Positing a Thesis Statement

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activities:

Positing a Thesis Statement[1]

We posit the thesis statement as part of a scholarly discussion. To posit is to put something in place, to take a position. A thesis statement still in development is called a hypothesis. Once a hypothesis has been sufficiently framed and tested, using critical thinking skills, we can call it a thesis statement.

Your thesis statement should have an impact on your audience; as Andy Norman explains, the goal is to move people from presumptive knowledge to a nonpresumptive conclusion:

What currently passes for good critical thinking instruction leaves students confused: it makes them defensive and leaves them with a distinct impression that we apply our standards haphazardly. The concept of presumption, however, allows us to give them real clarity: more transparent guidance about how to write a good persuasive essay, more insight into the process of building new understanding, and greater clarity about how to think critically. Adept critical thinkers understand this: good argumentation is fundamentally a matter of marshaling presumptive premises to defend nonpresumptive conclusions. Critical thinking is all about finding claims that happen to sit on the wrong side of the ledger, and showing why they need to be moved to the other side.


To paraphrase Norman, we are seeking to make and share conclusions that our audience does not already presume to be right. To a degree, that means we are seeking to be original, but this originality is built upon claims that are not original (in other words, claims that our audience presume to be right). Our next task is to ward off objections, or counter-claims, by showing they are weaker than our claim.

You can start developing your thesis by making guesses at the answer to your research question. Any hypothesis can work as a starting point because you will be rejecting or revising those that don’t work. A good strategy is to write down a number of possible answers to your research question, even ones that seem absurd, and then start testing them by gathering more evidence and testing each thesis statement on your list. If the thesis statement is contradicted by credible evidence and valid reasoning, then you should reject it. For instance, if you are wondering whether an author had drawn ideas from another author, you can logically reject the idea if the second author’s work was published after the first author’s work. You might investigate further, however. Maybe the two authors knew each other and discussed their work together; it then might be possible for the first author to know about the second author’s work before it was published. We need research to answer our questions with more certitude.

Note that a degree of certitude is a feature of any claim. Some claims can be stated with near certainty, or even absolute certainty (close to 100%). Other claims may be less certain and can be qualified in various ways (50% or some other amount). Such qualifications might include the limits of the available information or the openness to interpretation of a given text or source. It is fine to posit a thesis statements that cannot be defended with absolute certainty. Because we are contributing to a scholarly conversation, we can posit thesis statements that are speculative, conditional, provisional, limited, and open to revision. Many valuable works of literary criticism posit such claims.

The thesis statement is one of the most important steps in writing, so it deserves a lot of attention. Below is some advice:

  1. Make sure the thesis statement answers a research question.
  2. Make sure the question and thesis are of (potential) interest to scholars in the area.
  3. The best way to make your thesis statement powerful and relevant is to position it within the ongoing scholarly conversation.
  4. The thesis statement is your way to join the scholarly conversation – it says, “hey, pay attention here to something significant/relevant to us in this area of study.”
  5. The way to add significance/relevance is to expand or change our current understanding of a literary work, topic, or problem people in the scholarly community are discussing.
  6. A good way to do that is to reference other scholars directly. For instance, “this paper argues that ____ [something in the literary work, something in the scholarly literature] revises our understanding of ____ [something in the literary work, something in the scholarly literature] from ____ [previously held belief] to ____ [new belief].”
  7. So, for example, “Sigmund Freud’s work on projection revises our understanding of Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’ from a creepy horror story to a warning about how religiously-induced guilt creates scapegoats.”
  8. The above thesis statement is clear, arguable, relevant, and compelling to scholars of literature. Of course, Freud is somewhat old news and scholars may have already treated Hawthorne’s work in just these terms. You would need to look at the scholarly literature to see if the above claim is just a rehashing of what’s already out there. If it is, you can maybe add something to it. For instance, you might make a claim about how such projection typically makes scapegoats out of women.
  9. The thesis statement is probably the hardest part of writing. It takes a lot of practice to produce your first good thesis statement. After that, it gets easier.
  10. One of the best ways to learn how to do it is to look for thesis statements in the work of other scholars. Then emulate what they do.
    • For instance, in Viktor Schklovsky’s Art as Technique, he presents a general thesis about all art (including literature): “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
    • Schklovsky then discusses particular works of literature, and for each he presents a thesis statement. About Tolstoy, he claims, “Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects.”
    • Schklovsky positioned his claims in the ongoing conversation by siding against his colleagues who argued that the main purpose of art was to create images.
    • Schklovsky’s claims still resonate powerfully to this day in studies of art and literature, and in studies of Tolstoy particularly. These few sentences from him (of course he explains and defends his claims in the rest of his work) have affected the community of scholars for more than a century. His thesis statements were that good!

Place your thesis in your paper before you state your overview of the supporting arguments that follow. A thesis statement effectively identifies your position and situates your ideas in the context of existing discourse. An effective thesis statement has the following features:

  • It answers a research question
  • It is arguable, meaning other answers are possible, but they are not as strong as the thesis you are stating
  • It takes a side in an argument (and gives your readers a choice to agree or disagree)
  • It is clearly stated
  • It is specific
  • It is relevant
  • It is compelling
  • It does not contradict itself (state that two opposing claims are true)
  • It organizes all the points made in the rest of the paper

How to Write an Effective Thesis Statement for Your Essay [6 min 38 sec]


For more advice on How to Write a Thesis Statement, consider the following from The Purdue Online Writing Lab:[4]

Tips for Writing Your Thesis Statement

  • Determine what kind of paper you are writing.
  • Your thesis statement should be specific—it should cover only what you will discuss in your paper and should be supported with specific evidence.
  • The thesis statement usually appears at the end of the first paragraph of a paper.
  • Your topic may change as you write, so you may need to revise your thesis statement to reflect exactly what you have discussed in the paper.

For more advice on Developing a Thesis, consider the following from The Harvard College Writing Center:[5]

A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should “telegraph” how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.

  • Anticipate the counterarguments.
  • A thesis is never a question.
  • A thesis is never a list.
  • A thesis should never be vague.
  • An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim.
  • A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible.

For more advice on The Thesis, consider the following from WritingCommons.Org:[6]

The thesis. It’s a tricky thing to define “thesis” because a thesis come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A thesis can be a sentence, two sentences, perhaps even an entire paragraph. Every thesis, though, does important things. There are lots of ways to create a successful thesis because a good thesis come in all sorts of varieties.

  • A thesis acts as a unifying idea for every piece of evidence in an essay.
  • A thesis results from research in addition to the writer’s own beliefs or opinions.
  • A thesis answers a specific question (the research question).
  • A good thesis statement encourages discussion.
  • A good thesis statement is supported by relevant evidence. (Every paragraph should contribute to proving the thesis to be valid.)
  • For additional information on A Weak Thesis and Revising a Weak Thesis, click on the following link from WritingCommings.Org: When is a Thesis Considered Weak?

Positing a Thesis Statement [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.


  1. What is your thesis statement?
  2. Does it meet all the criteria for a good thesis statement listed in the page?
  3. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?
  4. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  5. Using the criteria above, assess what is wrong with these thesis statements and suggest ways to improve them:
    • “Some people say that ‘Sonny’s Blues’ will help us solve the problem of racism today, but some people say it won’t.”
    • “Most people support the idea of teaching ‘Sonny’s Blues’ in the classroom.”
    • “Does ‘Sonny’s Blues’ encourage people to appreciate Black culture?”
    • “There are numerous types of effects that result from reading ‘Sonny’s Blues.’”
    • “I am angry about the way ‘Sonny’s Blues’ has been neglected.”
    • “Maybe ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is not the best text for understanding Black culture.”
    • “Teaching ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is inappropriate.”
    • “The real reason why ‘Sonny’s Blues’ became famous is a mystery.”

Exercises for Drafting an Arguable Thesis From WritingCommons.org:[7]

A good thesis will be focused on your object of study (as opposed to making a big claim about the world) and will introduce the key words guiding your analysis.

To get started, you might experiment with some of these “mad libs.” They’re thinking exercises that will help propel you toward an arguable thesis.


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By examining __________________ [topic/approach], we can see _____________________[thesis—the claim that’s surprising], which is important because ___________________________.Example:

“By examining Sixteen Candles through the lens of Georg Simmel’s writings on fashion, we can see that the protagonist’s interest in fashion as an expression of her conflicted desire to be seen as both unique and accepted by the group. This is important because the film offers its viewers a glimpse into the ambivalent yearnings of middle class youth in the 1980s.

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Although readers might assume _________________ [the commonplace idea you’re challenging], I argue that _________________________ [your surprising claim].


Although viewers might assume the romantic comedy Sixteen Candles is merely entertaining, I believe its message is political. The film uses the romance between Samantha, a middle-class sophomore, and Jake, an affluent senior, to reinforce the fantasy that anyone can become wealthy and successful with enough cunning and persistence.

Now it’s your turn to try with your own research topic!

  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Positing a Thesis Statement.
  2. Andy Norman. Mental Immunity Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. Harper Wave, 2021.
  3. Taylor, David and PeakWriting, directors. How to Write an Effective Thesis Statement for Your Essay. YouTube, YouTube, 27 Nov. 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e2EthZC0aU. Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.
  4. Purdue Writing Lab. “Creating a Thesis Statement & Thesis Statement Tips.” Purdue Writing Lab, 2021, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/the_writing_process/thesis_statement_tips.html.
  5. Rodburg, Maxine, and The Tutors of the Writing Center. “Developing a Thesis.” Writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu, 1999, https://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/developing-thesis.
  6. McIntyre, Megan. “The Thesis.” Writing Commons, 3 Aug. 2021, https://writingcommons.org/article/the-thesis/.
  7. Scott, Andrea. “Formulating a Thesis.” Writing Commons, 17 Sept. 2021, https://writingcommons.org/article/formulating-a-thesis/.


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