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What are some tips for coming up with a good thesis for a paper?

I need to come up with a paper, what are some tips for thinking of a thesis?

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I teach students to first brainstorm about which examples they think will support their thesis. Making a t-chart is useful for persuasive writing, and mind-mapping with bubbles is good for getting started on a larger topic, such as a novel or a history topic. Once you have your examples, "retrofit" your thesis to fit what you planned to talk about. It may seem odd to start in the middle, but many people find this process helpful. Once you've figured out your argument, make sure to identify how your examples support it. If possible, connect the examples you plan to use to each other; this way they intertwine and support both the thesis and each other.

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17 Answers

Oooooo . . . nice question with lots of different possibilities.  Now, I'm assuming that that you're talking about a thesis for an argumentative essay (It would different for an expository essay, say).  Here's the short and sweet: start extreme and then become more nuanced (subtle or detailed) later, after you've developed your paper more.  

     First of all, if no one can disagree with you, it's not a thesis, it's a fact.  "The sky is beautiful/ugly," is a thesis argument.  "The sky is blue," is a fact.  

     Start with something extreme like that: good/bad; hate/love; redeeming/damning.  Then, follow the advice that you should always write (okay, or revise) your Intro paragraph last.  If you're having trouble coming up with an outline (e.i. sub-topics or even general structure), just allow yourself to free-write and re-organize your ideas by cutting and pasting them into paragraph or section "clumps" later (oh, the beauty of computers!).

      The idea is that a first draft is just that--a FIRST draft, a playground for Play-Doh.  If you want to avoid writer's block at this point, don't self-edit!  Just write silly, crazy, off-the-wall ideas.  You'll see ideas recurring (and getting better, perhaps more specific) as you go along.  Just start thinking on paper, and worry about cleaning up the mess later.  

      This kind of writing doesn't work for everyone, particularly very-mathematical (left-brained) types; but it works for me, and I'm a little of both--and I'm no goofy goober either, I went to some top schools and graduated in Literature.

I apologize in advance, some English/Composition purists may find my advice horrifying.

Have a five minute brainstorming session in which all you do is type out different ideas. Which ideas can you see yourself arguing and supporting with evidence? What unique idea do you have that is important to make and you want others to hear? If you were just talking to friends, what ideas would you want your friends to hear? Be relaxed and yourself; a paper will be best if you truly want to discuss the points.

Then take an idea or two and think more seriously. What is the main point that you want to argue? If you were a lawyer and you had to sum up your argument in one sentence before you listed the evidence, what would you say? It depends on what kind of paper you are writing, but think of the point you want to make.

I occasionally like to work in reverse because I find that if I focus too much on developing the thesis, I get stuck. I have a rough idea of my argument, and then I create an outline for my body paragraphs first.  Sometimes you don't know how to sum up your argument in one concise statement until you have listed all of your support.

Don't focus too hard on the exact wording of your thesis at first. You can always tweak it a bit after writing the essay.

Choose a topic that you feel passionately about, that you are willing to learn more about through research, and one that you feel is clear and coherent focused. Start your search for the perfect thesis by listing as many potential topics as you can think of in about five minutes. Then take a few minutes and consider each possible subject separately. Ask yourself what point you would like to make about the topic. Figure out what stance you would take on the topic. Then write out a draft of your potential thesis statement. If you follow these suggestions you will have developed a worthy thesis statement around which you can build the rest of your writing piece. By putting this much effort into developing a solid thesis, you will be setting yourself up for success with your writing project.

April, 
 
Excellent question with, as you can tell, a lot of different answers and approaches! 
 
The first step before you come up with a thesis is doing your research. You need to be familiar with the material because as many of my fellow tutors have mentioned, a thesis is your opinion or your perspective on a particular topic. If you're not familiar with that topic, it's tough to come up with a thesis! 
 
After you finish doing your research, you're ready to start thinking about what your thesis, or the idea that you are going to argue throughout your paper. Remember, your thesis should not be a fact, it should be an opinion that someone could openly disagree with. You also want to make sure that your thesis is something you have the materials to support. You don't want to take a position on an issue and then realize you have no sources to back it up. 
 
Once you've got your thesis, you can start organizing your paper. The general outline that I like to give my students is this: 
 
I. Introduction 
A. General introduction to topic 
B. Thesis statement 
C. Specific reasons why you're thesis statement is true (you'll need three of these b/c they're going to become your body paragraphs!) 
II. Reason #1 Why You Believe Your Thesis is Correct 
A. Factual evidence supporting this reason #1
B. Factual evidence supporting this reason #2
C. Factual evidence supporting this reason #3
III. Reason #2 Why You Believe Your Thesis is Correct
A. Factual evidence supporting this reason #1
B. Factual evidence supporting this reason #2
C. Factual evidence supporting this reason #3
IV. Reason #4 Why You Believe Your Thesis is Correct
A. Factual evidence supporting this reason #1
B. Factual evidence supporting this reason #2
C. Factual evidence supporting this reason #3
V. Conclusion 
A. Restatement of thesis and reasons 
B. Larger significance of the topic and your argument 
 
A few things to remember - the more reasons and the more evidence, the better. You can have as many paragraphs as you think it will take to prove your points, whether that's 5 paragraphs or 15. And the same goes for evidence - the more evidence your provide the STRONGER your argument is.
 
As final note, I recommend writing your thesis BEFORE you write your body paragraphs and I'll tell you why. Your thesis is the foundation for your paper - your goal is to convince someone of your thesis and if you write your body paragraphs first you run the risk of having body paragraphs that don't relate as closely to your thesis as they should. Also, it's a lot of editing work to go back through and alter your body paragraphs to fit to your thesis once you've finally settled on it. 

A thesis should be added to the introduction after the body paragraphs are completed.

I always write my body paragraph before deciding on my thesis.  The reason for this is because our thesis is based on the main idea of our paper!  After you finish writing your body paragraphs (and your incomplete introduction and conclusion) figure out the topic of each body paragraph.  Each topic will end up being a subtopic to what the entire paper is about.  Look at the body paragraphs as the children (subtopics), and the main idea of the whole paper as the parent.  The main idea will be like the parent to the paragraphs.  If your body paragraphs are about purple, indigo, and violet, then the parent (main idea) would be shades of purple.  Once you figure out what the overall main idea of your paper is about, then you can write your thesis which will state what the main idea is and add some more specifications that are relevant throughout the paper.

This is an interesting question which has many possible answers. One thing that students need to avoid is procrastinating when it comes to this issue. With that in mind, here is my two-cents worth.

Obviously it is for a certain class or subject. How much latitude or room are you afforded?

In other words did the professor/teacher/instructor give the assignment in very general terms such as "I want a 5 page paper on a topic relevant to this course, thesis statement is due by _____"

Or.. many will give a list of previously approved topics. That's your first clue. Look for patterns. Much of education is like detective work, and some instructors are very specific. That takes a little sleuthing on your part.

Next, as some other tutors have mentioned it may come down to interests in the field of your subject matter, or if it is a general (wide latitude)  paper, choose something you know a great deal about, or want to know more about. 

Basically your thesis will make a statement about something you want to prove, or persuade your audience (the instructor in most cases). 

Very Important> Read the requirements of the paper carefully. Make sure you understand EXACTLY what he/she is looking for, then proceed. Brainstorm, and remember part of the writing process is "think time", factor that into your schedule.

While researching it is not uncommon to unearth a good deal of new knowledge. This is one of the key benefits of the writing and research duo. This can lead to a new thesis, and revision. An early start is key, and stay organized.

Sometimes I like to work backwards, putting together some of my main ideas and supporting evidence before I develop my thesis. I'll get together interesting quotes or facts (ex. "Othello says blah blah" "Iago does this and such" "Othello does X and Y"...) and see what kind of conclusion they seem to support. For example, do you have a lot of quotes of Othello being a jerk? Make that your thesis: "Othello is a huge jerk"! (Written much more elegantly, of course.) Or maybe your information focuses more on Desdemona or Iago; take your opinion of them and ramp it up a few notches. Don't write that "Iago is kind of mean", write that "Iago is pure evil" and then argue that more extreme opinion.

Then each paragraph gets its own baby thesis: Othello is a jerk in X way (insert paragraph). Othello is a jerk in Z way (insert paragraph). Othello was almost not a jerk, then ended up being a jerk in Y way anyways (insert paragraph). When you think of it like an argument against another person it's a lot more fun; take it personally and fight for your opinion! Othello is so a jerk, and I'll prove it! If your teacher walks away kind of hating Othello, you've done your job.

Consider asking yourself what subjects, ideas, etc...that you are most passionate about or interested in. This is assuming that your assignment does not require that you stick to a particular subject matter. If you write for yourself (as though you are the reader), your ideas will flow naturally, and you can do this even with a direct assignment on a subject you are not interested in.

In writing about a specifically assigned subject, ask yourself questions:What do I already know? What have I learned? What do I want to know? This will draw up an interest in you, the writer, even for subject matter that is not particularly interesting to you and will help to build a strong thesis.

If you are searching for a random thesis topic, write about one of your own interests. For example, if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement, you will want to begin brainstorming and making a list of words and sentences that stand out to you in regards to this subject matter. Review the list. Check off thoughts that are not compelling. Take your most compelling statement and form this into your thesis statement.

Remember that your thesis statement must be supported throughout your paper, and you must have a cohesive beginning (which should both introduce your thesis and hook the reader), a supporting middle, and a clear and satisfying ending/conclusion. Your conclusion should be circular. In other words, it should re-emphasize your opening thesis statement. This always makes for an excellent paper.

 

Good luck!

Coming up with ideas for a thesis depends upon the allowable topics for the instructor. For instance, if the topic of the class is history, that limits your idea pool. What I have done in the past for my papers and essays is do a search on the Internet for one idea that you may be interested in, and that will lead you to other areas to stoke the fires toward what seems right. I also agree with Sheri, in that working in reverse can benefit a person by not being too focused upon the actual thesis, but more upon the nature of the topic at hand.

Best way from experience:  JUST START WRITING.  your thesis should be the last thing you write.  Once you have completed your conclusion, bounce it back to become the intro and you will find your conclusion summarizes your main points and ties them all together which is what a good thesis should do.  After bringing your conclusion to the top, go back through your paper to make sure your main points tie back to this thesis and then write a new conclusion.  MUCH MUCH easier and more profiecient than making a chart.  Writing is an art form not a math equation, so don't get hung up on your outline. 

When I write a paper, I want to write about something that I am passionate about so that I can share my experiences, knowledge, and information with others.  If you are very interested in the topic, you will have more fun with it and the task will seem easier. 

There are several techniques that you can use that will help you get a thesis. I will mention two basic ones. As you read along, keep the double A's:  "Analyze your assignment" and "Analyzing your potential readers" in your thoughts whenever you need to create a thesis (Faigley 462-463). Let's take a look at them:

I. "Analyze your assignment"

      Pay attention to details carefully and slowly given to you by the instructor by looking, "for key words  like argue for, take a stand, and write on a controversial issue" in your assignment. They are telling you that, "you are writing a position argument". If the instructor gives you a list of options of requests to choose from in your assignment, than you can:

1."turn the request into a question"

Since a thesis statement "directly answers the question asked of you" than the "the answer to the question is the thesis statement for the essay". Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN gives us examples:

Q: “What are the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class?”

A: “The potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class are . . .”

OR

A: “Using computers in a fourth-grade class promises to improve . . .”

You can than choose from your list of questions to "compose one or two complete sentences answering that question". Warning 1: "Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way". Keep in mind, a strong thesis is one that is able to answer the question. If the instructor did not assigned any specific question, than:

2. "Find an issue"

"Your thesis statement still needs to answer a question about the issue you’d like to explore. In this situation, your job is to figure out what question you’d like to write about". Suggestions are the following in "finding an issue":

1. "Make a list of possible campus issues"

2. "Make a list of possible community issues"

3. "Make a list of possible national and international issues". (Faigley 462-463)     

a. "Read your issue"                                  

This is where you need to use any available resources (internet, local library, newspaper, etc.) to read about your issues from the lists created by asking yourself questions such as "what are the major points of view on the issues," "who are the experts on these issues and "what do they have to say?," "what major claims are being offered?," "what reasons are given to support the claims?," "what kind of evidence are used to support the reasons?" (Faigley 463). Reminder: Your gathering evidence, getting acquainted with the strong points and weak points from both side of the list of issues in order to make an informed choice as to which specific question you are able to answer. Warning 2: "Deal with a subject that can be adequately treated given the nature of the assignment".

II. "Analyze your potential readers"

     This is just as equally crucial as it is to "analyze your assignment". You also need to get acquainted with your readers by investigating what "....areas would they most likely will disagree with you?, what assumptions do you have in common with your readers?, what attitudes and beliefs will your readers likely have about this issue?, for whom does this issue matter?, and whose interests are at stake?" (Faigley 463). Warning 3: "A strong thesis statement takes some sort of stand" and "if your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument".

 

All quotations are from:

Faigley, Lester. Writing: A Guide for College and Beyond. New York: , 2007. Print.

 

Thesis Statements. The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  26 February 2013

<http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/thesis-statements/>

Thesis Statements. Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. 26 February 2013

<http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/thesis_statement.shtml#unassigned>

Start with a topic that you have a strong opinion and be daring with your choice. As with anything written, it is only as "good" as the reader finds "interesting." Mind you, "interesting" can include being politically incorrect, abrasive, and offensive as well as being in line with the popular opinion spun out into the interweb. Then focus your thesis on the opposing argument. Do the research to convince yourself (or at least make a valid, believable theory) that the opinion based in fact in which you are writing is the one and only intelligent conclusion one can surmise. Write about something bold and spectacular and have a long list on your bibliography page. You might think that Abraham Lincoln was the best President ever so you could write the argument that he was the worst. You might believe that Elvis Presley was and is the undisputed King of Rock and Roll, so there is a counter point that might lead to the conclusion that he stole every song from Southern Black culture and was only popular because he was white. I'm not trying to offend, but how many of us have read or written papers that were dull or were just written regurgitation of the same old crap. Be bold, daring, different, and challenging. 

When I am looking for an idea for a paper, sometimes I will just pick up a newspaper or magazine, and see what catches my eye.  I figure out why this is intriguing to me, and then develop a stance regarding this subject.  For instance, if I notice that there has been some scientific development in the field of genetics, I consider what my own opinion of genetics and its manipulation might be.  What could I try to prove, explain or suggest?  Perhaps I could write a paper calling for an end to genetic engineering.  Maybe I could describe the strides in solving world hunger by using genetic engineering to make food plants more disease-resistant.  There are many possibilities.  See if you can come up with a number of different points you can make about the subject, or if you can access the opinions or research of others.  Hope this helps!

Make your thesis something inspiring for you and your peers. If you write about something you enjoy it'll make the process easier for you. Once you decide on say 4 or 5 ideas then research them online through an academic database. If you find support then go for it. Now of course if your writing an essay that does not require research to support your thesis that is another matter. Now class subject does matter. It does limit your topic ideas. So once you know what subject it has to be under, make your thesis fun and interesting. I hope that helps!

I like to start with outline. It helps to clarify your thoughts and makes the actual writing a lot easier. You've done all of the heavy lifting of thinking through your points, placing them in an logical format and discarding the dead ends while writing the outline. A lot of people see outlines as added work, but it's not. You can be very loose and creative while making an outline because it really isn't a big investment of time. When it's done then you only have to flesh it out to have a completed thesis that you can feel confident about.

When I develop a thesis for a paper, I want to say something interesting, different or unique.  I want to express an opinion or provide a solution to a problem and not just state that there is a serious issue.  Remember your teacher or professor has dozens of papers to read.  You want to make your thesis stand out, point out something unique and be the one that he/she remembers.  First, do an outline of your paper with key ideas and themes.  Then synthesize your opinion and and bring together concepts step by step.  Then provide a strong conclusion.  Let us know your topic and we can give you more guidance!

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