Essay Writing Guides

How to Write a Thesis Statement

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

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What is a thesis statement?

Your thesis statement says exactly what you’re trying to argue in your essay. It captures all the major elements of your argument — the evidence you’re examining, the specific point you’re making, and why it matters. Your thesis is the engine of the essay, driving your argument forward. All your evidence, and the points you conclude from it, direct back to your thesis statement.

How do you capture an entire argument in one statement? While it can take some editing to hone in on your core argument, and articulate it clearly as a thesis, a great thesis statement sets your essay up for success by laying out exactly what you need to prove.

This guide — which borrows some examples and techniques from Andrea Scott’s Formulating a Thesis, Erik Simpson’s Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis, and Keith Shaw’s Thesis Test — will equip you with the tools to write a strong thesis statement — whether you’re writing your first essay or your dissertation.

The question (before the thesis)

A good essay starts not with a statement, but with a question. Asking a good question can be more important than the argument itself: it defines the scope of the essay, its place within the scholarship/field of study, and hints at its significance. Write your question explicitly, to define for your readers and yourself the problem/puzzle/contradiction that motivates your essay.

Your thesis statement is the answer to the question you pose. Before writing your thesis, you need to figure out the question you want to answer. 

  • Is there a tension or contradiction that needs explaining?
  • Are there conflicting views on your topic? How would you reconcile them?
  • Do the standard views of this topic need to be reconsidered?
  • Is there something that seems insignificant or tangential that is actually important?
  • Is there an approach to this topic that hasn’t yet been explored?
  • Is there a gap in the scholarship that needs to be filled?

Coming up with an interesting, arguable question ensures that you will have an interesting, arguable thesis. 

Key qualities of a thesis statement (The Thesis Test)

How can you tell that the thesis you’ve written is a strong one? Check your thesis against these qualities of a good thesis statement:

A good thesis is:


Let’s break down what we mean by each of these qualities.

1. The thesis is ARGUABLE

The thesis statement is, above all, an argument. Does your thesis make a claim that a reasonable person could argue against?

Take these examples: 

  • Romeo and Juliet is a powerful story of failed love.
  • By telling a powerful story of failed love, Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the destructive effects of family pride.
  • By comparing versions of the “balcony scene” in three film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, we can see how the choice of setting for the adaptations affects how “true love” is presented in these movies.

The first example is not an arguable statement; it’s self-evident from reading the play, and a personable person can’t argue against it.

The second example is slightly better because it starts to get more specific, but it still essentially summarizes the main point of the play. Its argument is essentially the moral of the story.

The third example is finally an arguable thesis: it could be argued against, and it requires careful analysis of evidence in order to prove its point.

Sometimes, statements might seem arguable because they require careful attention to the text. For example, you might write:

By examining the cultural influences on the twins in Pleasantville, we can see that David’s nostalgia for the 1950s is motivated by effective media strategies and his loneliness; on the other hand, his sister, Jennifer, does not feel nostalgic for the 1950s because of her strong friendships and feminist values.

This statement looks like it might be a good thesis. It says something that might not be immediately clear on a first watch of the movie and shows that you’ve paid close attention to the text to find evidence for these points. However, this thesis statement ultimately falls short: this essay would only provide a deeper look at what is motivating each of the characters. It wouldn’t actually make a larger point based on these observations or an original argument. 

Let’s compare this example to an arguable thesis statement: 

By looking closely at the issues of race and gender in Pleasantville, we can see that although the film attempts to expose and critique the inequities of the 1950s, its lack of diversity, troubling resolution, incomplete support of feminism, and idolization of the white man play directly into “whitewashing” and patriarchal tendencies.

This essay would include a close reading of the film in service of a larger point. The writer is doing more than providing a plot summary or pointing out details; they are analyzing the text in order to make an original argument.

2. The thesis is MANAGEABLE

Not all thesis statements are created equal. Does your thesis make a claim that can be reasonably proven with the evidence at hand and within the scope of your paper? Part of making your thesis arguable requires making it manageable with the evidence you have.

A book-length dissertation can make a larger, riskier claim than a short essay on Wuthering Heights. There is only so much you can argue when you only have five pages or when you’re drawing all your conclusions from one study. Don’t sell yourself short, but keep in mind your limitations and tailor your thesis to them.

Here are a few examples of theses that go beyond a manageable scope, and how they can be altered to argue within the scope of the evidence:

Example 1:

UNMANAGEABLE: By looking at Henry David Thoreau’s poem “I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied,” we can see that Transcendentalism is not actually about self-reliance, as the speaker of the poem is saved through outside aid. 

  • You can’t make an argument about the core tenets of a philosophical and literary movement only through a close reading of one poem by one of its contributors. 

MANAGEABLE: While Transcendentalism is known for its emphasis on self-reliance, the speaker of Henry David Thoreau’s poem “I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied” expresses dependence on a “kind hand.” An examination of chance and intention in this poem reveals that the speaker is transformed by a recognition of outside aid. This reading offers a new perspective on what “self-reliance” can look like.

  • This reworded thesis emphasizes how this poem does something unexpected without claiming that it totally changes Transcendentalism. Instead, this thesis focuses on what can be proven within the poem and understands the scope of the new perspective it provides.

Example 2:

UNMANAGEABLE: The results of my study — that more members of my neighborhood rated environmental issues as a higher priority than labor issues — shows that middle class voters care more about social issues than economic issues.

  • This thesis makes a lot of assumptions without much evidence to back it up. Is your neighborhood representative of middle class voters throughout the country? Did you just ask about environmental versus labor issues? Are both of those actually representative of these broader categories “social” and “economic” issues?

MANAGEABLE: Despite expressing more concern about environmental issues than labor issues, research revealed that more of my neighbors participate in union activities than a recycling program. This study shows a disconnect between values and action in my neighborhood.

  • This thesis statement now makes a claim about this neighborhood specifically rather than making sweeping generalizations. 

Example 3:

UNMANAGEABLE: If the Union Army had lost at the Battle of Gettysburg, then the Confederate Army would have taken Pennsylvania and DC and won the Civil War.

  • This thesis isn’t arguable or manageable; it makes an argument about a hypothetical situation that can’t really be proven with evidence — certainly not without a lot of it.

MANAGEABLE: In newspaper coverage and speeches made about the Battle of Gettysburg (including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), Union media and politicians created the sense that the Battle of Gettysburg had turned the tide of the war long before victory was assured on the battlefield.

  • This thesis is still about the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg, but it roots it in specific evidence rather than speculation.

3. The thesis is INTERESTING

Does your thesis address a clear question/puzzle/contradiction? Does it go beyond the obvious? Does it say something original?

Consider these two different theses:

  • Romeo and Juliet is a tale of “star-crossed” lovers. Throughout the play, we see how the cards are stacked against Romeo and Juliet and they are fated to meet a tragic end.
  • Although we are told from the beginning that it is a tale of "star-crossed lovers," Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy by calling attention to a series of near-misses, places where the protagonists' downfall could be avoided.

The first example is barely arguable and it is not very interesting. It seems like it’s saying something obvious and self-evident about the play.

The second example, however, says something more strange. It reads against the grain: we think the play is about one thing, but actually (this writer asserts), it’s about the opposite. This makes for a much more interesting thesis, one that offers an unexpected perspective on the play.

Reading against the grain is one technique for articulating an interesting thesis. Here are some other moves:

  • There is an inconsistency/contradiction/tension that needs explaining.
  • This case study can tell us something about a larger topic/issue.
  • Scholars disagree about this, and my argument will show a new perspective or reconcile their thoughts.
  • This method/approach has never been applied to this topic.
  • It seems like one thing is the case (or we thought it was always this way), but that perspective needs challenging.

4. The thesis is IMPORTANT

Does your thesis have some significance in the context of existing scholarship/the field? Interesting theses are also more likely to be important because they’re saying something original that hasn’t been stated before.

An important thesis usually fills a gap in the existing literature on the topic. What hasn’t been said before? Is there a new approach you’re providing? A new perspective? It can also change the way we think about the topic. How does your particular reading change the way we think about this book or movie or political movement? 

A good thesis has stakes; it answers the question “so what?” clearly. Let’s look again at our example:

Although we are told from the beginning that it is a tale of "star-crossed lovers," Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy by calling attention to a series of near-misses, places where the protagonists' downfall could be avoided.

This thesis statement currently has some implied stakes — it changes the way we think about the play. But in order for it to be a strong thesis, it would need another sentence making those stakes explicit.

Your thesis should be manageable, and so should its stakes. A five-page paper on metaphors related to hunger in a certain novel won’t solve food scarcity. But you can still say something worth reading. Have you articulated something in your essay, however small, that hasn’t quite been said before?

5. The thesis is SPECIFIC

Your thesis should say something about your topic specifically — and about something specific within your topic.

A thesis statement says something about the topic you discuss exclusively. If it could apply to various topics, it’s not specific enough. Take these examples:

  • Bad: Romeo and Juliet is a powerful story of failed love.
  • Not great: By telling a powerful story of failed love, Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the destructive effects of family pride.
  • Nearly there: Mercutio might seem like a minor character in Romeo and Juliet, but his language actually tells us something important about how the play works.
  • Spot on: Although we are told from the beginning that it is a tale of “star-crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy by calling attention to a series of near-misses, places where the protagonists' downfall could be avoided.

The first example is the worst offender: if you take out “Romeo and Juliet” you could slot in so many other texts. The second example is not much better: it gets slightly more specific by discussing family pride, but even so, you could probably think of several other stories that could replace Romeo and Juliet here. 

The third example might seem like it’s specific — it names a specific character and gestures toward the specific evidence it analyzes (his language) — but it ends vaguely. What exactly about the play does Mercutio’s language tell us?

The final example fully passes the test; it says something specific to Romeo and Juliet, includes a specific quote, and requires specific incidents as evidence.

In addition, your thesis should make a lot of information irrelevant. Your thesis should narrow in on a small part of the topic or a motif you’re analyzing. This should ultimately apply to the topic as a whole and have broader implications, but your thesis focuses on specific pieces of evidence that you’ll be examining. Looking at the examples above, the first and second examples ask for evidence from the whole play and invite plot summary. On the other hand, the third example will specifically examine “near-misses” and the fourth will analyze Mercutio’s speeches. 

Magic Thesis Statement (MTS)

The Magic Thesis Statement helps you translate your argument into a well-worded thesis. It serves as a checklist to make sure you have all the necessary elements of a good essay: evidence, original argument, stakes. Most thesis statements that can fit in the MTS also exhibit the characteristics discussed above. 

Try writing your thesis following the MTS:

By looking at [EVIDENCE] through [LENS/SCHOLARLY APPROACH] , we can see [ARGUMENT] [which most people don’t see]. This is important because [STAKES] .

Let’s break this down:

By looking at [EVIDENCE],

The first blank in the MTS helps identify the precise evidence you’ll be analyzing in your essay. Your thesis should be specific and make a lot of material irrelevant. Focus on what specifically you’ll be analyzing.

  • Too broad: “By looking at Shakespeare’s Hamlet….”
  • Getting closer: “By looking at death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet….”
  • That’s better: “By looking at various images of corpses in Shakespeare’s Hamlet….”


This is an optional part of the MTS; not all essays require it. But if you’re examining your evidence through a particularly scholarly approach or lens, it can be particularly helpful. You can also introduce a particular key word that serves as a guiding method here too. Consider these examples: 

  • By looking at doubling and doppelgangers in the film Last Night in Soho through Freud’s theory of the uncanny….
  • By reading the moors in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a liminal space….

we can see [ARGUMENT].

This next blank in the MTS invites you to state your specific argument (based on the evidence you’ve examined). 

The phrase “which most people don’t see” should not actually appear in your thesis, but it reminds you that your argument should be original and interesting. Here are some examples of the MTS through this point.

By examining how Jane Eyre and Our Mutual Friend stage trials and transformations, we can see how a trial is needed to change a character’s societal and spiritual status, thus equalizing the novel’s heroes and heroines and sanctioning their final marriages.

By examining Tolstoy’s use of “language of age” at turning points in Prince Andrei’s life, we can see that youth, paradoxically, signals moments when Andrei achieves a more mature understanding of the world.

Lots of developing writers make the mistake of ending here. You’ve stated your evidence and your argument, but you’re not quite finished! At this point in your thesis, ask yourself “so what?”

Why does it matter that a trial is required before marriage? How does the use of “language of youth” at moments when Andrei matures change our reading of War and Peace or of Tolstoy’s understanding of youth?

This is important because [STAKES/“SO WHAT?”].

The last blank in the MTS asks for the stakes of your argument. What new perspective does your essay offer? Why does your argument matter? What’s the big deal?

Push your argument one step further, explicitly stating what it offers to the conversation or why it’s important. Take this completed version of the example above.

By examining Tolstoy’s use of “language of age” at turning points in Prince Andrei’s life, we can see that youth, paradoxically, signals moments when Andrei achieves a more mature understanding of the world. This reading reveals that, for Andrei and for the novel, youth is not only associated with happiness: it allows for emotional complexity and an ability to discern deeper truths that is lost as the characters age.

The last sentence does so much for the thesis. It shows a deep engagement with the text; rather than simply noticing a pattern, the right is truly making an argument about one of the themes of the novel. 

You are allowed to get creative about how exactly the elements of the MTS appear in your thesis. Take this example:

Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks (baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love. Rather than presenting true love as natural, the film instead suggests that it is socialized.

This thesis doesn’t exactly read as the MTS, but all the elements are there, and it could be rewritten to fit the MTS:

By looking at the use of fighting sticks (baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) in The Princess Bride, we can see how they link the frame story to the romance plot and suggest that the grandson is being trained in true love. This is important because it reconsiders true love — not as natural, despite the importance of its natural power in the romance, but as socialized.

Location of the thesis statement

The thesis statement appears at the end of the introduction. Use your introduction to hook the reader and orient them to the information they need to understand your argument (what text you’re examining, what key terms you’re using, what scholars you’re in conversation with). Then, lay out your thesis before transitioning into your body paragraphs.

Sometimes, a long thesis statement stands as a paragraph of its own. That’s okay, especially if your thesis has multiple sentences and steps.

Your thesis statement should again appear in your conclusion when you remind the reader of your full claim. It doesn’t need to be copy/pasted and exactly the same as it appeared in the introduction, but all of its elements should be reiterated for the reader.

Examples of strong thesis statements

Read the following examples of strong thesis statements, from essays and book chapters, and see if you can identify the different elements of a strong thesis and of the MTS within them.

Example 1: from “University Gothic, c. 1880–1910” by Minna Vuohelainen in Gothic Britain: Dark Places in the Provinces and Margins of the British Isles:

In this essay, I argue that the universities and university towns of fin-de-siècle Gothic manifest all these seemingly incompatible tendencies: while they are places of opportunity, learning and aspiration, their exclusivity nonetheless renders them inaccessible to outsiders while their privileged residents exist aloof from the real world, indulging in dangerous daydreams and experiments. If the Gothic mode typically undermines modern ideals of rationality and progress, ‘University Gothic’ reveals places of supposed learning not to be places of Enlightenment – encapsulating ‘both reason and visibility’ – at all but instead places of darkness where human beings are ruined.

Example 2: from Chapter 2 of Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself:

Following Afaa Weaver’s suggestion that “black men are the summary of weight,” I would like to track the way that black masculinity as heaviness, as excess, as adornment, as vanity, as exorbitance moves through Song of Solomon in the bodies of birds, how these animals, rather paradoxically, come to signal a certain boundedness to earth, an unwieldy abundance that limits all possibility of escape or futurity. Alongside Nahum Chandler and others, however, I would like to think imaginatively about what such exorbitance avails to us as a frame for imagining alternative black masculinities and to begin with the premise of abundance rather than absence. Using some of Morrison’s most well-known characters—Milkman Dead; his best friend, Guitar; and his father, Macon Dead II—as central examples, I will close read moments of interspecies interaction with birds in the text in an effort to elucidate the generous approach to thinking black masculinity, and black personhood in a broader sense, that Morrison’s work provides.

Example 3: from “‘White Christmas’: Technologies of the Self in the Digital Age” by Diana Stypinska and Andrea Rossi in Philosophical Reflections on Black Mirror:

By examining the central themes of the three stories of “White Christmas,” we will ask who we become as we enter into a relation with intelligent machines that, to different degrees, substitute, replace, or supplement parts of our “selves.” To be more precise, we will inquire into how, in the name of individual self-enhancement, digital technologies (and especially those based on the externalization and automatization of intellectual, relational, and emotional faculties) may alter the conditions under which we encounter both others and the world. By doing so, we will demonstrate that these interventions tend to produce what we will concernedly call a “subjective stasis” (see Section “Digital Technologies of the Self”). In conclusion, we shall show how the loss of the care of self, others, and the world that this entails exposes us to ubiquitous programs of governmental control.

Thesis Statement FAQs

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.