You've probably heard--or will soon be hearing--a lot about thesis statements, and their significance in your academic papers. But what is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is essentially the distillation of your argument or analysis into one or two sentences. It serves as a summary of your essay's argument, position, analysis, etc. on the topic at hand. Envision your thesis statement as a road map: it is a guide for your readers, a way for them to know what they can expect to find in your paper. A thesis statement should:

  • tell the reader how you will interpret the subject under discussion

  • answer the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be the Vietnam War or Anna Karenina; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.

  • be a single sentence (sometimes two) somewhere in your first paragraph. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, introduces and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your argument.

Because your thesis statement is, in essence, the summary of your paper, you will likely revise, or even rewrite it multiple times as you work on your paper. A thesis statement should not be set in stone from the beginning. Start with a working thesis, a basic idea or argument that you can support with evidence, but that you will adjust as you develop your ideas. Once your paper starts to take shape, and you have a better sense of the scope of your argument, you can begin to flesh out your working thesis into something more permanent.

The final version of your thesis statement should be narrow and specific, rather than broad and vague. Here are some examples of weak (broad and vague) versus strong (narrow and specific) thesis statements.

Weak thesis statement: "A healthy diet is important."

This is a weak statement because it is vague (what will the writer be discussing?), and it offers no real argument. No one can dispute that a healthy diet is important. But what makes a healthy diet? How does a healthy diet affect the body? A strong thesis statement answers the questions "how?" and "why?"

A strong version of this statement could read: "A healthy diet is important because it increases energy, prevents illness and promotes wellbeing in all people."

This version of the thesis statement is strong because it is specific, it tells the reader exactly what they can expect to read in the paper. Readers will expect the author of such a statement to spend significant time on how a healthy diet increases energy, how it prevents illness, and why that promotes wellbeing.

Here are a few more examples of weak versus strong thesis statements:

Weak: "Romance novels are an important stepping stone for new writers."

Strong: "Widely ridiculed as escape reading, romance novels are an important proving-ground for many unpublished writers and, more significantly, as a showcase for strong heroines."

Weak: "The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different."

Strong: "While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners were concerned with the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their right to self-government."