Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Thesis Statements
Defining the Thesis Statement
What is a thesis statement?
Every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.
How long does it need to be?
A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the paper is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused.
Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis
Where is your thesis statement?
You should provide a thesis early in your essay — in the introduction, or in longer essays in the second paragraph — in order to establish your position and give your reader a sense of direction.
Tip: In order to write a successful thesis statement:
- Avoid burying a great thesis statement in the middle of a paragraph or late in the paper.
- Be as clear and as specific as possible; avoid vague words.
- Indicate the point of your paper but avoid sentence structures like, вЂњThe point of my paper isвЂ¦вЂќ
Is your thesis statement specific?
Your thesis statement should be as clear and specific as possible. Normally you will continue to refine your thesis as you revise your argument(s), so your thesis will evolve and gain definition as you obtain a better sense of where your argument is taking you.
- Are there two large statements connected loosely by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. “and,” “but,” “or,” “for,” “nor,” “so,” “yet”)?
- Would a subordinating conjunction help (i.e. “through,” “although,” “because,” “since”) to signal a relationship between the two sentences?
- Or do the two statements imply a fuzzy unfocused thesis?
- If so, settle on one single focus and then proceed with further development.
Is your thesis statement too general?
Your thesis should be limited to what can be accomplished in the specified number of pages. Shape your topic so that you can get straight to the “meat” of it. Being specific in your paper will be much more successful than writing about general things that do not say much. Don’t settle for three pages of just skimming the surface.
The opposite of a focused, narrow, crisp thesis is a broad, sprawling, superficial thesis. Compare this original thesis (too general) with three possible revisions (more focused, each presenting a different approach to the same topic):
- Original thesis:
- There are serious objections to today’s horror movies.
- Revised theses:
- Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.
- The pornographic violence in “bloodbath” slasher movies degrades both men and women.
- Today’s slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.
Is your thesis statement clear?
Your thesis statement is no exception to your writing: it needs to be as clear as possible. By being as clear as possible in your thesis statement, you will make sure that your reader understands exactly what you mean.
Tip: In order to be as clear as possible in your writing:
- Unless you’re writing a technical report, avoid technical language. Always avoid jargon, unless you are confident your audience will be familiar with it.
- Avoid vague words such as “interesting,вЂќ “negative,” “exciting,вЂќ “unusual,” and “difficult.”
- Avoid abstract words such as “society,” вЂњvalues,вЂќ or вЂњculture.вЂќ
These words tell the reader next to nothing if you do not carefully explain what you mean by them. Never assume that the meaning of a sentence is obvious. Check to see if you need to define your terms (вЂќsocialism,” “conventional,” “commercialism,” “society”), and then decide on the most appropriate place to do so. Do not assume, for example, that you have the same understanding of what вЂњsocietyвЂќ means as your reader. To avoid misunderstandings, be as specific as possible.
Compare the original thesis (not specific and clear enough) with the revised version (much more specific and clear):
- Original thesis: Although the timber wolf is a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated. [if it’s so timid and gentle — why is it being exterminated?]
- Revised thesis: Although the timber wolf is actually a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated because people wrongfully believe it to be a fierce and cold-blooded killer.
Does your thesis include a comment about your position on the issue at hand?
The thesis statement should do more than merely announce the topic; it must reveal what position you will take in relation to that topic, how you plan to analyze/evaluate the subject or the issue. In short, instead of merely stating a general fact or resorting to a simplistic pro/con statement, you must decide what it is you have to say.
- Avoid merely announcing the topic; your original and specific “angle” should be clear. In this way you will tell your reader why your take on the issue matters.
- Original thesis: In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between fairy tales and early childhood.
- Revised thesis: Not just empty stories for kids, fairy tales shed light on the psychology of young children.
- Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues.
- Original thesis: We must save the whales.
- Revised thesis: Because our planet’s health may depend upon biological diversity, we should save the whales.
- When you make a (subjective) judgment call, specify and justify your reasoning. вЂњJust becauseвЂќ is not a good reason for an argument.
- Original thesis: Socialism is the best form of government for Kenya.
- Revised thesis: If the government takes over industry in Kenya, the industry will become more efficient.
- Avoid merely reporting a fact. Say more than what is already proven fact. Go further with your ideas. OtherwiseвЂ¦ why would your point matter?
- Original thesis: Hoover’s administration was rocked by scandal.
- Revised thesis: The many scandals of Hoover’s administration revealed basic problems with the Republican Party’s nominating process.
Do not expect to come up with a fully formulated thesis statement before you have finished writing the paper. The thesis will inevitably change as you revise and develop your ideasвЂ”and that is ok! Start with a tentative thesis and revise as your paper develops.
Is your thesis statement original?
Avoid, avoid, avoid generic arguments and formula statements. They work well to get a rough draft started, but will easily bore a reader. Keep revising until the thesis reflects your real ideas.
Tip: The point you make in the paper should matter:
- Be prepared to answer вЂњSo what?вЂќ about your thesis statement.
- Be prepared to explain why the point you are making is worthy of a paper. Why should the reader read it?
Compare the following:
- Original thesis:
- There are advantages and disadvantages to using statistics. (a fill-in-the-blank formula)
- Revised theses:
- Careful manipulation of data allows a researcher to use statistics to support any claim she desires.
- In order to ensure accurate reporting, journalists must understand the real significance of the statistics they report.
- Because advertisers consciously and unconsciously manipulate data, every consumer should learn how to evaluate statistical claims.
Avoid formula and generic words. Search for concrete subjects and active verbs, revising as many “to be” verbs as possible. A few suggestions below show how specific word choice sharpens and clarifies your meaning.
- Original: вЂњSociety is. вЂќ [who is this “society” and what exactly is it doing?]
- Revised: “Men and women will learn how to. ” “writers can generate. ” “television addicts may chip away at. ” “American educators must decide. ” “taxpayers and legislators alike can help fix. “
- Original: “the media”
- Revised: “the new breed of television reporters,” “advertisers,” “hard-hitting print journalists,” “horror flicks,” “TV movies of the week,” “sitcoms,” “national public radio,” “Top 40 bop-til-you-drop. “
- Original: “is, are, was, to be” or “to do, to make”
- Revised: any great action verb you can concoct: “to generate,” “to demolish,” “to batter,” “to revolt,” “to discover,” “to flip,” “to signify,” “to endure. “
Use your own words in thesis statements; avoid quoting. Crafting an original, insightful, and memorable thesis makes a distinct impression on a reader. You will lose credibility as a writer if you become only a mouthpiece or a copyist; you will gain credibility by grabbing the reader with your own ideas and words.
A well-crafted thesis statement reflects well-crafted ideas. It signals a writer who has intelligence, commitment, and enthusiasm.
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Developing A Thesis
Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You’ll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far, they want to know what the essay argues as well as how the writer plans to make the argument. After reading your thesis statement, the reader should think, “This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I’m not convinced yet, but I’m interested to see how I might be.”
An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” A thesis is not a topic; nor is it a fact; nor is it an opinion. “Reasons for the fall of communism” is a topic. “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe” is a fact known by educated people. “The fall of communism is the best thing that ever happened in Europe” is an opinion. (Superlatives like “the best” almost always lead to trouble. It’s impossible to weigh every “thing” that ever happened in Europe. And what about the fall of Hitler? Couldn’t that be “the best thing”?)
A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should “telegraph” how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.
Steps in Constructing a Thesis
First, analyze your primary sources. Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author’s argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—that there are, for instance, many different metaphors in such-and-such a poem—which is not a thesis.)
Once you have a working thesis, write it down. There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you’ll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.
Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction. A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.
Anticipate the counterarguments. Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of the arguments that you’ll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counterargument. If yours doesn’t, then it’s not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is not an argument.)
This statement is on its way to being a thesis. However, it is too easy to imagine possible counterarguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he suffered from a “soft-on-crime” image. If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counterargument, you’ll strengthen your argument, as shown in the sentence below.
Some Caveats and Some Examples
A thesis is never a question. Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question (“Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?”) is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.
A thesis is never a list. “For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe” does a good job of “telegraphing” the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesn’t advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.
A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational. An ineffective thesis would be, “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil.” This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.
An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. “While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline” is an effective thesis sentence that “telegraphs,” so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, “Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim.”
A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible. Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, “Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite’s inability to address the economic concerns of the people” is more powerful than “Communism collapsed due to societal discontent.”
Copyright 1999, Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University
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Tips and Examples for Writing Thesis Statements
This resource provides tips for creating a thesis statement and examples of different types of thesis statements.
Contributors: Elyssa Tardiff, Allen Brizee
Tips for Writing Your Thesis Statement
1. Determine what kind of paper you are writing:
- An analytical paper breaks down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluates the issue or idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to the audience.
- An expository (explanatory) paper explains something to the audience.
- An argumentative paper makes a claim about a topic and justifies this claim with specific evidence. The claim could be an opinion, a policy proposal, an evaluation, a cause-and-effect statement, or an interpretation. The goal of the argumentative paper is to convince the audience that the claim is true based on the evidence provided.
If you are writing a text that does not fall under these three categories (e.g., a narrative), a thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph could still be helpful to your reader.
2. Your thesis statement should be specific—it should cover only what you will discuss in your paper and should be supported with specific evidence.
3. The thesis statement usually appears at the end of the first paragraph of a paper.
4. Your topic may change as you write, so you may need to revise your thesis statement to reflect exactly what you have discussed in the paper.
Thesis Statement Examples
Example of an analytical thesis statement:
The paper that follows should:
- Explain the analysis of the college admission process
- Explain the challenge facing admissions counselors
Example of an expository (explanatory) thesis statement:
The paper that follows should:
- Explain how students spend their time studying, attending class, and socializing with peers
Example of an argumentative thesis statement:
The paper that follows should:
- Present an argument and give evidence to support the claim that students should pursue community projects before entering college
Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.
How to Write Your Thesis
I. Thesis structure
II. Crosscutting Issues
III. Editing Your Thesis
I. Thesis structure
- A good abstract explains in one line why the paper is important. It then goes on to give a summary of your major results, preferably couched in numbers with error limits. The final sentences explain the major implications of your work. A good abstract is concise, readable, and quantitative.
- Length should be
1-2 paragraphs, approx. 400 words.
Table of Contents
- list all headings and subheadings with page numbers
- indent subheadings
- it will look something like this:
List of Figures
The list should include a short title for each figure but not the whole caption.
List of Tables
The list should include a short title for each table but not the whole caption.
Be sure to include a hook at the beginning of the introduction. This is a statement of something sufficiently interesting to motivate your reader to read the rest of the paper, it is an important/interesting scientific problem that your paper either solves or addresses. You should draw the reader in and make them want to read the rest of the paper.
The next paragraphs in the introduction should cite previous research in this area. It should cite those who had the idea or ideas first, and should also cite those who have done the most recent and relevant work. You should then go on to explain why more work was necessary (your work, of course.)
Do not include descriptions of results.
- The results are actual statements of observations, including statistics, tables and graphs.
- Indicate information on range of variation.
- Mention negative results as well as positive. Do not interpret results – save that for the discussion.
- Lay out the case as for a jury. Present sufficient details so that others can draw their own inferences and construct their own explanations.
- Use S.I. units (m, s, kg, W, etc.) throughout the thesis.
- Break up your results into logical segments by using subheadings
- Key results should be stated in clear sentences at the beginning of paragraphs. It is far better to say “X had significant positive relationship with Y (linear regression p<0.01, r^2=0.79)” then to start with a less informative like “There is a significant relationship between X and Y”. Describe the nature of the findings; do not just tell the reader whether or not they are significant.
Note: Results vs. Discussion Sections
- What is the strongest and most important statement that you can make from your observations?
- If you met the reader at a meeting six months from now, what do you want them to remember about your paper?
- Refer back to problem posed, and describe the conclusions that you reached from carrying out this investigation, summarize new observations, new interpretations, and new insights that have resulted from the present work.
- Include the broader implications of your results.
- Do not repeat word for word the abstract, introduction or discussion.
- Include when appropriate (most of the time)
- cite all ideas, concepts, text, data that are not your own
- if you make a statement, back it up with your own data or a reference
- all references cited in the text must be listed
- cite single-author references by the surname of the author (followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
- . according to Hays (1994)
- . population growth is one of the greatest environmental concerns facing future generations (Hays, 1994).
- cite double-author references by the surnames of both authors (followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
- e.g. Simpson and Hays (1994)
- cite more than double-author references by the surname of the first author followed by et al. and then the date of the publication
- e.g. Pfirman, Simpson and Hays would be:
- Pfirman et al. (1994)
- do not use footnotes
- list all references cited in the text in alphabetical order using the following format for different types of material:
- Hunt, S. (1966) Carbohydrate and amino acid composition of the egg capsules of the whelk. Nature, 210, 436-437.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1997) Commonly asked questions about ozone. http://www.noaa.gov/public-affairs/grounders/ozo1.html, 9/27/97.
- Pfirman, S.L., M. Stute, H.J. Simpson, and J. Hays (1996) Undergraduate research at Barnard and Columbia, Journal of Research, 11, 213-214.
- Pechenik, J.A. (1987) A short guide to writing about biology. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 194pp.
- Pitelka, D.R., and F.M. Child (1964) Review of ciliary structure and function. In: Biochemistry and Physiology of Protozoa, Vol. 3 (S.H. Hutner, editor), Academic Press, New York, 131-198.
- Sambrotto, R. (1997) lecture notes, Environmental Data Analysis, Barnard College, Oct 2, 1997.
- Stute, M., J.F. Clark, P. Schlosser, W.S. Broecker, and G. Bonani (1995) A high altitude continental paleotemperature record derived from noble gases dissolved in groundwater from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. Quat. Res., 43, 209-220.
- New York Times (1/15/00) PCBs in the Hudson still an issue, A2.
- it is acceptable to put the initials of the individual authors behind their last names, e.g. Pfirman, S.L., Stute, M., Simpson, H.J., and Hays, J (1996) Undergraduate research at .
- Include all your data in the appendix.
- Reference data/materials not easily available (theses are used as a resource by the department and other students).
- Tables (where more than 1-2 pages).
- Calculations (where more than 1-2 pages).
- You may include a key article as appendix.
- If you consulted a large number of references but did not cite all of them, you might want to include a list of additional resource material, etc.
- List of equipment used for an experiment or details of complicated procedures.
- Note: Figures and tables, including captions, should be embedded in the text and not in an appendix, unless they are more than 1-2 pages and are not critical to your argument.
II. Crosscutting Issues
What Are We Looking For?
Planning Ahead for Your Thesis
Writing for an Audience
Skimming vs. Reading
Order of Writing
Figures and Tables
- The actual figures and tables should be embedded/inserted in the text, generally on the page following the page where the figure/table is first cited in the text.
- All figures and tables should be numbered and cited consecutively in the text as figure 1, figure 2, table 1, table 2, etc.
- Include a caption for each figure and table, citing how it was constructed (reference citations, data sources, etc.) and highlighting the key findings (think skimming). Include an index figure (map) showing and naming all locations discussed in paper.
- You are encouraged to make your own figures, including cartoons, schematics or sketches that illustrate the processes that you discuss. Examine your figures with these questions in mind:
- Is the figure self-explanatory?
- Are your axes labeled and are the units indicated?
- Show the uncertainty in your data with error bars.
- If the data are fit by a curve, indicate the goodness of fit.
- Could chart junk be eliminated?
- Could non-data ink be eliminated?
- Could redundant data ink be eliminated?
- Could data density be increased by eliminating non-data bearing space?
- Is this a sparse data set that could better be expressed as a table?
- Does the figure distort the data in any way?
- Are the data presented in context?
- Does the figure caption guide the reader’s eye to the “take-home lesson” of the figure?
- Figures should be oriented vertically, in portrait mode, wherever possible. If you must orient them horizontally, in landscape mode, orient them so that you can read them from the right, not from the left, where the binding will be.
Tying the Text to the Data
Examine figure(s) or table(s) pertaining to the result(s).
- the data support the textual statement
- the data contradict the textual statement
- the data are insufficient to prove or refute the textual statement
- the data may support the textual statement, but are not presented in such a way that you can be sure you are seeing the same phenomenon in the data that the author claims to have seen.
Different types of errors:
- direct quotes or illustrations without quotation marks, without attribution
- direct quotes without quotation marks, with attribution
- concepts/ideas without attribution
- concepts/ideas with sloppy attribution
- omitting or fabricating data or results
Check references carefully and reread reference works prior to publication. The first time you read something, you will consciously remember some things, but may subconsciously take in other aspects. It is important to cross check your conscious memory against your citations.
D. Kennedy, 1985, On Academic Authorship
Sigma Xi, 1984, Honor in Science
Yale University pamphlet on plagiarism
- Make 3 final copies: 1 to mentor and 2 to department, so that we can have 2 readers.
- Final thesis should be bound.
- Printed cleanly on white paper.
- Double-spaced using 12-point font.
- 1-inch margins.
- Double-sided saves paper.
- Include page numbers.
- The Barnard Writing Room provides assistance on writing senior theses.
- Look at other theses on file in the Environmental Science department, they will give you an idea of what we are looking for.
- Of course do not hesitate to ask us, or your research advisor for help.
- The Barnard Environmental Science Department has many books on scientific writing, ask the departmental administrator for assistance in locating them.
- Also see additional books listed as Resources.
III. Editing Your Thesis
- Proof read your thesis a few times.
- Check your spelling. spellcheckers are useful for initial checking, but don’t catch homonyms (e.g. hear, here), so you need to do the final check by eye.
- Make sure that you use complete sentences
- Check your grammar: punctuation, sentence structure, subject-verb agreement (plural or singular), tense consistency, etc.
- Give it to others to read and comment.
- repetition, relevance
- Do not allow run-on sentences to sneak into your writing; try semicolons.
- Avoid nested clauses/phrases.
- Avoid clauses or phrases with more than two ideas in them.
- Do not use double negatives.
- Do not use dangling participles (i.e. phrases with an “-ing” verb, in sentences where the agent performing the action of the “-ing” verb is not specified: ” After standing in boiling water for two hours, examine the flask.”).
- Make sure that the antecedent for every pronoun (it, these, those, that, this, one) is crystal clear. If in doubt, use the noun rather than the pronoun, even if the resulting sentence seems a little bit redundant.
- Ensure that subject and verb agree in number (singular versus plural).
- Be especially careful with compound subjects. Be especially careful with subject/verb agreement within clauses.
- Avoid qualitative adjectives when describing concepts that are quantifiable (“The water is deep.” “Plate convergence is fast.” “Our algorithm is better.”) Instead, quantify. (“Water depths exceed 5km.”)
- Avoid noun strings (“acoustic noise source location technique”).
- Do not use unexplained acronyms. Spell out all acronyms the first time that you use them.
Avoid unnecessary repetition and irrelevant tangents.
Necessary repetition: the main theme should be developed in the introduction as a motivation or working hypothesis. It is then developed in the main body of the paper, and mentioned again in the discussion section (and, of course, in the abstract and conclusions).
Some suggestions on how to shorten your paper:
- Use tables for repetitive information.
- Include only sufficient background material to permit the reader to understand your story, not every paper ever written on the subject.
- Use figure captions effectively.
- Don’t describe the contents of the figures and/or tables in the text item-by-item. Instead, use the text to point out the most significant patterns, items or trends in the figures and tables.
- Delete “observations” or “results” that are mentioned in the text for which you have not shown data.
- Delete “conclusions” that are not directly supported by your observations or results.
- Delete “interpretation” or “discussion” sections that are inconclusive.
- Delete “interpretation” or “discussion” sections that are only peripherally related to your new results or observations.
- Scrutinize adjectives! adverbs and prepositional phrases.
Although it varies considerably from project to project, average thesis length is about 40 pages of text plus figures. This total page count includes all your text as well as the list of references, but it does not include any appendices. These generalizations should not be taken too seriously, especially if you are working on a labor-intensive lab project. If you have any questions about whether your project is of sufficient scope, consult one of us early on.
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Structuring a thesis
This section describes the main elements of a written thesis at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Although the specific structure described here is most relevant for empirical theses, much of the advice is also relevant for theoretical work. Please note that the formal requirements vary between different disciplines, and make sure to confer the guidelines that apply in your field.
For the contents in the various sections you may also confer Organising your writing.
Abstract and foreword
Most readers will turn first to the abstract. Use it as an opportunity to spur the reader’s interest. The abstract should summarise the main contents of your thesis, especially the thesis statement, but does not need to cover every aspect of the main text. The main objective is to give the reader a good idea of what the thesis is about.
In general the abstract should be the last thing that you write, when you know what you have actually written. It is nevertheless a good idea to work on a draft continuously. Writing a good abstract is difficult, since it should only include the most important points of your work. But this is also why working on your abstract can be useful – it forces you to identify exactly what it is you are writing about.
There are usually no formal requirements for forewords, but it is common practice to thank your supervisors, informants, and others who have helped and supported you. If you have received any grants or research residencies, you should also acknowledge these.
Note: Shorter assignments do not require abstracts and forewords.
Your introduction has two main purposes: 1) to give an overview of the main points of your thesis; and 2) awaken the reader’s interest. It’s not a bad idea to go through the introduction one last time when the writing is done, to ensure that it connects well with your conclusion.
Tip: For a nice, stylistic twist you can reuse a theme from the introduction in your conclusion. For example, you might present a particular scenario in one way in your introduction, and then return to it in your conclusion from a different – richer or contrasting – perspective.
Your introduction should include:
- The background for your choice of theme
- A discussion of your research question or thesis statement
- A schematic outline of the remainder of your thesis
The sections below discuss each of these elements in turn.
The background sets the general tone for your thesis. It should make a good impression and convince the reader why the theme is important and your approach relevant. Even so, it should be no longer than necessary.
What is considered a relevant background depends on your field and its traditions. Background information might be historical in nature, or it might refer to previous research or practical considerations. You can also focus on a specific text, thinker or problem.
Academic writing often means having a discussion with yourself (or some imagined opponent). To open your discussion, there are several options available. You may, for example:
- refer to a contemporary event
- outline a specific problem; a case study or an example
- review the relevant research/literature to demonstrate the need for this particular type of research
If it is common in your discipline to reflect upon your experiences as a practitioner, this is the place to present them. In the remainder of your thesis, this kind of information should be avoided, particularly if it has not been collected systematically.
Tip: Do not spend too much time on your background and opening remarks before you have gotten started with the main text.
Write three different opening paragraphs for your thesis using different literary devices
a) “set the scene” with a (short) narrative
b) adopt a historical approach to the phenomenon you intend to discuss
c) take an example from the media to give your topic current relevance.
Observe to what extent these different openings inspire you, and choose the approach most appropriate to your topic. For example, do you want to spur emotions, or remain as neutral as possible? How important is the historical background? The exercise can be done in small groups or pairs. Discuss what makes an opening paragraph successful (or not). How does your opening paragraph shed light on what is to follow? What will the reader’s expectations be?
1.2 Defining the scope of your thesis
One of the first tasks of a researcher is defining the scope of a study, i.e., its area (theme, field) and the amount of information to be included. Narrowing the scope of your thesis can be time-consuming. Paradoxically, the more you limit the scope, the more interesting it becomes. This is because a narrower scope lets you clarify the problem and study it at greater depth, whereas very broad research questions only allow a superficial treatment.
The research question can be formulated as one main question with (a few) more specific sub-questions or in the form of a hypothesis that will be tested.
Your research question will be your guide as your writing proceeds. If you are working independently, you are also free to modify it as you go along.
How do you know that you have drafted a research question? Most importantly, a research question is something that can be answered. If not, you have probably come up with a theme or field, not a question.
- Use interrogative words: how, why, which (factors/situations) etc.
- Some questions are closed and only invoke concrete/limited answers. Others will open up for discussions and different interpretations.
Asking “What …?” is a more closed question than asking “How?” or “In what way?”
Asking “Why” means you are investigating what causes of a phenomenon. Studying causality is methodologically demanding.
- Feel free to pose partially open questions that allow discussions of the overall theme, e.g., “In what way …?”; “How can we understand [a particular phenomenon]?”
- Try to condense your research question into one general question – and perhaps a few more specific sub-questions (two or three will usually suffice).
The outline gives an overview of the main points of your thesis. It clarifies the structure of your thesis and helps you find the correct focus for your work. The outline can also be used in supervision sessions, especially in the beginning. You might find that you need to restructure your thesis. Working on your outline can then be a good way of making sense of the necessary changes. A good outline shows how the different parts relate to each other, and is a useful guide for the reader.
It often makes sense to put the outline at the end of the introduction, but this rule is not set in stone. Use discretion: What is most helpful for the reader? The information should come at the right point – not too early and not too late.
2. Theory section
The theory used in an empirical study is meant to shed light on the data in a scholarly or scientific manner. It should give insights not achievable by ordinary, everyday reflections. The main purpose of using theory is to analyse and interpret your data. Therefore, you should not present theoretical perspectives that are not being put to use. Doing so will create false expectations, and suggests that your work is incomplete.
Not all theses have a separate theory section. In the IMRaD format the theory section is included in the introduction, and the second chapter covers the methods used.
What kind of theory should you choose? Since the theory is the foundation for your data analysis it can be useful to select a theory that lets you distinguish between, and categorise different phenomena. Other theories let you develop the various nuances of a phenomenon. In other words, you have a choice of either reducing the complexity of your data or expanding upon something that initially looks simple.
How much time and space should you devote to the theory chapter? This is a difficult question. Some theses dwell too long on theory and never get to the main point: the analysis and discussion. But it is also important to have read enough theory to know what to look for when collecting data. The nature of your research should decide: Some studies do not require much theory, but put more emphasis on the method, while other studies need a rich theory section to enable an interesting discussion.
3. Method section
In a scholarly research article, the section dealing with method is very important. The same applies to an empirical thesis. For students, this can be a difficult section to write, especially since its purpose may not always be clear.
The method chapter should not iterate the contents of methodology handbooks. For example, if you have carried out interviews, you do not need to list all the different types of research interview. You also do not need to describe the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods, or list all different kinds of validity and reliability.
What you must do is to show how your choice of design and research method is suited to answering your research question(s). Demonstrate that you have given due consideration to the validity and reliability of your chosen method. By “showing” instead of “telling”, you demonstrate that you have understood the practical meaning of these concepts. This way, the method section is not only able to tie the different parts of your thesis together, it also becomes interesting to read!
- Show the reader what you have done in your study, and explain why. How did you collect the data? Which options became available through your chosen approach?
- What were your working conditions? What considerations did you have to balance?
- Tell the reader what you did to increase the validity of your research. E.g., what can you say about the reliability in data collection? How do you know that you have actually investigated what you intended to investigate? What conclusions can be drawn on this basis? Which conclusions are certain and which are more tentative? Can your results be applied in other areas? Can you generalise? If so, why? If not, why not?
- You should aim to describe weaknesses as well as strengths. An excellent thesis distinguishes itself by defending – and at the same time criticising – the choices made.
Your analysis, along with your discussion, will form the high light of your thesis. In the IMRaD format, this section is titled “Results”. This is where you report your findings and present them in a systematic manner. The expectations of the reader have been built up through the other chapters, make sure you fulfill these expectations.
To analyse means to distinguish between different types of phenomena – similar from different. Importantly, by distinguishing between different phenomena, your theory is put to work. Precisely how your analysis should appear, however, is a methodological question. Finding out how best to organise and present your findings may take some time. A good place to look for examples and inspiration is repositories for master’s theses.
If you are analysing human actions, you may want to engage the reader’s emotions. In this case it will be important to choose analytical categories that correlate to your chosen theory. Engaging emotions is not the main point, but a way to elucidate the phenomenon so that the reader understands it in a new and better way.
Note: Not all theses include a separate chapter for analysis.
In many thesis the discussion is the most important section. Make sure that you allocate enough time and space for a good discussion. This is your opportunity to show that you have understood the significance of your findings and that you are capable of applying theory in an independent manner.
The discussion will consist of argumentation. In other words, you investigate a phenomenon from several different perspectives. To discuss means to question your findings, and to consider different interpretations. Here are a few examples of formulations that signal argumentation:
- On the one hand … and on the other
- But is it really true that…
- … on can it also be supposed…?
- … another possible explanation may be …
The final section of your thesis may take one of several different forms. Some theses need a conclusion, while for others a summing up will be appropriate. The decisive factor will be the nature of your thesis statement and research question.
Open research questions cannot always be answered, but if a definite answer is possible, you must provide a conclusion. The conclusion should answer your research question(s). Remember that a negative conclusion is also valid.
A summing up should repeat the most important issues raised in your thesis (particularly in the discussion), although preferably stated in a (slightly) different way. For example, you could frame the issues within a wider context.
Placing your thesis in perspective
In the final section you should place your work in a wider, academic perspective and determine any unresolved questions. During the work, you may have encountered new research questions and interesting literature which could have been followed up. At this point, you may point out these possible developments, while making it clear for the reader that they were beyond the framework of your current project.
- Briefly discuss your results through a different perspective. This will allow you to see aspects that were not apparent to you at the project preparation stage
- Highlight alternative research questions that you have found in the source materials used in the project
- Show how others have placed the subject area in a wider context
- If others have drawn different conclusions from yours, this will provide you with ideas of new ways to view the research question
- Describe any unanswered aspects of your project
- Specify potential follow up and new projects
A thesis should “bite itself in the tail”
There should be a strong connection between your conclusion and your introduction. All the themes and issues that you raised in your introduction must be referred to again in one way or another. If you find out at this stage that your thesis has not tackled an issue that you raised in the introduction, you should go back to the introduction and delete the reference to that issue. An elegant way to structure the text is to use the same textual figure or case in the beginning as well as in the end. When the figure returns in the final section, it will have taken on a new and richer meaning through the insights you have encountered, created in the process of writing.
J. Schimel, 2012 Writing Science. How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. New York: Oxford University Press