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Thesis Development

Discovering and Developing a thesis: Overview

Love notes, essays for class, e-mail to friends, job-related documents, or the next Great American Novel... Whatever the writing task, identifying the purpose and audience is the first step in the writing process for most writers. Although they may experience the rest of that process in different ways, sooner or later, virtually all writers encounter these kinds of questions:

What will I write about?

How can I get past my “writer’s block”?

What can I do when I’ve run out of things to say

How should I organize my ideas?

What’s the best way to get my point across?

As writers gain experience in working through such questions, most come to recognize this activity as part of the process of finding and shaping their ideas—not as evidence that they can’t write. The truth is, even successful writers often use these kinds of questions as a strategy for guiding and evaluating their progress at various points in the writing process.

By learning how to discover a topic worth writing about, how to gather ideas to write about, and how to focus on a central theme or thesis (a specific, significant idea), you’ll gain confidence in your ability to handle the writing tasks that come your way in college and in the rest of your life.


By the end of this unit, you should be able to do the following:

  • analyze writing assignments for meaning
  • use prewriting techniques and other strategies to discover and shape a topic
  • generate and revise thesis statements for effectiveness


Analyzing Writing Assignments for Meaning ...

Most students write their first essays in response to an instructor's assignment.  A typical assignment in an English class looks something like this:

In his short story "A Rose for Emily," William Faulkner uses many techniques of characterization to paint a portrait of the title character. In a 1000 word essay, describe Emily's character.  Support your thesis by discussing examples of Faulkner's characterization techniques, giving examples from the story.


We have read several essays on global warming by various scientists and global leaders.  These authors have different takes on the severity of the problem, the causes, and the solutions. Where do you stand? Write an essay of 1500 words in which you define the problem of global warming and recommend solutions. Support your argument with evidence from the readings.

After receiving assignments like these, students often worry about "what the teacher wants."  Frankly, what the teacher most often wants is to hear what the student has learned, and how the student's thinking has evolved based on the reading. There is almost never a "right" answer a teacher is looking for in an essay; on the other hand, those students who have paid close attention to the ideas and language in the reading, and who pay close attention to the language of the assignment, will generally write better essays.

Action verbs are key in writing assignments: what the instructor actually wants a student to do is carried in the verbs. In the above assignment on "A Rose for Emily," for example, the actions are "describe, "support," "discuss," and "give examples."  In the second essay assignment, the instructor asks students to "take a stand," "define a problem" and "recommend solutions," as well as "support" the argument with evidence.  Below are typical action verbs used in writing assignments and their definitions:

describe to represent by providing a picture (with language)
narrate to tell a story
discuss to consider or examine, to talk over
support to hold up
explain to make something clear
define to make clear the meaning of a word or term
compare to examine two or more objects (people, places, etc.) in terms of their likenesses
contrast to examine two or more objects (people, places, etc.) in terms of their differences
argue to present reasons for or against something
illustrate to make clear through examples, analogies
demonstrate to make clear through reasoning
recommend to present as worthy of acceptance
analyze to separate into constituent parts in order to determine the critical features of the whole
synthesize to combine elements into a meaningful whole
apply to put to use


Take the time to reflect on the language in the assignment itself to determine what it is your instructor actually wants you to do.

When the topic is up to you . . . Make sure that you understand how much freedom you really have. Write a tentative thesis on a piece of paper and run it by your instructor during office hours. Also be sure that your thesis is narrow enough or broad enough to develop in an essay that fits the instructor's word count requirement.


Using Prewriting Techniques and Other Strategies to Discover and Shape a Topic...

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.   —Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

It isn't easy to write an essay, whether you are a beginner or a professional writer. And one of the most difficult parts of writing is finding what you want to say. Given the "Rose for Emily" assignment above, you may have a pretty good sense at the outset of how Faulkner describes Emily, but little idea about what it all means. And so, you're stuck.  But feeling stuck is a normal part of the writing process.  There is even a term for a severe form of being stuck: writer's block. What can you do about it?  There are several techniques for getting going, getting unstuck: freewriting, clustering, brainstorming, listing, etc.  The point of all of the strategies, however, is the same: to let words flow freely on the assumption that out of this unpressured writing will come an idea. These prewriting techniques are described in detail below:

brainstorming:  Simply tossing around ideas, either in one's head, or in discussion with a friend, then jotting down a few key ideas that may be useful.  Many writers use this technique for developing ideas, and often say that they end up jotting down their best ideas on gum wrappers and napkins, these ideas having arrived when they were just musing about things, rather than sitting down at a desk "to write." Try brainstorming about an assignment when you have nothing else to occupy your mind: in a waiting line, in traffic, on a long car ride.  You may be surprised at the ideas you come up with. In a brief biography on her website , J. K. Rowling tells of how a long, boring train ride led her to develop the story of Harry Potter:

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn't have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one. I think, now, that this was probably a good thing, because I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn't know he was a wizard became more and more real to me. I think that perhaps if I had had to slow down the ideas so that I could capture them on paper I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). (

freewriting:  Writing non-stop about whatever comes to mind, on the computer or on paper, until you find a groove and ideas start to flow. Freewriting is particularly effective in making writing seem more natural and familiar, and more connected to one's own voice.  Plus, you may end up with some material that you can actually use in the essay itself.  Focused freewriting is similar to freewriting, in that one writes non-stop, but the topic is defined.  Focused freewriting is effective when one has a topic but is unsure about what one wants to say about that topic.

clustering: Clustering emphasizes the relationships between ideas and is useful in exploring various angles on a topic.  Given the assignment on global warming above, a student might use clustering to compare the readings on particular topics of discussion. After clustering, one ends up with categories of information on a particular topic. For students who are trying to decide the angle to take on a particular topic, clustering is quite useful.  The search engine "" will even cluster most any topic for you.  For example, a search on "bananas" brings up the following clusters—some of them useful, some of them a bit odd:

  • children
  • recipes
  • plantains
  • tropics
  • plants
  • film
  • comedy

listing: is simply writing down key words and phrases on a topic, in an unordered list.  It is a bit like shorthand freewriting and is quite useful to students having trouble putting pen to paper.


Generating and Revising Thesis Statements for Effectiveness...


Generating a thesis statement:

The first step in developing a thesis is defining a topic.   As mentioned above, this topic may be defined for you by your instructor, or you may have the freedom to define a topic for yourself.  Also important is the language of the assignment: if your instructor asks you to "describe," "illustrate," or "explain," your thesis should reflect this purpose.

The next step is to decide what you will say about your topic, and the prewriting techniques described in the previous section will help you here.  Many angles on a given topic are possible; finding one that works for you is just a matter of analyzing your evidence and your assignment, and determining where the truth, as you see it, lies.  Take a look at the variety of angles on global warming that professional writers have come up with. Thesis statements are underlined:

from "Undeniable Global Warming," Naomi Oreskes, Washington Post, December 26, 2004:

Many people have the impression that there is significant scientific disagreement about global climate change. It's time to lay that misapprehension to rest. There is a scientific consensus on the fact that Earth's climate is heating up and human activities are part of the reason. We need to stop repeating nonsense about the uncertainty of global warming and start talking seriously about the right approach to address it.)

from "Setting the Record Straight: Blame the sun?" Seattle Times, October 9, 2005:

In the debate over global warming, at least one thing seems constant: the sun.

But satellite measurements show that our local star dims and brightens slightly in concert with sunspot cycles, which range from nine to 14 years. Could such tiny fluctuations be responsible for changes in climate?

from "Don't Believe the Hype: Al Gore is wrong. There's no "consensus" on global warming," Richard S. Lindzen,, July 2, 2006.

Mr. Gore assures us that "the debate in the scientific community is over.". . . That statement, which Mr. Gore made in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, ought to have been followed by an asterisk. What exactly is this debate that Mr. Gore is referring to? Is there really a scientific community that is debating all these issues and then somehow agreeing in unison? Far from such a thing being over, it has never been clear to me what this "debate" actually is in the first place.

Every good essay begins with an argument: something the author believes to be true and worth proving.


A working thesis:

You do not need to worry about finding the perfect langauge for your thesis before you begin writing your essay, nor do you need to write your introduction, which is really concerned with drawing the reader into the argument, and not with the specific content of the argument. Richard Lindzen, in drafting his article, "Don't believe the hype," may well have started with a working thesis like "Contrary to what Al Gore says, there has been no debate among scientists about global warming."  And Naomi Oreskes, in drafting her article, may well have begun with "scientists do agree that global warming is occurring." A working thesis is not a perfectly refined piece of writing, ready to be read by a reader, but a statement of what you will argue in the essay.  The key words should be there which focus your work, but don't worry too much about the exact sentence structure until you revise your essay.


Common Thesis Statement Problems:

A solid thesis is the foundation of a good essay.  Unfortunately, problems with a thesis lead to big problems in the essay: lack of focus, unity problems, development problems, and even sentence-level problems, because when a writer is unsure about direction, the content suffers on all levels. Some of the most common problems are described below:

weak argument:  When the argument is weak, the thesis focuses on a seemingly insignificant or minor point, one that does not need more than a paragraph of support:

It was hard to call a ship home, but after living on the ship for three years, it became difficult to think of it as anything else.

no argument: A thesis that states a topic without an angle on that topic is just information.  A reader wonders what is the point? What does the writer want me to think about this situation?

The qualities and the atmosphere of the two households can be very different based on various factors like age of kids, age of parents, and circumstances of the times they grew up in.

multiple directions: The language of the thesis suggests that the writer will explore several topics, but the connection between these topics is not clear:

TV families often confront issues such as gender, race and ethnic stereotypes but do not often reflect the lives and hardships of real American families.

thesis as a question: Instructors frown on this strategy for beginning an essay. A much stronger tactic is to turn that question into a statement (though the question may work quite well as working thesis, helping you to focus on your reader's needs).

But is the “American Dream” really such a dream? What does it really cost us to achieve that dream, and is that price worth it?


Revising Your Thesis:

When your thesis lacks clarity. . . rewriting the sentence to include a subordinate clause might help (see our module on coordination/subordination for more detail, and a list of subordinating conjunctions). Subordinate clauses are attached to the main clause via a subordinating conjunction, and these conjunctions identify specific relationships between ideas.  Sometimes, the subordinator can give you a sense of what you want to do in the essay; for example, the subordinator "because" suggests the writer will be concerned with the causes for something; the subordinator "if" suggess the writer will be concerned with conditions for something happening.

say one thing. . . If the thesis appears to be going in many directions, the reader will not be able to follow you (you probably won't stay focused as you write the essay either).  Revise your thesis so that you are proving just one thing, and not three or four things. See if the content of your thesis might actually fit under a broader umbrella. Consider the revision of the problematic thesis below:

original thesis:

TV families often confront issues such as gender, race and ethnic stereotypes but do not often reflect the lives and hardships of real American families.

revised thesis:

Even though contemporary TV sitcoms try to be real by confronting social problems such as ethnic stereotyping and gender inequality, they do not reflect the real day to day problems American families face.

In the revision, a common thread is found between the seemingly disparate topics of the original version: the topic becomes "how well TV sitcoms succeed at being real." The content of the essay will not need to be dramatically altered; it is the angle on the content that shifts—how the writer spins the content. 

don't draw a map for development unless your teacher requires it.  A thesis that begins with a phrase like "In this essay I will argue," "I will first. . . and then. . . " or "I hope to show that," actually takes attention away from the argument itself and weakens your voice in the essay.  Some instructors will ask for a map, however, particularly in the biological or social sciences.  In these disciplines, essay structures are often pragmatic, designed so that information can be processed quickly; but in the humanities, and in writing for a popular audience, such as for a newspaper or magazine, a more subtle approach is called for. Fortunately, repairing these mapping statements is easy; for the most part, you can just cut them out.




Video Lesson

video lesson


1. Analyzing writing assignments for meaning

2. Prewriting techniques & other essay development strategies

3. Generating & revising thesis statements

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