Developing Strong Thesis Statements
These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.
Contributors: Stacy Weida, Karl Stolley
Last Edited: 2018-01-31 03:32:44
The thesis statement or main claim must be debatable
An argumentative or persuasive piece of writing must begin with a debatable thesis or claim. In other words, the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on. If your thesis is something that is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact then there is no reason to try to persuade people.
Example of a non-debatable thesis statement:
Pollution is bad for the environment.
This thesis statement is not debatable. First, the word pollution means that something is bad or negative in some way. Further, all studies agree that pollution is a problem; they simply disagree on the impact it will have or the scope of the problem. No one could reasonably argue that pollution is good.
Example of a debatable thesis statement:
At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on limiting pollution.
This is an example of a debatable thesis because reasonable people could disagree with it. Some people might think that this is how we should spend the nation's money. Others might feel that we should be spending more money on education. Still others could argue that corporations, not the government, should be paying to limit pollution.
Another example of a debatable thesis statement:
America's anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars.
In this example there is also room for disagreement between rational individuals. Some citizens might think focusing on recycling programs rather than private automobiles is the most effective strategy.
The thesis needs to be narrow
Although the scope of your paper might seem overwhelming at the start, generally the narrower the thesis the more effective your argument will be. Your thesis or claim must be supported by evidence. The broader your claim is, the more evidence you will need to convince readers that your position is right.
Example of a thesis that is too broad:
Drug use is detrimental to society.
There are several reasons this statement is too broad to argue. First, what is included in the category "drugs"? Is the author talking about illegal drug use, recreational drug use (which might include alcohol and cigarettes), or all uses of medication in general? Second, in what ways are drugs detrimental? Is drug use causing deaths (and is the author equating deaths from overdoses and deaths from drug related violence)? Is drug use changing the moral climate or causing the economy to decline? Finally, what does the author mean by "society"? Is the author referring only to America or to the global population? Does the author make any distinction between the effects on children and adults? There are just too many questions that the claim leaves open. The author could not cover all of the topics listed above, yet the generality of the claim leaves all of these possibilities open to debate.
Example of a narrow or focused thesis:
Illegal drug use is detrimental because it encourages gang violence.
In this example the topic of drugs has been narrowed down to illegal drugs and the detriment has been narrowed down to gang violence. This is a much more manageable topic.
We could narrow each debatable thesis from the previous examples in the following way:
Narrowed debatable thesis 1:
At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on helping upgrade business to clean technologies, researching renewable energy sources, and planting more trees in order to control or eliminate pollution.
This thesis narrows the scope of the argument by specifying not just the amount of money used but also how the money could actually help to control pollution.
Narrowed debatable thesis 2:
America's anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars because it would allow most citizens to contribute to national efforts and care about the outcome.
This thesis narrows the scope of the argument by specifying not just what the focus of a national anti-pollution campaign should be but also why this is the appropriate focus.
Qualifiers such as "typically," "generally," "usually," or "on average" also help to limit the scope of your claim by allowing for the almost inevitable exception to the rule.
Types of claims
Claims typically fall into one of four categories. Thinking about how you want to approach your topic, in other words what type of claim you want to make, is one way to focus your thesis on one particular aspect of your broader topic.
Claims of fact or definition: These claims argue about what the definition of something is or whether something is a settled fact. Example:
What some people refer to as global warming is actually nothing more than normal, long-term cycles of climate change.
Claims of cause and effect: These claims argue that one person, thing, or event caused another thing or event to occur. Example:
The popularity of SUVs in America has caused pollution to increase.
Claims about value: These are claims made of what something is worth, whether we value it or not, how we would rate or categorize something. Example:
Global warming is the most pressing challenge facing the world today.
Claims about solutions or policies: These are claims that argue for or against a certain solution or policy approach to a problem. Example:
Instead of drilling for oil in Alaska we should be focusing on ways to reduce oil consumption, such as researching renewable energy sources.
Which type of claim is right for your argument? Which type of thesis or claim you use for your argument will depend on your position and knowledge of the topic, your audience, and the context of your paper. You might want to think about where you imagine your audience to be on this topic and pinpoint where you think the biggest difference in viewpoints might be. Even if you start with one type of claim you probably will be using several within the paper. Regardless of the type of claim you choose to utilize it is key to identify the controversy or debate you are addressing and to define your position early on in the paper.
The Argument Essay
The argument essay is the most common type of writing assignment that college students will encounter throughout their academic careers. While there are different variations of the argument essay, the overall foundation is always the same: the writer is tasked with investigating an issue, taking a stand on the issue, and finding and incorporating a multitude of evidence in a logical manner to support the overall claim.
Most of us have experience with arguing, but an argumentative essay is quite different than a verbal argument that arises out of the blue. Verbal arguments often become heated and unreasonable, while the goal of an argumentative essay is the opposite: the argument must be specific, reasoned, detailed and supported with a variety of evidence. Furthermore, a verbal argument often focuses on who is right regarding a specific issue, while a well-written, researched argument essay focuses on what is the right side of a particular issue. In short, an argument essay must be logical from beginning to end.
The following are important elements of a good argument essay:
- Create a clear, firm,and debatable thesis. An effective thesis statement is an important foundational element of any essay, but it is of even greater importance in an argument essay. The reader needs to know exactly what the argument is and why it is important; there can be no confusion. For more on creating a thesis statement, view the thesis statements page.
- Provide the necessary background information on the topic. While an argument essay isn’t the same as a research essay, a bit of background information is often needed early in the essay to understand the argument. For example, if the writer is arguing that a certain amendment to the state constitution should be passed, it is probably necessary to describe what changes the amendment would make and whether or not a similar amendment has been proposed at some point.
- Focus on organization and transitions. While transitions are important in any type of essay, they are particularly important in an argument essay. This is because the argument essay involves multiple reasons and evidence to support the overall thesis, and counter arguments are often discussed and refuted as well.
Argument essays can be organized in a variety of ways. Regardless of the order in which it is organized, all argument essays should explain and support several reasons why the argument is valid, as well as explain and refute several opposing arguments offered by the other side. All writers will benefit from creating an outline to organize all of the information that will be presented, and this benefit becomes even greater with longer argument essays. For more on creating an outline, view the creating an outline page.
- Perform effective and thorough research. Most argumentative essays require incorporating research into the essay. If this is the case with your essay, make sure to perform a significant amount of research before fully committing to a topic. This is important because you need to make sure there are enough credible sources that can be used in your essay. You don’t want to commit to a topic and begin writing the essay only to later discover that you can’t find enough quality sources to make the topic work.
- Incorporate logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is a term that refers to the use of logic in a debate. As a writer, the use of logos should be primary, should appear throughout the essay, and it is the best way to convince someone to adopt a particular stance on any issue. It is also important to avoid using logical fallacies. While logos should be the primary target, pathos - which is the use of emotion - can also be incorporated. Pathos means getting the reader emotionally involved in the argument so that the reader is open to further persuasion. One of the best places to use pathos is in the introduction. Ethos - the use of credibility - is also important. The best way for writers to incorporate ethos is by addressing counterarguments and using credible sources. Additionally, taking a reasonable stand on the issue (as opposed to an extreme one) will also lead to more credibility.
Topic selection is of the utmost importance in an argument essay. The writer should focus on picking a topic that is current and relevant to society and can be argued logically. It is best to avoid moral topics because they do not always support logical discussion. Additionally, any potential topic for an argument essay should be current, debatable, researchable and manageable.
A current topic is one that has not been overdebated and is still being decided by society. Most writers and readers are sick of topics that have been debated for years: abortion, the death penalty, the legalization of marijuana, etc.
A debatable topic is one that has differing viewpoints. In other words, it is a controversial issue. Writing about how child abuse has consequences for society is not debatable since no one would disagree with this thesis. On the other hand, debating whether the common punishments for child abusers are effective or not in deterring crime is debatable and can make for an interesting and well-supported essay.
A researchable topic is one in which the writer can find a variety of credible and current sources. In other words, the writer needs to be able to find a multitude of research performed by qualified individuals to support the overall argument.
A manageable topic is one that can be successfully performed within the page requirements of the essay. Writing about widespread issues such as national or global problems is often unmanageable in just a few pages. To avoid this, most writers should begin with a basic subject and then try to narrow the subject down to a more appropriate level. For example, if a writer is passionate about arguing for or against the Health Care Reform Act that was passed by Congress in 2010, it would be wise to narrow this topic. It isn’t possible to argue for or against the entire law (the bill itself is more than 2,000 pages long). It may be possible to argue for or against one portion of the law.
Using the above criteria as a basic guideline should allow a writer to find a suitable topic.