Writing an Effective Thesis Statement: The 6-Step Method

The thesis is the single most important element of a formal essay. It tells the reader exactly what you will discuss by previewing your major points and clarifying your overall assessment of the text you’re analyzing. When written well, the thesis expresses your argument so clearly that it is not necessary to read the rest of your essay to understand what you believe. The only reason readers should need to keep reading beyond your thesis statement is to understand why you hold the view you do, and how you came to form this view.

As a general rule, your thesis should be one sentence long and should be the last sentence of your introduction.

Here is a six-step method for constructing a strong thesis statement for an essay which analyzes a persuasive argument:

1. Read the persuasive text you intend to analyze, noting which parts of the argument work well and which do not.

2. On a blank sheet of paper, list 3 to 4 specific persuasive tactics the author uses in the course of his/her argument. Here are examples of persuasive tactics you might identify: “uses a personal anecdote,” “includes many facts and statistics,” “quotes the opinions of experts” or “appeals to stereotypes.” Alternatively, you could describe the author’s persuasive tactics in terms of classic rhetorical appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos).

3. Next to each tactic you listed in Step 2, write a single adjective or short phrase which concisely summarizes your assessment of how effectively each tactic works. Adjectives you might choose include: “weak,” “strong,” “compelling,” “questionable,” “false,” “manipulative,” “unconvincing,” “irrelevant,” etc.

4. Decide how you feel about the overall or cumulative effect of the persuasive text: Does it ultimately persuade or not?

5. Decide which order you wish to analyze each of these persuasive tactics (from Step 2) and then number them accordingly.

6. Write a single sentence which includes the 3 to 4 persuasive tactics you identified (in Step 2), along with your brief summary of each tactic’s effectiveness (in Step 3) and your overall assessment of the text’s persuasiveness (in Step 4). The order you mention these elements in the sentence should reflect the order you will address them in the body of your essay.

Congratulations! You have a strong thesis which effectively previews your main points, conveys your overall assessment, and establishes a clear structure for the rest of your essay. The hard part is over. Now, in the body of your essay, you just need to make sure you discuss each tactic in the order promised, illustrating your reasons behind the adjective (or short phrase) you used to sum up the effectiveness of each (in Step 3).

Here is an example of what your list might look like after you’ve completed Steps 1 through 5:

Now we need to write a sentence (thesis) which mentions these tactics in the desired order (see Step 5) and includes the overall assessment of the article’s persuasiveness (in this case: “not persuasive”).

First, let’s put the persuasive tactics in the proper order, along with the appropriate adjective which sums up our reaction to each tactic:

compelling quotes from experts
riveting personal anecdote
misleading facts and statistics
offensive stereotypes

Notice that the first two tactics are construed positively, the last two are negative, and the overall assessment is that this text is “not persuasive.” All we need to do is string these together in a way that makes the logic of this complex reaction to the text coherent.

Here’s one way we could accomplish this task:

“Although the author uses compelling quotes and a riveting personal anecdote, his misleading facts and offensive stereotyping result in a very unpersuasive argument.”

Here’s a more developed version:

“Despite compelling expert testimony and a riveting personal anecdote, the author’s argument is undermined by a string of misleading statistics and offensive stereotypes.”

Here’s yet another possibility:

“Although the author captivates his audience with compelling expert testimony and a riveting personal anecdote, his sudden turn to misleading statistics and offensive stereotypes undermines his credibility; consequently, he fails to persuade.”

There you have it: An effective thesis! Now your reader knows exactly what you’re going to analyze (“expert testimony,” “personal anecdote,” “statistics,” “stereotypes”), how you feel about each of these elements (“compelling,” “riveting,” “misleading,” “offensive”), and what overall assessment your analysis is trying to demonstrate (“fails to persuade”). That’s a lot of work for a sentence to do, but done properly, it shows your reader that you’ve really thought about this issue—giving you instant credibility!

A strong thesis also helps to ensure you write a well-organized, well-focused essay. All you need to do is explain and illustrate each of the ideas contained in your thesis. In fact, you can think of each paragraph (or set of paragraphs) in the body as trying to answer a specific question about each part of your thesis. Using the sample thesis we created in the example above, here are the questions you might ask:

1. Why is the author’s quotation of experts “compelling”? (How does this help his overall persuasiveness?)

2. Why is the author’s personal anecdote “riveting”? (How does this help his overall persuasiveness?)

3. Why are the author’s facts and statistics “misleading”? (How does this hurt his overall persuasiveness?)

4. Why are the author’s stereotypes “offensive”? (How does this hurt his overall persuasiveness?)

Notice that in each case, you don’t just want to explain the major point you previewed in your thesis, but also to show how it relates to your overall assessment. This will ensure that you tie all of your points back to your thesis effectively, helping to clarify your logic.

Notice also that each of these questions begins with “Why” or “How.” These are the sort of questions that push you to develop, not merely re-state, your ideas. In fact, the secret to good development is learning to ask yourself appropriate “Why” and “How” questions, and then answering those questions as you write!

--The Writing Center thanks Wes Kisting for contributing this handout.