How to write a thesis statement, in 3 simple steps

“The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic. – J.S. Mill

Thesis statements mystify most students.

In our experience, this is as true of Ph.D. candidates working on their dissertations as it is of 10-year olds writing their first 5-paragraph essay.

What is a thesis statement, anyway?

Most students don’t know.

Often, students are told that the thesis statement is an argument.

Of course that’s true, but it’s not very helpful. Thesis = argument pushes the mystery off onto a different term.

What is an argument?

And how does an argument turn into an organized essay?

The problem with telling students the thesis statement is an argument is that they don’t know where to begin.

And, once they do begin, they don’t know where they’re going.

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Our workshop takes a different approach.

We draw on the linguistics-based writing sequence my friend and co-teacher Catherine Johnson and her colleague Katharine Beals created for Oxford University Press’s new textbook Europe in the Modern World: A New Narrative History from 1500.

We start from the fact that a thesis statement is a sentence.

All students know what a sentence is. Even if they’ve had no formal instruction in grammar at all, they intuitively understand the subject-verb structure of the English sentence. We build on that knowledge.

We begin by giving them a simple sentence “test” they can use to analyze their own sentences (and punctuation). As we go along, the sentence test helps them see how it’s possible to express a coherent set of main and supporting ideas within just one sentence: the thesis statement.

Once students are equipped with the sentence test, we teach them to construct a thesis sentence in three steps:

  1. We show students that the structure of their thesis statement – its grammar – is the structure of their argument. We experiment with different sentence structures, showing students they can change the argument by changing the structure.
  2. Next we teach the classic sentence structures used in thesis statements. Students practice starting with a sentence structure and “filling in” content – instead of the usual tack of starting from a hazy notion of what their content is and trying to flesh out a structure. We do this because the logical structure of the sentence helps students develop the logic of their own ideas. Starting with the sentence helps students think.
  3. Finally, we give students practice creating sophisticated, 3-part thesis statements that include a mini-outline of the paper to come. Once they can write a 3-part thesis statement, not only do they know what their argument is, they know where they’re headed to boot – they know how their argument will unfold across their paper. The thesis statement points the way. (Examples below)

This approach has worked with every student we’ve taught.

We’ve seen students dramatically improve the quality of their writing and the scores they achieve on standardized tests.

We’ve also seen students who are struggling with anxiety and even writer’s block lose their fear of writing.

The 10-year old daughter of a friend told her mother: “It’s like a recipe!” For her, our approach was both fun and reassuring.

Our sentence-based method isn’t just a recipe. It’s drawn from an academic discipline, functional linguistics, and is really a form of thinking. But it’s as simple to use as a recipe.

That’s why it works.  

Simple thesis statements (one independent clause):

Power corrupts.

Cats are social animals.

America’s food environment is responsible for the obesity epidemic.

Ultimately, all of the morals in Aesop’s fables are about the importance of controlling ones’ impulses.

 

Examples of 3-part thesis statements:

The hallmarks of fluent performance are speed, accuracy, and automaticity.

In the 19th century, the American people embraced the cause of Manifest Destiny, but their enthusiasm led to conflict with England and Texas and reignited the slavery issue.

The French Revolution resulted from four profound crises that the government was unable to resolve– a financial crisis, political crisis, legitimacy crisis, and an economic crisis. (4 ideas)

Although they both placed private property at the center of their theory, Locke believed that private property produced freedom, while Rousseau believed it produced servitude.

 

A simple thesis statement and its supporting ideas (X-1-2-3):

X Thesis Power corrupts.
1 1st supporting idea Power corrupts the weak.
2 2nd supporting idea Power corrupts the strong.
3 3rd supporting idea  Power corrupts every relationship between the two.

 

This X-1-2-3 set could serve equally well as the structure of a 5-paragraph essay, a 5-page paper, a chapter of a book, or an entire book. (“X-1-2-3” from William Kerrigan’s Writing to the Point)

 

3-part thesis statement and its supporting ideas:

X The hallmarks of fluent performance are speed, accuracy, and automaticity.
1 The hallmark of fluent performance is speed.
2 Another hallmark of fluent performance is accuracy.
3 A final hallmark of fluent performance is automaticity.

 

Another 3-part thesis statement and its supporting ideas:

X Although Locke and Rousseau both placed private property at the center of their theory, Locke believed that private property produced freedom, while Rousseau believed it produced servitude.
1 Locke and Rousseau both placed private property at the center of their theory.
2 However, Locke believed that private property produced freedom.
3 Rousseau believed private property produced servitude.

 

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