I’m going to nerd out for a minute here, because creating a beautiful research paper thesis statement is truly a craft. Writing a great research paper is truly a craft. Yes. Writing is an art, a craft, and you are a craftsman, an artist, a writer, even if you are a biology major writing the term paper for your US History class. Unlike some things we learn in college, writing is one skill, one craft that you will need and use in any career that requires a college degree. Treat writing as a craft, take pride in your work, and the difference will be noticeable!
This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper”, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish.
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College professors often include the phrase “thesis-driven” in the requirements for research paper assignments. If they don’t, they are assuming you already know this. So know this: any paper or essay you write should include a great thesis statement and should be thesis-driven, meaning that the content is driven by and proves the thesis. As we will see, however, the thesis itself is driven by the research you have done.
If you know the answer to this question, you’re probably wondering why I even ask it. Well, here’s the story: I’ve taught college freshmen that didn’t know the answer, so I don’t want to make any assumptions here. The thesis statement is a statement of your argument. Not like the one you had with your roommate last week. What are you trying to convince your reader? That’s your argument. Every paper is, on some level, a persuasive essay. When we write a research paper, we are going to be more subtle about our persuasion, and we’re going to let the evidence do most of the work, but we are trying to persuade our reader of something. So what are you trying to say? What are you trying to convince me? That’s your thesis.
It’s not rocket science to write a thesis statement, but writing a good research paper thesis takes some work. It’s a craft. A good thesis is usually one sentence, and usually the last sentence in the introductory paragraph or towards the end of the introduction. It is beautifully worded, but not too wordy. These should be the most carefully chosen words in your paper. A good research paper thesis reflects the content and the organization of the paper. And, it needs to be a sound argument supported by the evidence you will show in your paper.
It’s actually a circular process. It starts at the beginning of your writing process and keeps coming back around, all the way to the end of the writing process.
When you write your research paper proposal, you’ve only done some basic research to get an idea of the question you want to answer. But, at this point, you should have an idea of what you think that answer – that thesis – will be. What do you think your further research is going to find? Don’t spend too much time making this first thesis pretty. It is going to change, possibly big time. But this will give your research a direction, and your professor might be able to warn you off if you are trying to argue a thesis that will be difficult to prove.
When you get to writing your research paper outline, you now have a good deal of the research done. You know by now what the evidence shows, so one of the first steps in writing your research paper outline will be rewriting your thesis to match your developing argument. Write that new thesis (or rewrite the old one), and use that to give your outline some direction. But, don’t be surprised if, as you work on the outline, you decide to change things up. This is normal – this is really good, actually, because you don’t want to just write a paper to prove what you think the evidence shows; you want the evidence to tell you something true that you will argue as your thesis.
When you are done writing your outline and have it organized the way you want, you’ll want to circle back on that thesis again. Here is where you’re going to put the time in. Start asking questions. Does your outline represent a strong argument for that thesis statement? Does it support your thesis? If not, you will need to change either your thesis or your outline. Hint, hint. It is much easier to go back and change your thesis now that you know what the evidence shows. Once you are sure what you want your thesis to say, make sure it includes or reflects the structure of your paper. For example, one version of my thesis for a research paper on the causes of the American Civil War went like this:
The Second Great Awakening was a major driving force behind the American Civil War, especially as it contributed to religious sectarian division between North and South, increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and the growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement.
What I want to convince my reader: Second Great Awakening was a major cause of the American Civil War
Supporting evidence that I will use in my paper: it contributed to sectarian division, it increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and it fueled the growth of the abolition movement. Each of these is a section in the paper, and this is the order they show up in the paper.
When you have your thesis in the order that reflects the organization of your paper, start trying out different ways to say the same thing. You want a thesis that is succinct, not too wordy, and it needs to be super clear what you are trying to say. This is where you get to make it prettier.
After each draft of writing the paper itself, you are going to revisit that thesis. Does your paper argue the thesis? (Do they match?) Does the wording and tone of your thesis match the wording and tone of the rest of your paper? Basically, now that you’ve written a paper to go with your thesis, you need to make sure that both the content and style of your thesis fit your paper. This will often mean tweaking your thesis yet again. But hopefully, if you did good outline work, your argument won’t change too much when you write the paper itself, and you can focus on making it look and sound good.
Working on a research paper right now? Drop your thesis and a short outline in the comments, and we'll give you some feedback!
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