How to Write a Thesis Statement

Handout courtesy of Dr. Jon Tompson, literature professor at NCSU

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis is a detailed, but consolidated, summation of your interpretation of the meaning of an issue in a text. A valid thesis offers a “snapshot” of your entire argument. As such, a thesis is the foundation for the entire essay. It is highly unlikely that there can be a good analytical essay without one. A valid thesis, therefore, is:

--Specific (it needs to be stated using detail rather than generalities)

--Interpretive (through it assert your argument as to what a writer is saying about a particular issue)

--Analytical ( it needs to logically explain the meaning of an issue and not just do a plot summary or a character analysis)

--Comprehensive (if you are doing a comparison/contrast question, you need a different thesis for each writer (no two writers think exactly alike, so pinpoint their crucial differences in the thesis)

What a thesis statement is not

--A thesis does not have to be a single sentence (it needs to be consolidated, but use several sentences, if need be, to do the job)

--A thesis is not a vague announcement that you have an argument which will follow (preview your argument in your thesis; if you can’t do that, it means that you haven’t yet sorted out what your thesis is, and if you don’t know what it is, I won’t know either)

--A thesis is not a restatement of various aspects of the essay question (this doesn’t tell your reader what your argument is)


Suppose you were given the following topic and were assigned the job of writing an analytical, interpretive essay on it:

Race is a crucial issue in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Compare and contrast Twain’s representation and understanding of race with Ellison’s in the two novels above. Discuss each writer’s view of the social issues with which race has become entangled, as well as the hope, if any, of resolving racism in the US.

Poor Thesis #1

Ellison and Twain basically think alike on the question of race: both see it as a big problem that we can’t get beyond, but both are different too.


Problems: The thesis is much too general to be persuasive. Yes, Twain and Ellison are critical of racism, but that general observation doesn’t tell us anything specific about what exactly each writer says about race. As such, this thesis lacks a specific argument. Questions to be answered: How does each see race? What differences do they have? What social issues are involved in each writer’s point-of-view?

Poor Thesis #2

Racism was a big problem in nineteenth-century and twentieth-century America. Many people were oppressed and many lives were ruined. Both of these writers hated what they saw and tried to convince their readers to be different.

Problems: This “thesis” is a statement of fact, not an interpretation of each writer’s views. Yes, racism was and is a very real problem, but stating this doesn’t get us very close to what exactly Twain and Ellison said about race in their fiction.

Poor Thesis #3

In this essay I will discuss the many aspects of race as seen by Mark Twain and Ralph Ellison. I will first look at the many aspects of race, their real differences, and the social institutions that each saw as being associated with racism.

Problems: This is not a thesis but an announcement of a thesis. As such, this is entirely ineffective, entirely invalid. There is no time like the present: instead of gesturing toward what he wants to say, the writer needs to specifically say it here. In short, this is not a thesis, just a rather restatement of the essay question itself. As yet, it is not clear what “aspects” of race each writer is concerned with, what their “differences” are, and what “social institutions” are bound up with racism.

A workable thesis

Mark Twain sees nineteenth-century American society as defined by racial inequality: for him, the relative power of most whites in relation to the powerlessness of blacks makes a mockery of the notion that we have achieved a society in which all enjoy equal rights. For Twain, racism is institutionalized within slavery and for him, a slave-owning society will never be a truly democratic society. In Invisible Man, Ellison also sees America’s promise as blighted by racism, but his target is not so much slavery as a society with institutionalized forms of segregation. That is, Ellison focuses on the effects of racism on our perceptual faculties: for him, the worst thing about racism is not its obvious ugliness, but the fact that a racist society makes blacks “invisible”—unseen, unacknowledged and repressed. For Ellison, the tragedy of a racist America is not only the disfiguring moral myopia of most of its whites, but also the unimaginable waste involved in throwing away the untapped talents of virtually all its blacks.