How to Write a Thesis Statement

Thesis picture copy

Our last post at Writing Center Underground discussed how to develop a research question. The research question is more of an open-ended beginning for the research paper. Your answer to your research question is your thesis. The thesis to your paper is an assertion you make about your topic.



The thesis is considered a promise you are making to the reader about the purpose and direction of your paper. Some instructors refer to the thesis as a “forecasting statement,” forecasting what will lie ahead in the paper. The thesis statement usually is placed at the end of the introductory paragraph, setting up a roadmap for the coming argument.

In the research question you hopefully already created, you posed a question you wanted to know more about, a question that, after some initial research, you came to have an informed opinion about. Your answer to that research question will lead you toward your thesis.

For instance, if you wanted to know if watching violent television programs causes violent behavior in adolescents, your answer to this question is your working thesis. We call it a “working” thesis, as it may change shape as you move further into your paper.

If you think about this question and can’t decide, or you want to present both sides or ride the fence, as they both have valid points, this is NOT a thesis statement that will work in a persuasive paper. One of the main characteristics of a thesis statement is that it must be arguable. If you make a statement that others couldn’t disagree with, then there is no other side to pose, no assertion to make, so no arguable thesis.

If you take the same research question above and give a definitive answer, for instance, watching violent TV does not cause violent behavior in adolescents, then you have a statement that an audience might disagree with. Now you’re not riding the fence, you’ve jumped on one side of the fence to argue a point – a THESIS!

Let’s take another example from last week’s research questions. You have chosen the topic of children’s programming, and pose the research question, Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children? After some initial research, you answer this question YES! The form of a thesis statement will be something like

Watching children’s TV programming has a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children.

To confirm this thesis statement is arguable and well-qualified, ask yourself, could someone disagree with my assertion? For the above example, yes, some people might say that young children’s language learning might be hampered by watching TV. If you are ever in doubt about whether or not a thesis is going to work, ask yourself if someone else might disagree with you. If the answer is yes, then it’s passed the largest hurdle.

Be Specific

Vague thesis statements are one of the most common problems for beginning writers. A vague thesis statement leads to an unfocused paper, so the more specific the better. Say you want to write an argument paper on cell phone use. What about cell phone use?

Vague: All states should ban cells phone use while driving.

This thesis leaves too many unanswered questions. What kind of cell phone use? Is it okay to listen to messages? Is it okay to talk, but not text? Should all types of use be banned – texting, talking, listening? Should all drivers be banned from cell phones? All ages? What if you’re “driving” a boat or jet ski? Be Specific!

Revised: All cell phone use should be prohibited while operating a motor vehicle for all drivers under the age of 21.

The revised thesis is specific, arguable, and has research available. As you dig further into the research, you might decide to adjust the working thesis, and this is fine. This is just a starting point to focus your research and paper.








Thesis Tips

Avoid Question Thesis – Make sure you form the thesis into a declarative statement and not a question. “Can we save the whooping crane? is a broad question that fails to express an assertion or perspective.

Focus Focus Focus – “Football should be outlawed” or “Drugs should be banned” are too broad. Both lack a specific focus. What level of football? What type of drugs? Go back to your research question and consider exactly what you want to investigate further. If you can’t answer the research question with a well-focused response, keep tweaking until you have an answer, or working thesis, that will fit the shape and scope of your assignment.

So What? – Does your thesis pass the “so what” test? – So what about banning drugs? So what about outlawing football? Consider if you are connecting your thesis to a larger issue and if you have clarified it enough so that readers will be interested and engaged in your argument.

Forecast –Your thesis should forecast what the paper will be about, without explicitly stating what it will be about. For example, “This paper will explore the extinction of prairie dogs and what we must do to stop it” is not a thesis statement, but a “signpost.” This type of statement signposts what you are writing about. Any statements of “I will do this in my paper,” or “Next I will talk about this and that” should be avoided.

Once you compose a strong working thesis, your paper will gain focus and clarity. Each paragraph will support and relate back to the thesis, which will keep the focus, flow and organization humming. Next week, we’ll discuss organizing your paper around your thesis.





How to Develop a Research Question


Before you begin the work of writing a research paper, it’s essential to first develop a research question. A research question is simply a focused question about a problem you and your readers think is worth solving. The answer to the research question becomes the thesis statement.

The first step is to find a topic you are both interested in and one that can be researched. You may think of many topics that interest you, but if there is no research available, it’s not going to work for a research paper topic. Likewise, if you find a topic with lots of available research but you have little interest in, you’ll want to poke pencils in your eyeballs as you try to write a long research paper about it. Spend some time considering a topic that interests you or that you have some prior knowledge about, and the research paper will be a much more enjoyable process.

Picking a Topic

A topic provides a focus for the paper, and a major topic can often be broken down into smaller components. For example, you want to write about pollution. What type of pollution? Air pollution? Noise pollution? Trash pollution? You pick trash. What kind of trash pollution? Keep narrowing the topic until it’s well-defined.

Once you have narrowed your topic, define the issue. The issue is the research problem on which you’ll argue. What about trash pollution? Trash pollution can be broken down into still more components, but you want to focus on plastic water bottles. The topic is trash pollution, and the issue is the environmental impact of plastic water bottles.

How would you formulate this topic and issue into a research question?

Research Question: What are the environmental impacts of using plastic water bottles?

Great start! This is focused, not too broad, and not too narrow.

Narrowing Your Topic

Say you wanted to research the topic of standardized testing; so what about standardized testing? The topic of standardized testing itself is too broad, so you will need to create a focused question you want to investigate. Try to ask yourself as many questions as necessary until the topic is well-defined:

Do you want to focus on elementary, high school, or college? You decide, since you are a college freshman, you want to focus it on college freshmen.

So what about standardized testing and college freshmen? Maybe you think that standardized testing doesn’t really reflect a student’s ability.

Good. This is more focused, but still not a research question. So what about the connection between standardized testing, ability and college freshmen?

Research Question:

Is standardized testing a good predictor of college academic success?

Bull’s-eye! This is a focused question, with available research. If you were to answer the question, you would have an arguable thesis.

Narrowing your Topic #2

Perhaps you are interested in the effects of television. This topic is much too broad; what about the effects of television? On who? What type of television? Reality TV or the 6:00 news? Positive effects or negative effects? Too many questions are unanswered and still need to be defined.

You decide you want to focus on violence and television. This is more focused, but still lacks a well-defined concept. What about television and violence? You wonder, does watching television cause violence? That’s a start, but still leaves too many unanswered questions. Again, what type of television? Does television cause violence in children, in adults, or both? Continue to narrow the topic until it is well-defined and considers a researchable question.

Research Question

Does watching violent television programs cause violent behavior in adolescents?

Good! This is narrow enough to focus a paper, and the question can be answered with research focused on adolescents, or puberty-age to pre-adult teens.

Re-considering Your Topic

It’s not uncommon to pick a topic, develop a research question, start digging into the research, then find that you want to go in a different direction. Let’s consider the previous topic of the effects of television violence on adolescents. You still want to research the effects of television, but after sifting through the research, you decide it’s more interesting to focus on television’s positive effects. You decide to shift from researching the negative effects of television to researching the positive effects. Again, keep answering the “so what?” questions; so what type of positive effects? What type of television? What age range?

Research Question

Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children?

Interesting! You hadn’t even thought about this topic, but once you started considering a related topic and reading the research, you re-formulated the topic and narrowed it down into a research question that is well-defined, has lots of research available, and is interesting to you – the perfect combination!


As you can see, it takes some time and thought to formulate a strong research question, but taking the time to develop a strong research question will pave the way for a strong essay.










Demystifying College Writing

HolmesSWriting your first college essay can feel overwhelming. Maybe English class wasn’t your strong point in high school, and now perhaps you have to get through two English Composition classes in college. You’re not familiar with the instructor’s expectations, and sweat starts to trickle from your forehead at the sight of the first writing assignment. Your classmate asks the instructor a question about the guidelines, and is told “It’s in the syllabus.” Ugh. What to do?

College writing expectations might be a little different than what you experienced in high school. What might have garnered you praise and an A+ on your high school papers might barely pass in college. Simply turning in a paper with no punctuation or grammar errors won’t impress a college instructor. They expect you to know how to write an error-free sentence. Five paragraph essays are a common assignment in high school, which is simply an essay organized with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The five paragraph essay is a great template to learn how to organize an essay, but college writing courses will expect students to write much longer papers, often with more analytical and critical thinking as well as secondary source material. Below is a partial list of college instructors’ desired student outcomes from their writing assignments (from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing). Knowing exactly what your instructor expects you to learn will help you better understand the assignments:

  • Respond to needs of different audiences (a person who is in favor of year-round school would require different reasoning than a person who is against it)
  • Respond appropriately to different rhetorical situations (analysis is different than evaluation, which is different than summary)
  • Use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation (you might introduce a thesis earlier for a literary analysis than you would for a policy proposal)
  • Adopt appropriate voice, tone, and level of formality (persuasive essays require the use of what instructors often refer to as “academic tone,” which is formal and free of slang; a narrative essay often is less formal and more conversational)
  • Write in several genres (a composition class might include assignments on narrative writing, literary analysis, personal profiles, argument, or evaluation)

As you can see, college writing instructors might have many different expectations, and learning the academic terms instructors use can be challenging. Also, be aware that most college writing instructors will expect you to write multiple drafts of a writing assignment, collaborating with peers for initial feedback towards revision. Sharing your writing with peers can be stressful if you’ve never done it. I always tell my students to avoid writing about anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their peers.

Think Creatively

Most college professors value creative, independent thinkers. Critically thinking about a topic and integrating your own ideas with those of others is not only valued, but expected. In high school you might have gotten by with regurgitating other’s ideas, but in college, you’ll be expected to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize primary and secondary source material, as well as integrate your ideas with these outside sources. Understanding not only how to find reliable sources (not from the internet), but also how to integrate your ideas with other’s is challenging for new students.

Think Outside the Box


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There is a list of essay topics that all instructors keep locked in their head because even thinking about these topics makes their hair fall out. Many even include the list in their syllabus as topics NOT to write about. Even so, students still want to write about them. Why? Because they wrote about them in high school, so they think they know something about them, and it will be easy. I’ll bet you can guess what they are. A few:

  • Legalize marijuana
  • Lower drinking age
  • End childhood obesity

To instructors, these topics, and others that have been written about over and over, are stale. There is nothing new that can be said about them. When college instructors see these paper topics, they immediately assume the student is too lazy to find another, more unique and innovative topic, a topic that has personal resonance. The most creative paper I ever read was from an education major who wrote about how wall paint color in elementary classrooms can enhance student learning. She had peer-reviewed (not internet) research to back it up, and I’d never read anything like it. She was also personally invested in the topic, as she was going into education. Brilliant.

Demystifying college writing is simply a matter of understanding perhaps new and different expectations than what you’re used to. In college, it’s not unusual for instructors to have less explicitly stated guidelines than you might have had in high school, but this also gives the student writer more freedom of expression and room for critical thinking and creativity.

If you have a question about an instructor’s expectations, ask. Your peers probably have the same questions. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, visit your Writing Center for guidance. But few or broad guidelines might mean the instructor is giving you lots of room for interpretation and wants you to take advantage of the opportunity to be creative. Show them what you can do.


What questions or concerns do you have about your current essay? Add your questions to the Comment section below and we’ll post the Q & A at a later date.

Last Minute Tips to Fine-tune your Essay


As our term is winding down here, the Writing Center is seeing a flurry of students coming in who are putting the final touches on their essays. Below we’ve shared some tips and tricks to get your paper ready to turn in.  





MLA Formatting

Include 1” margins on all sides.

Double-space all lines (no extra spaces between header and title and title and text).

Center title. Do not bold, italicize, or enlarge font.

Single space after periods or other end punctuation (unless directed otherwise).

Tab all indents; spacing 5 times does not give enough of an indent.

Insert paginated right header, which is your last name only, followed by a space, then the page number. Your instructor may ask that you remove this from the first page, as you’ll have your left header here.

Works Cited should be numbered consecutively after the last page of essay.

Insert 4-line left header on first page only.

Block quotes should be indented one inch with no quotation marks.

All other direct quotes should have quotation marks and in-text citation, followed by period (note: period DOES NOT come before citation).


All outside research/sources should be followed with an in-text citation, whether they are a direct quote, paraphrase, or summary.

Direct quotes should have attributive or author tags.

If a source doesn’t have an author, give the title or website.

The in-text citation should match the FIRST WORD the source is listed under on the Works Cited page.

Avoid giving dictionary definitions of a word as an “outside source.” That’s not research.

Always use italics when referring to a book or website; use quotation marks for small works (article or short story) in a larger work (book or newspaper).

Works Cited

The title, Works Cited, should be centered at the top of the final page. Do not bold, italicize or enlarge font.

Works Cited should also be double spaced. NO EXTRA SPACES BETWEEN ENTRIES.

Works Cited should be alphabetized by author’s last name. If no author, alphabetize by the title or website. See Purdue Owl for other listings.

Each entry should have a hanging indent (the opposite of a regular line indent).

Include URL only if instructor requires it, or if the source cannot be found without it.

When using electronic sources, always include the date you accessed the source.


Other Tips

In Microsoft WORD, the default for paragraphs is set to insert an extra line space when you hit ENTER to move to a new paragraph. You must reset this to avoid triple-spacing the header, paragraphs, and Works Cited entries. To do this, go to the PARAGRAPH tab on the toolbar, clicking on the icon that has up and down arrows with five lines, just to the right of the 4 justification icons. Click the arrow on the right to open the tab, and scroll down to the bottom line that says “Add Space After Paragraph”; click this so that it says “Remove Space After Paragraph.” If you have already completed your essay and have triple spaces, highlight the entire text, follow these steps, and it should remove the extra lines.

This is only an abbreviated list of editing steps to take to make your essay a perfect as it can be. Hopefully, you’ve read your essay over carefully and had a peer read it as well. And don’t trust Spellcheck.

Once you’ve done all you can do, turn it in and let it go. If you’ve followed your instructor’s guidelines and instruction and edited carefully, you should feel confident you’ve done your best work.








Active and Passive Voice

At the heart of every good sentence is a strong, precise verb; the opposite is true as well–at the core of most confusing, awkward, or wordy sentences lies a weak verb.


Many beginning writers and most scientists use passive voice in their writing.

On the other hand, passive voice is used by beginning writers and scientists in their writing.

Both sentences above say the same thing, but the first sentence is clearer and more to the point. Why? Because the first sentence uses active voice, the subject, “writers and most scientists,” is doing the action, “use passive voice.” The second sentence is passive; the target of the action, “passive voice,” is moved to the subject position.

Get Active!

Active voice places the subject first, followed by the verb and object, as in

Joe loves Mary.
 S      V       O

If the positions of subject and verb were reversed, the sentence would say

Mary was loved by Joe.

The subject of the sentence becomes Mary, but Mary isn’t really doing anything. Joe is doing all the work, and is placed last. Poor Joe.

Notice again the differences in the following active and passive sentences:

Active: Prof. Ford graded the essays.
                        S                 V                O

 Passive: The essays were graded by Prof. Ford.

Because passive voice sentences add words and change the normal doer-action-receiver of action, they make the reader work harder to understand the intended meaning. Passive constructions are by their very nature wordier than active constructions, which also can lead to confusion.

Converting Sentences to Active Voice

If you have a sentence with a “by” phrase, such as, “The boy was bitten by the dog,” rewrite the sentence so the subject comes first, followed by the verb:

The dog bit the boy.

If the subject of the sentence is not given, try using a noun or noun phrase for a more general term, such as “researchers,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”

On the other hand, if you wanted to change Whitney Houston’s classic song (and active voice title), I Will Always Love You, to passive voice, it would be You Will Always Be Loved By Me.
And that just sounds silly.

Uses for Passive Voice

Passive voice isn’t always a bad thing. Fiction writers often utilize passive voice. The writer of a murder mystery might want to show a scene of a homicide. He or she might write, “The bartender was murdered,” instead of “Somebody murdered the bartender.”

The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The bartender was murdered,” the focus is on the bartender. In “Somebody murdered the bartender,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody. Passive voice can be a good tool if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence. However, when writing nonfiction, as in a narrative essay, you want your writing to be clear.

Another place you’ll find mostly passive voice construction is in scientific writing. The reason for this is that scientists are expected to sound objective, so they take themselves, the subject, out of their sentences: “The DNA was tested.” By whom? We don’t know, as the subject, or the person who tested the DNA, is not known. This vague language is expected in science writing, but lacks the clarity needed for most other writing purposes.

It’s important to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. In addition, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentences.






Top Ten Tips for Writing Research Papers




Over the course of their careers, English instructors read enough student research papers to circle the circumference of the globe three times over. I just made that figure up, but I’ll bet it’s not far off. In the course of reading this many research papers, it’s typical to find the same weaknesses repeated in essay after essay. After a while, instructors have their own pet peeve list. So below we’ve compiled our own top ten list of the most common writing problems with research papers.

1.         Apologizing for your opinions. Prefacing a statement with the phases, “I believe,” or “I think,” only serves to weaken your position. It’s akin to an apology for your opinion. Unless you are quoting or paraphrasing, it’s a given you “believe” or “think” something. Simply taking out those phrases will immediately give your writing more power.

2.         Inflated phrases. When writing a research paper, students often think they have to take on a voice of authority, and they believe they need to use wordy constructions to sound “academic,” when all it does is sound pretentious. Wordy, inflated phrases are also confusing to read. Use your own voice and keep the writing tight.

3.         Failure to attribute ideas to sources. Often in research papers, it’s obvious that ideas or opinions are not the author’s, but are not cited to an outside source. Students paraphrase others’ ideas into their own words, but often fail to cite. This creates the impression that the information is coming from the writer, when in fact, it’s a source’s idea or opinion. Give them credit.

4.         Signposting. Signposting is putting up directional signs in your writing to tell the audience what you just said or what you will say. This might be required in speech class, but it’s not necessary in written papers. Don’t tell your audience what you previously said or what you will say; just say it.

5.         Stuck in quotes. When incorporating sources, research must be integrated into your own writing smoothly, introduced completely, and synthesized fully. Taking outside research and sticking a quote in where you think it sounds good is a sure sign you either don’t understand the research, are a lazy writer, or both.

6.         Not taking citation style seriously. Many students who have never written a research paper and are unfamiliar with MLA or APA citation requirements often believe the rules concerning in-text citation, works cited, or reference pages are a   low priority and skimp on this time-consuming task. However, most instructors who assign research papers expect students to follow these rules and will often deduct a large number of points for failure to follow the guidelines. Some instructors will fail an otherwise strong paper for failure to master this important task. Take it seriously.

7.         Lack of organization and focus. Don’t put socks in your underwear drawer. If your topic is rail transportation, and your argument is the US should fund public rails, don’t go into the fun you had riding the Euro-rail on your vacation. It’s  irrelevant to your argument. Keep the points you want to make together; avoid jumping back and forth between reasons. Organize your argument like a chest of drawers – or a rail car – one drawer, or railcar, after another.

8.         Lack of conclusion. One of the most common responses I have given to student papers is, “Ends abruptly.” Often students concentrate so intensely on the body of a research paper that they overlook the importance of a strong conclusion.

9.         Failure to follow assignment guidelines. The lowest grades I have ever given a student research paper are to those who obviously have not even read the assignment directions. If you are asked to include eight sources, and you give        two, that’s not meeting the requirements. If you write an informational essay when you are assigned an argument paper, that’s not following the guidelines. If  in doubt, ask your instructor.

10.       Lack of careful proofreading. Relying on spell-check is not going to help you find word usage errors, one of the most common errors in academic papers. It’s also difficult to find everything in one read-through. After you have read your essay through at least once to check for good paragraph structure, focus and flow, do a final edit for punctuation and grammar only.

Teachers: What have I left out? Share your top ten list.

Students: What are your pet peeves? Lack of clear assignment guidelines? Lack of written assignment? Lack of clear feedback?


Using Notecards to Simplify Research

imagesCAAKZ039(Originally published Feb. 2012)






When writing a research paper, the end result depends on the effectiveness of your research. Many beginning writers search online databases and web pages, printing  piles of articles, but fail to take notes as they read. Beginning writers might think they’ll be able to recall what they have read, but without taking careful notes, time is wasted that could be spent writing. When you sit down to write, you’ll have to thumb through pages and pages of articles and try to guess what the purpose of saving them was in the first place. Taking effective notes during the research process saves time and energy, and ensures a well thought-out essay.

Notecards taken on 3×5 lined index cards are an excellent method to keep careful records of your research. Utilizing notecards makes it easier to keep track of sources and simplifies the process of creating a Works Cited page.

Once you locate a source you think you would like to include in your paper, evaluate the source, thinking how you might utilize the information. Once you have determined the source is reliable and credible, jot down all of the information you will need for your paper.

Getting Started

Index cards can be used several different ways. In the example below, separate cards are used for the quote and source information. A number is placed in the upper left-hand corner of the card, which corresponds to the source. When it’s time to create an outline and organize your paper, the source information will be numbered in the order of use for easy access.

In the upper right corner, write the call number (if a book) and/or the author’s name. You can also include any other identifying information, including page numbers:

Ex. 1

In the center of the card, place the fact, thought or quote you want to include in your paper. You might use a direct quote, a paraphrase, or you might want to use a bullet-point list of facts or data. If you choose to paraphrase, taking time to thoughtfully paraphrase or summarize now will save you time in the writing stage.





Another way to format your research notecards is shown below. This example is similar to the example above, but here the writer has written whether the information is quoted, paraphrased, or summarized in the lower right corner:

Ex. 2

Some writers find it useful to write the full bibliographic information on a separate card (Ex. 1) for use in compiling the Works Cited page.  An alternative is to write the full bibliographic information on the back side of the notecard, though some writers feel two-sided notecards can be confusing. You might also find it useful to use color-coded cards to easily organize your paper.

Regardless of what format you use, be consistent to avoid confusion later. Your completed card should have all of the information you need to begin to format your outline and begin to write your paper

There are many different ways to utilize notecards, but one thing is certain – the more effective your note-taking skills, the more effective your final paper.

Have you used notecards for research?
Have you formatted them differently than our examples?
Tell us how!