How to Write a Thesis for a Research Paper

Research Paper WritingHow to write a thesis for a research paper? The core of your thesis statement for a research paper should be your argument. An argument, in this sense, does not mean a dispute or a bald unsupported statement of views. It means a well-reasoned perspective on your subject, supported by logic or evidence, presented fairly.

It’s not your opinion, shouted to the whole bar. It’s not a load of evidence, dumped in your poor reader’s lap. It’s not a debating game or legal proceeding, in which you present only the facts that help your side. It’s not a public relations exercise, where you spin everything to fit some preconceived notion.

It’s none of those. Rather, it is your distinctive viewpoint and your conclusions, backed by logical arguments and buttressed by evidence you have assembled, all of it presented honestly, without bias. This reasoned viewpoint—this argument—is your thesis statement. An argument is your reasoned perspective on the main subject of your research paper, supported by logic or evidence, all presented fairly. The main argument of a book or paper is also called its “thesis.”

A thesis statement is your take on the subject, and every research paper should have one. You may also have some secondary arguments in your paper, covering subsidiary points. But for now, let’s concentrate on developing your main argument.

How to State the Argument of a Research Paper

Your main argument should be brief and crisp. No matter how complicated and subtle your overall research paper, your argument should be expressed in clear, pointed language. A reader should be able to say, “I agree with that” or “That just can’t be right!” To frame an argument like this requires some serious thinking to boil down your views and some intellectual bravery to state them directly, without weasel words.

That won’t happen overnight. It takes time to develop your viewpoint and the reasoning behind it, to turn a tentative thesis into a fully developed one. It demands careful thinking about how to support it and how to respond to skeptics. It often requires you to write better than the turgid academic articles you’ve plowed through, where ideas are cloaked in jargon. Let them be negative models of exposition. Don’t let them mislead you into thinking this is the only way to sound intelligent or present a research paper. It isn’t. Clarity and simplicity are much better.

Once you have developed an argument, it’s important to show how it fits into your field of study. You can do that by stating clearly which authors and which perspectives you are drawing on, and which ones you reject. It’s helpful to readers if you differentiate your argument from others and identify these alternatives with specific scholars. For example: “Lipson is obviously wrong, once again, when he says . . . .” The emphasis, however, should be on developing your own position and evaluating it honestly and rigorously.

It takes weeks, sometimes months, to develop a compelling argument. That can be frustrating. But remember, if you knew exactly what you were going to say before you started, the whole research paper would be boring—to you and probably to your readers. Most of us begin with some general ideas and puzzling problems, hone the questions, find the right methods to investigate them, and then gradually work out some coherent answers. All this effort pays off in a well-grounded perspective, one that can persuade a skeptical reader. Nobody has a clear argument right away. It takes time and hard thinking to hone your perspective and distill it into a few sentences. But the effort is worth it. A succinct, well-reasoned argument is the heart of your research paper.

What if you start your research paper with a tentative argument already in mind? That’s fine, as long as you keep an open mind. Ask yourself: “What could change my opinion? What evidence could effectively challenge my view?” If nothing could, then you don’t have an argument, you have either a tautology or a theology. That’s not what you are aiming for. You want a thoughtful perspective, not circular reasoning. You want a thesis statement, not a secular religion.

How to Develop a Thesis Statement for a Research Paper

How do you come up with a good thesis statement? The best way is to build on your research paper proposal by writing a very brief paper proposing your slant on the subject. It only needs to be paragraph or so, plus a title. If you have more than one idea for the thesis statement, write down each one separately. They should be brief and to the point. If you can express it in a single sentence, so much the better.

This is not supposed to be a polished paper; it is merely a rough statement of your main idea, your prospective argument. There’s no need to offer supporting evidence here. As long as this paragraph captures your basic thrust, it can prompt a useful discussion with your instructor. Even a preliminary thesis argument is helpful because it will guide your research. That’s why it is helpful to do it early in the process, perhaps in the third month, after you’ve completed your background reading. Write a preliminary version of your thesis statement after you’ve completed your background reading. The argument only needs to be a paragraph, or perhaps even a sentence, capturing your main idea. Even this preliminary version will guide your research.

Both the discussion and the writing process will clarify your thinking and reveal more about your approach. That will lead to another round of brief writing and more discussion as you sharpen your focus and method. Working on your thesis statement should not delay your research at all. As long as your proposal sends you in the right direction for reading and data collection, you can move ahead on that while you are still developing your argument. In fact, you are likely to continue refining your main argument throughout the research and writing process. Your final thesis statement may not be ready until you are near the end of the project. To develop a clear thesis statement, you’ll need to revise and update your paragraph as your research develops. You’ll need to discuss it with your professor. With revision, discussion, and research, your initial perspective can mature into your thesis argument.

That’s one reason you will probably write the introduction and conclusion of your paper last. The introduction is where you will initially state your argument. The conclusion is where you will return to evaluate it, based on the research presented in the middle sections of the paper.

Can You Pass the “Elevator Test”?

How do you know when you have finally developed a clear-cut argument to call your own? Take the elevator test. As you start to ascend from the lobby, a visiting professor turns to you and says: “So, I see you are writing a research paper. What’s it about?” Describe your subject and your basic slant on it. If you can explain both in a straightforward, accessible way, you pass with flying colors. If you can do it before you reach the fourth floor, you are well on your way to a great thesis statement.  Once you have a clear, sharp argument, you should be able to state it in a few sentences. In fact, it should be brief enough to explain on an elevator ride. That’s a great test, unless the elevator is in the Empire State Building.

Checklist for Thesis Statements:

  • Write a preliminary version of your main argument or “thesis statement” after you have completed background readings.
  • Revise this argument as you continue researching and writing.
  • Discuss your argument periodically with your professor or adviser.
  • Work toward a briefer, sharper statement of your argument (the elevator test).