position. A thesis statement is an assertion – it takes a stand or makes a claim. Whether you’re writing a report or an argument, you are saying, “This is the way I see…” or “This is what I believe about…” Your thesis statement announces your position on the question you are raising about your topic, so a relatively easy way of establishing a thesis is to answer your own question:
  • The most recent famine in Eritrea could have been avoided if certain measures had been taken.
  • Gasoline prices fluctuate for several reasons.
  • There are positive as well as negative effects of using creatine to enhance athletic performance.

3. Narrow your thesis. A good thesis is specific, guiding you as you write and showing your audience exactly what your essay will cover. The preceding thesis statements need to be qualified and focused – they need to be made more specific. For example:
  • The 1984 famine in Eritrea could have been avoided if farmers had received more training in more effective methods and had had access to certain technology and if Western nations had provided more aid more quickly.
  • Gasoline prices fluctuate because of production procedures, consumer demand, international politics, and oil companies’ policies.
  • When adult athletes use creatine, they become stronger and larger – with no known serious side effects.