The Problem with Thesis Statements

13 Mar

Developing a sound thesis statement is often one of the most challenging parts of writing a paper. As we discussed in a previous post on thesis statements, a thesis statement is a sentence (or, occasionally, two sentences) in an essay’s introduction that show the reader where the essay is going by identifying the writer’s scope and focus, and by providing the reader with an idea of where the paper is headed. As we touched on briefly last time, your thesis statement will vary depending on what type of writing task you are completing; this is often what makes writing thesis statements so difficult.

We know from our previous blog post that thesis statements should:

  • Be defensible
  • Not be obvious
  • Pass the “So what?” test

That said, different assignments will require different thesis statements, as your task in the writing project will dictate what kind of information and analysis you need to include within the essay, and this, in turn, will influence the development of your thesis. In short, there is no one right way to structure or write a thesis statement becaus every assignment is different!

So, let’s imagine a few different scenarios:

The Argument-Driven Response Paper:

Emily has been instructed to write a response paper reflecting on what she has read in one of her courses. Emily’s paper needs to be 2-3 pages in length, with an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Emily needs to provide three examples of technological devices that have changed society in the last ten years. Emily decides to write about cell phones, laptop computers, and tablets. She has some ideas, but she is having trouble developing a thesis statement.

The information that we know about Emily’s assignment and her ideas gives us a good understanding of what she should include in her thesis statement. We know that, while Emily is writing a response paper, she does have an argument: she is arguing that the three devices she has selected have changed society. This is important because it needs to be considered in her thesis statement. We also know exactly which three devices Emily is writing about. This can also be included in the thesis statement to show the reader where Emily is going with her argument.

Emily can pull these items together to form a basic thesis statement: “Cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic tablets have changed the face of society.” We know from Emily’s current thesis statement that she is going to write about cell phones, laptop computers, and tablets, and that she is going to focus on how these different devices have changed society. Emily should write one body paragraph on each device, and she should approach them in the order that she has listed them in her thesis statement. First, she will discuss cell phones. Then, she will focus on laptop computers. In the last paragraph before her conclusion, she will discuss tablets.

That said, Emily has a small problem. Her thesis statement does not pass the “So what?” test. It needs to be more specific! Emily needs to give us some idea of what her argument is – or how these electronic devices have changed society. She might revise her thesis statement into something like: “Cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic tablets have changed society for the better by creating a new generation of learners who have relevant and up-to-date information at their fingertips.” She could continue to push her thesis statement further in order to show her reader her argument, but she needs to provide at least some idea of where she is headed.

The thesis that Emily has constructed for this assignment is often called a listing thesis because it lists the items the writer will cover in the order they will be discussed. The listing thesis still needs to include more than just the items that will be evaluated, as we know we need to understand Emily’s argument and how she will develop it solely from reading her thesis statement. Listing thesis statements often work well when writers must discuss a certain number of points, and for shorter essays. This type of thesis statement is not appropriate for all types of writing and must be used carefully.  

The Compare and Contrast Essay:

Sam has been instructed to write a Compare and Contrast essay for his English 101 class. In this essay, Sam must compare and contrast two items of his choosing. He must show the similarities and differences between these two items/experiences, and he must make a recommendation in his essay, where he clearly shows the reader how/why one of the two items is preferable to the other. Sam does not have a page limit, but he does know that he needs to make a clear argument in order to convince the reader that, although these two things are similar, one is better than the other. Sam decides to write about owning a house and renting an apartment. He knows that he wants to recommend living in a house.

The information that we know about Sam’s assignment, his ideas, and the approach that he wants to take is enough to help us develop a thesis statement for Sam’s assignment. We know that, while Sam is ultimately focusing on the similarities and differences between owning a house and renting an apartment, he still has an argument: he must make a recommendation of one over the other. This is something that needs to be considered in Sam’s thesis statement. We also know that Sam is dealing with two items: owning a house and renting an apartment. Both of these items need to be included in Sam’s thesis statement.

Since Sam is writing a compare and contrast essay, his thesis statement should indicate that he is comparing and contrasting the two items that he has selected. Sam can start his thesis statement with a dependent word to automatically show that he is comparing and contrasting these two items. By using a dependent word, including both items in his sentence, and showing his recommendation (or his argument), Sam can create a strong thesis statement that does everything it needs to while easily passing the “So what?” test. For example, Sam might try something like “Although renting an apartment and owning a house both offer a person a sense of independence, owning a house is preferable because…” Then, he can preview his argument for owning a house (longterm investment, stability, etc.).

By starting with a dependent word, Sam has already placed the two items into a compare and contrast relationship with one another. He can then compare and contrast the two items while steadily moving toward his recommendation – as illustrated in his thesis statement. While this type of thesis statement works well for Sam’s assignment and purpose, it would not work for Emily’s argumentative response paper because Emily’s focus is different.

While these are just two of many possible assignments and thesis statements, it is clear to see one thing: the problem with thesis statements and with writing thesis statements lies both in their duty (to inform the reader of the writer’s argument while passing the “So what?” test) and in their variety (argument essays vs. compare and contrast essays vs. research papers vs. literature reviews vs…). To easily tackle your next thesis statement, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my assignment?
  • What is my purpose? What is my focus?
  • What ideas do I already have? Or, what points do I know I want to make in this essay?

Then, pull your answers together, brainstorm a tentative thesis statement, and ask yourself:

  • Does my thesis fit with what the assignment is asking?
  • Does my thesis clearly show my purpose (to reflect, to inform, to argue, etc.) and my focus?
  • Does my thesis give my reader an idea of where my writing will go?
  • Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test?

As always, do not feel like you are locked into one thesis statement just because it is the first thesis statement you have written! Tweak it until it fits with your assignment, your purpose, and your direction. Last but not least, if you need assistance (or even just an additional set of eyes to look at your thesis statement), feel free to schedule an appointment in the Writing Center!


2 Responses to “The Problem with Thesis Statements”


  1. Overcoming Writer’s Block and Writing Procrastination | The Christ College Writing Center - November 11, 2015

    […] Begin before you feel ready. Using Brainstorming Techniques can help you to get started. Unsure of where to begin? Try constructing your Thesis Statement. (Thesis statements should offer a clear picture of where you are going in the assignment, but they can be problematic!) […]

  2. Resources for Getting Started | The Christ College Writing Center - March 1, 2016

    […] The Problem with Thesis Statements […]

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