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Thesis Statements in academic writing


In mature academic writing, thesis statements are much more complex than the rules you were taught in high school. But if you must boil it down to rules, here they are:

  1. Take a stance
  2. Be specific
  3. Show your priorities
  4. Avoid academic “blah blah blah”

Myths about thesis statements

All of the above myths are artificial rules provided by teachers to simplify the task of writing a thesis (and, probably, to simplify their job of grading).

AVOID: The non-thesis thesis.

A thesis needs to take a position on an issue. It is different from a topic sentence in that a thesis statement is not neutral.

Bad: This paper will consider the applications and limits of video game learning theory in the 21st century college classroom as regards reward, risk-taking, and interaction.

Better: Although many video game learning strategies are already present in many college classrooms, perhaps the most controversial and most promising technique unique to video games is that of risk-taking.

What changed? The first simply stated it would explore video games in learning. Stating what you’re going to talk about is not a thesis. It’s more like a topic sentence.

The second argued that risk-taking in video games is a valuable skill that is applicable in learning. Now that’s actually saying something.

AVOID: The incontestable thesis

A thesis must be arguable. And in order for it to be arguable, it must present a view that someone might reasonably contest. Sometimes a thesis ultimately says, “we should be good,” or “bad things are bad.” Such thesis statements are tautological or so universally accepted that there is no need to prove the point.

Bad: Cheating is a serious problem at the high school level and one cause is bad parenting.

Better: Cheating is not simply a problem in America’s high schools; it is a learned behavior that may have serious implications for people’s future social relationships and workplace behavior.

What changed? The first statement simply argued that cheating is bad. That is incontestable. The second argued that cheating is a learned behavior. That is arguable.

AVOID: The overly broad thesis

It is not possible to write a good college-level paper about the history of California in a five-page paper. Besides choosing simply a smaller topic, you can narrow your thesis by specifying a method or perspective or delineating certain limits.

Bad: Cheating is caused by lack of parenting and the best solution to this problem is to tax parents whose children cheat.

Better: Although 21st century technology might seem the most important cause of cheating, a more fundamental problem has to do with parents of high schoolers who put too much pressure on their children to excel in school.

What changed? The first statement simply argued that cheating is caused by parenting. That is much too broad. The second narrowed it to parents pressuring their children too much. Now this essay has a clear focus.

AVOID: The “list essay” thesis

A good argumentative thesis provides not only a position on an issue, but also suggests the structure of the paper. The thesis should allow the reader to imagine and anticipate the flow of the paper, in which a sequence of points logically prove the essay’s main assertion. A list essay provides no such structure, so that different points and paragraphs appear arbitrary with no logical connection to one another.

Bad: There are many ways that video games could enhance education, including system thinking, collaborative tasks, and what James Paul Gee calls “situated meanings.”

Better: Among the many learning tools James Paul Gee explores in video games, the most significant ones—system thinking, collaborative tasks, and situated meanings–all share in increasing degree an emphasis on seeing information as a whole, rather than disconnected facts and ideas as education is usually taught.

What changed? The first statement simply listed a bunch of points. It is impossible to see the writer’s priority. The second clearly prioritizes one point.