Step Four in Writing a Research Paper — Developing a Thesis

Have you ever been the victim of a broken promise? Perhaps a friend failed to follow through on an agreement. Or, maybe a business person neglected to perform as expected. Sometimes, too, unfortunately, loved ones will break your heart. In each of those cases, the disappointment can range from mere frustration to outright anger. While a college term paper doesn’t usually generate such intense emotion, the thesis of your paper is the promise you make to your readers, a promise that you don’t want to break.

Some students confuse the subject of a paper with the thesis, yet a strong distinction exists. The subject is generally the starting point: a living author such as Stephen King, a Revolutionary War event such as the Battle of Saratoga, or a psychological disorder such as depression. The thesis, by contrast, is not only much more specific, but a strong thesis also provides precise directions for the paper. For instance, you might contrast two of King’s prison stories and make the argument that The Green Mile is actually an extension of The Shawshank Redemption. Or, you might explain that America’s most notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold, was one of the heroes in the Battle of Saratoga. You might even explain the three major effects of depression on teenagers.

Once you decide upon your thesis, you should make sure to place it in the appropriate spot — the last sentence of the first paragraph. That placement is essential for you as a writer and for your readers.

For you as the writer, the thesis serves as your compass to keep you moving in the right direction. Without a clear destination in mind, you may get distracted and drift off course. To prevent this drifting, some students actually write their thesis on an index card, and they attach the card to their research notebook or their computer screen to keep them focused on the main idea of the paper.

The thesis also helps your reader to follow the flow of your paper. For instance, if a paper doesn’t have a strong thesis with clear directions, the readers may hesitate or pause and wonder where you’re headed. Some readers may, in fact, not finish reading because they can’t tell where you’re going, and they don’t want to be surprised or disappointed by your eventual destination. The strong thesis with clear directions, however, is like a leisurely guided tour through an old castle with lots of interesting exhibits and stories throughout.

One final thought to consider regarding your thesis is that you should not feel locked in to that particular itinerary; as you conduct your research and write, you should always consider your thesis “tentative.” After all, even though you begin with what you think is a great thesis, storms may occur. In fact, three situations — or storms — may occur which could prevent you from completing the paper with that original thesis.

First, you may discover that you can’t find any information to support your original thesis. Next, you may come up with an even better idea for a thesis. Finally, you may even discover that your original thoughts on a subject were totally incorrect, and you may change your mind completely.

If one of these situations does occur, you have to be flexible enough as a writer to realize it and be willing to edit your thesis or revise it accordingly. Some students are so stubborn that they persist with a poor thesis only because they already submitted the thesis and the outline to their instructors, and these students don’t want the hassle of trying to explain the change to their instructors. Yet, most instructors want you to remain objective throughout the research process because they want the process to be a time of discovery for you rather than simply an attempt on your part to prove what you already believe.

Thus, your thesis is really a statement that goes through three stages. First, it’s a compass to guide you as you research and write your paper; then, it’s a storm that might throw you off course or force you to change directions; and, finally, when you put it in the final draft of your paper, it’s a promise to your readers, one that you don’t want to break.



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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate


Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.