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5.3: Elements of a thesis

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    • Alexandra Glynn, Kelli Hallsten-Erickson & Amy Jo Swing
    • North Hennepin Community College & Lake Superior College

    So what makes a good working thesis? Ask yourself these questions:

    1. Is it interesting?
    2. Is it limited?
    3. Is it specific?

    Interesting thesis

    Being interesting doesn’t have to mean the writing is about mutant zombies who become cheerleaders for a professional football team (although that would be interesting!). The question to ask is “To whom is this interesting?” This means making sure your thesis is relevant to your audience. Is it meaningful? Can the audience connect to it or can you make them connect to it? For example, maybe your topic is worm composting. You decide your audience will be a local gardening club because the topic is interesting and relevant to that population. Your thesis, then, would draw more on how to make the topic interesting to that audience.

    Maybe you are given an audience and purpose. You have a write a report and present it to your class and your purpose it to teach them something about the class topic (American Literature). You would want to find a topic that interests you and your audience and then create a thesis that will engage the audience as much as possible.

    Sample thesis: By using Americana music and Jazz rhythms, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance changed American poetry and made it more relevant and accessible to many people, especially people of color.

    Sometimes, your audience is your nursing instructor or a client at work. Then you need to think about what their expectations are. You also need to think about what you know or what you can learn (through research). Find the intersection between those two things, and you will have a good thesis.


    Limited thesis

    Having a limited thesis means making sure your topic fits your writing assignment. It is too broad or too narrow? Does the thesis fit the assignment or writing project? A thesis for an email to a potential employer needs to be very focused and limited. Emails should be short and to the point:

    I want to thank you for the opportunity to interview with St. Joseph’s Hospital, and I am including the additional information we discussed yesterday.

    Short, to the point. The email, then, would discuss this additional information. But the “so what” is here to start.

    Keep in mind that in the forming of a thesis when writing papers, it's very easy to go too big.

    This essay will discuss the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Whoa! That’s way too big. What about Black Lives Matters? What kind of essay will this be (informative? persuasive? cause and effect?)? Who is the audience? All of this will help you to limit your thesis and topic.

    But you also need to be careful not to go too specific either. What about this thesis statement?

    The Black Lives Matters movement began with the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

    This is really just a fact. It is not a claim about what might be changed. It is not part of some ongoing debate we are having about how things ought to be. It just states a historical truth. It would be hard to write a whole paper that focuses only on this thesis statement.

    Sample thesis: Black Lives Matters was started as a political movement to bring attention to racial bias in the justice system and stems from civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s.

    This would be a thesis claiming to make a certain comment about history and historical facts. It is saying, here is how we should read these historical facts. Notice that one can debate that. Historians certainly do. For example, you can right away see the counterarguments here. Someone could counter:

    Black Lives Matters has little to no relationship to the main Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, it is more an offshoot of one of the more radical branches of those movements.


    Black Lives Matters was not started as a political movement, but rather, it was a grass-roots community response to a tragedy that morphed into a political movement to bring attention to racial bias in the justice system.

    Notice that both of these are plausible counterarguments, and they are also different ways to read a historical fact. So all three would be good thesis statements. The sample thesis above would be a good, supportable, arguable thesis.

    Specific thesis

    To be specific means giving a why in your thesis. In a working thesis, writers often give the what but not the why. Look at this example:

    College students should take online classes.

    That’s good that you think college students should take online classes, but why?

    Sample thesis: College students should take at least one online class because it will make their schedule more flexible, teach them important technologies, hone their time management skills, and make them better online writers.

    Notice that it is also the organization of the paper. You can see the sections right there. There is the first paragraph with the introduction to the topic of online classes. Then there will probably be a section (a paragraph or two) on the flexibility of schedule. Then a section on technology. Then time management. Then a bang-up conclusion. It’s all right there in the thesis statement. This is typical of thesis statements of academic argument research papers.

    Sometimes a thesis might be almost the whole piece of writing, like a note to your roommate.

    Does this meet the criteria of a good thesis?


    • Yes, it’s interesting because Tai, the audience, wants his girlfriend to continue to date him.
    • Yes, it’s limited. It says what it needs to say and no more.
    • Yes, it’s specific. It gives a what and a why.
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