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Writing a Thesis & Making an Argument

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What is an argument?

An argument takes a stand on an issue that is debatable. It seeks to persuade an audience of a point of view in much the same way that a lawyer argues a case in a court of law. It is NOT a description or a summary.

  • This is an argument: “Although it may seem that internal discord and external barbarian invasions were separate problems for the Roman Empire in the fourth century, these developments were fundamentally interrelated and formed the single most important explanation for the long-term decline of Rome.”
  • This is not an argument: “In this paper, I will elucidate the reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the two tumultuous centuries leading up to the sack of its capital city in 410 by the notorious Visigoth king Alaric.”

What is a thesis?

A thesis statement states the main argument of your project and describes, briefly, how you will prove your argumentIn other words, it also states how you will organize your body of evidence in support of the argument.

  • This is a vague argument, and not yet a thesis: “The Roman Empire fell due to multiple interrelated reasons.”
  • This is a thesis: “The barbarian invasions from the late third to the early fifth century were a direct result of policy changes by the Roman government responding to political struggles within the empire, culminating in the collapse of the Roman Empire at the hands of the Germanic tribes from the north.”

A thesis makes a specific statement to the reader about what you will be trying to argue. Your thesis can be more than one sentence, but should not be longer than a paragraph. Do not state evidence or use examples in your thesis paragraph. 

A Thesis Helps You and Your Reader

Your blueprint for writing:

  • Helps you focus and clarify your ideas.
  • Provides a “hook” on which you can “hang” your topic sentences.
  • Can (and should) be revised as you further refine your evidence and arguments. New evidence often requires you to change your thesis.
  • Gives your paper a unified structure and point.

Your reader’s blueprint for reading:

  • Serves as a “map” to follow through your paper.
  • Keeps the reader focused on your argument.
  • Signals to the reader your main points.
  • Engages the reader in your argument.

Tips for Writing a Good Thesis

  • Find a Focus: Choose a thesis that explores an aspect of your topic that is important to you, or that allows you to say something insightful about your topic. For example, if your project seeks to analyze women’s domestic labor during the late fifteenth century, you might decide to focus on the products they produced at home.
  • Look for Patterns: After determining a general focus, go back and look more closely at your evidence. As you re-examine your evidence and identify patterns, you will develop your argument and some conclusions. For example, you might find that as men’s access to professional training increased, women made fewer textiles at home, though they generally retained their production of butter and ale.

Strategies for Developing a Thesis Statement

Here are four ways to begin to develop your thesis. These will not necessarily result in a finished product, but will give you a place to start.

Strategy 1: Spend time ruminating over your topic. Make a list of the ideas you want to include in the essay, and then think about how to group them under several different headings. Often, you will see an organizational plan emerge from the sorting process.

Strategy 2: Write a sentence that summarizes the main idea of the essay you plan to write.

Main Idea: Women’s domestic labor during the later Middle Ages contributed to the growth of the early industrial economy in Europe. This is not yet a thesis, as you still need to say how and why? But it is a start.

Strategy 3: Use a formula to develop a working thesis statement (which you will need to revise later). Here are a few examples:

  1. Although most readers of _________ have argued that _________, closer examination shows that _________.
  1. ________ used _________ and _________ to prove that _________.
  1. Historical event “X” is a result of the combination of _________, _________, and _________.

Strategy 4: Since your project instructions asks you to develop a specific historical question, turn the question into an assertion and give reasons for your statement.

Research Question: How did women’s domestic labor change between 1348 and 1500? How were changes in their work important to late medieval economic culture in Germany?

Beginning thesis: Between 1348 and 1500 women’s domestic labor changed as women stopped producing home-made textiles, although they continued to produce butter and ale. With the cash women earned from the sale of butter and ale they purchased cloth imported from Flanders and Italy, which in turn, helped increase early industrial production in those areas.

These strategies all should help you develop two characteristics all thesis statements should have: they state an argument and they reveal how you will make that argument. Your thesis probably still needs revising but these strategies may provide a good start.

Refine, Refine, Refine

As you work on your project, your ideas will change and so will your thesis. Here are examples of weak and strong thesis statements.

  • Unspecific thesis: “Francis of Assisi was an important figure in the development of Christian attitudes about nature.”

 This thesis lacks an argument. Why was Francis an important leader?

  • Specific thesis: “Francis of Assisi offered a new interpretation of Christian asceticism that responded to the frustrations felt my many urban dwellers with the commercial economy of the thirteenth century, while using simple religious language that attracted people who were uncomfortable with impenetrable scholastic theology of the period.”

This thesis has an argument: Francis’s interpretation of Christianity became popular because it satisfied two different frustrations felt by many people in thirteenth-century Europe.

  • Unspecific thesis: “At the end of the fifteenth century French women faced difficulty when they attempted to enter universities.”

No historian could argue with this general statement and uninteresting thesis.

  • Specific thesis: “At the end of the fifteenth century French women experienced misogynist attacks from scholastics when they petitioned to enter universities primarily because theologians were concerned with protecting the monopoly that males had on priesthood, which was required for entry into academia.”

This thesis statement asserts that theologians attacked women who wanted a formal education because they feared that if women were allowed into universities they would be granted clerical status, which might threaten the male monopoly on priesthood.

Supporting your thesis with evidence

Your thesis is defenseless without you to prove that its argument holds up under scrutiny. Your reader expects you to provide all of the evidence to prove your thesis. There are two categories of evidence that you can use:

  • Primary sources: treatises, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, government documents, an organization’s meeting minutes and pamphlets.
  • Secondary sources: articles and books that explain and interpret historical events.

How can you use this evidence?

  • Make sure the examples you select from your available evidence address your thesis.
  • Use evidence that your reader will deem credible. This means sorting through your sources, and identifying the clearest and fairest. It also means paying careful attention to the credibility of the source. This is especially important when dealing with web-based sources. Be sure to understand the biases and shortcomings of each piece of evidence. When in doubt consult with your professor or teaching assistant.
  • Avoid broad generalizations that your reader may question by appealing to specific evidence.
  • Use evidence to address an opposing point of view. How do your sources give examples that refute another historian’s interpretation?