Developing, Writing and Revising Your Thesis Statement

Edward C. Martin, Professor of Law
Cumberland School of Law, Samford University

The following discussion addresses the basic purpose and structure of a "thesis statement" as applied to writing a typical legal research paper. Review ALL of these materials carefully, and then when you are ready to "test" the validity of your own "thesis paper," click on the link that is provided and answer the "Thesis Questionnaire."


I. What is a thesis statement?
II. What must a good thesis statement contain?
III. How does the thesis statement compare with the paper's topic?
IV. What should not be included in a thesis statement?
V. Are there different types of thesis statements?
VI. How do I write a thesis statement?
VII. What are the specific steps in formulating and developing a true thesis statement from a trial (or "working") thesis statement?
VIII. What are some specific ways that a trial (or "working") thesis statement can be modified into a final thesis statement?
IX. Where does the thesis statement actually appear in the final paper?
X. What are some examples of actual thesis sentences within the context of legal research papers?
I. What is a thesis statement?
Basically, a thesis statement is an assertion that the research paper is intended to prove or support. However, it does much more than simply announce a topic: it structures and controls the writer's entire argument and reaches a definite conclusion about that specific assertion. Any "paper" that merely combines a series of random paragraphs about the same general topic without ever making any particular point or coming to any specific conclusion about that topic is really not much of a paper at all. To avoid such potential problems, a precise, well-articulated thesis statement makes it clear (to both the writer as well as the reader) just what the paper has been written to accomplish, as well as whether or not that particular goal has been achieved.

II. What must a good thesis statement contain?
There is no single, all-inclusive list of specific elements that absolutely must be included in every thesis statement. However, the following characteristics are present in most good thesis statements:

  • They are adequately (i.e., they assert clearly defined opinions or ideas that avoid unnecessary ambiguities in the words utilized or in the meanings of those words);
  • They present an original idea, or one that is developed in an original way;
  • They contain an arguable point (i.e., one that is not entirely self-evident or universally agreed upon, which the writer will have to defend) that can be proven with (this evidence may take many different forms, such as facts, opinions, examples, anecdotes, statistics, analogies, etc.) within the boundaries set for the paper;
  • They control the entire argument (i.e., the thesis statement actually determines what the writer can and cannot say in the paper. Every paragraph of the paper exists to support the thesis);
  • They signal to the reader how the argument will be presented (by suggesting, either directly or indirectly, the structure of the argument); and
  • They state a definite conclusion.

III. How does the thesis statement compare with the paper's topic?
A paper topic is the general SUBJECT that the paper will explore. The thesis statement reflects the writer's SPECIFIC ARGUMENT about the topic.

IV. What should not be included in a thesis statement?
There are certain things that most definitely should NOT be included in a thesis statement. Generally, a good thesis statement is not merely:

  • a simple statement of fact/facts;
  • an incomplete sentence or sentence fragment;
  • a title for the paper or simply an announcement of the subject of the paper;
  • any unreasonable/unsupported or assertion;
  • a purpose statement or introduction for the paper (Many people mistakenly assume that a thesis statement simply states the central point or main idea that the writer wishes to communicate in the paper. A purpose statement announces the paper's topic and may even indicate the general structure of the paper, but it does NOT present any specific arguments relative to that topic, nor does it state any conclusions. Thus, the purpose statement of the paper differs from its thesis statement in that the thesis reflects the writer's conclusion about a given subject/topic, after presenting a specific argument in support of that conclusion.)
V. Are there different types of thesis statements?
Certainly! Thesis statements can be structured in many different ways, depending upon the author's particular purpose in writing the paper. Some of the more common types of thesis statements include:
  • Analytical thesis statements - these break down an issue or idea into its component parts, evaluate them and present that evaluation to the reader;
  • Expository thesis statements - these explain something to the reader by stating first what will be explained, then how it will be explained and finally the order in which that explanation will occur;
  • Argumentative thesis statements - these assert a specific arguable claim about a topic and then set out to prove that claim by relying upon specific supporting evidence.
In legal writing, "argumentative" thesis statements (and occasionally "analytical" thesis statements) are among the most commonly utilized types of statements. However, even within these two types of thesis statements there are many different variations that potentially might be utilized. Some specific examples of such variations include:
  • Analysis and definition thesis:
    "A well-constructed thesis sentence will make your writing clear, effective, and engaging."
  • Compare and contrast thesis:
    "Legal rationale A is superior to legal rationale B because of reasons 1, 2, and 3."
  • Cause and effect thesis:
    "X is caused by 5 contributing factors: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5."

VI. How do I write a thesis statement?
Start by first developing a trial (or "working") thesis statement. Usually, at the beginning of most papers the writer is not absolutely certain what he/she will ultimately say in the final paper, or, for that matter, precisely how it will be said. At best, many writers at the outset of a writing project only have a somewhat vague, general idea of what they intend to say in the finished paper. Moreover, even if the writer does begin with a clear idea of what he/she intends for the paper to say, during the actual writing process new ideas or arguments or ways of looking at the topic frequently emerge. As the writer explores and develops these new ideas, invariably the focus of the original trial thesis will change, and a new (or at least modified) thesis begins to emerge. Sometimes this occurs by design; at other times it is purely inadvertent. However it happens, typically during the course of writing a paper the writer starts off to answer one question, and actually ends up answering a completely different question. A trial (or "working") thesis statement helps the writer to recognize these changes as they occur during the writing process and adjust the paper accordingly. It differs from a true thesis statement in that the trial thesis statement is intended to reflect the writer's current thinking about the paper topic as he/she develops the paper during the process of actually researching and writing it. Thus, a trial (or "working") thesis statement is intended to represent the writer's "work in progress" at any point in time throughout the actual writing process itself. As such, it is merely a tool that is used to continuously reflect the changes and modifications that inevitably occur as the writer's thinking about the paper topic becomes more focused and refined throughout the entire writing process. In writing any paper, it is perfectly normal to make numerous modifications of your original trial thesis statement before the paper is finished. Indeed, that is the very purpose of a trial (or "working") thesis statement!

VII. What are the specific steps in formulating and developing a true thesis statement from a trial (or "working") thesis statement?

Step (1). Initially, don't expect to find the absolutely "perfect" or "ideal" paper topic. In most cases, such a topic might not even exist! Instead, try to identify several interesting questions or issues about your general topic and research each of these in turn. After doing this, you should then be able eventually to narrow these issues down to a single specific question about which you plan to write.

Step (2). Begin by first formulating (in as much detail as possible) the specific question that you intend for the paper to answer. This will be the basis for your initial "trial" thesis statement (As explained, supra, this is merely the first of several "working" thesis statements and not really a true "thesis statement" at all. As such, it is a starting point from which the final thesis statement eventually will be developed). Remember, at this stage the trial thesis statement is likely to be merely a "rough" prediction of what you (presently) believe that the paper will end up saying.

Step (3). Next, as you progress through the actual process of researching, drafting, and re-drafting the paper, be prepared to modify your "working" thesis as often as necessary to reflect any changes that may occur with respect to your analysis, arguments or conclusions. From this point on, your main focus in modifying your "working" thesis statement should not be on how you want the paper to begin, but upon what you want the reader to know or believe about your topic at the end of the paper. You must be willing to challenge or even omit altogether some of the evidence that you have gathered if you wish to keep your paper focused and on point with your thesis. Conversely, you may have to revise your "working" thesis to make it conform to the evidence and analysis that you do intend to use in the paper. In modifying each "working" thesis statement, you should repeatedly ask the following specific questions:

    • Is your original question one with which someone could reasonably disagree?
    • Have you asserted a definite position in response to this question?
    • Is your assertion at least arguable?
    • Are you presenting an original idea (or at least one that can be developed in an original way)?
    • Is your assertion one for which you will have to provide evidence to convince your reader?
    • Does the material that you use and the order in which you have presented it in the paper support and clarify the argument(s) re: the position that you have asserted?
    • Have you reached a definite and specific conclusion re: your assertion?

Step (4). At some point, after you have worked and re-worked your "working" thesis statement, a true thesis statement will finally begin to emerge. It will contain more and more of those specific elements discussed, supra, and eventually the thesis statement itself will tell you when you have finished writing the paper. Further revisions of the "working" thesis (and thus the paper itself) will simply be unnecessary (and perhaps even unproductive). At this point, you are finished writing! What's more, now your final thesis statement should actually reflect precisely what you have written!

VIII. What are some specific ways that a trial (or "working") thesis statement can be modified into a final thesis statement?
Once a trial thesis statement has been developed, it will usually need to be modified to properly reflect changes in the argument that may arise during the course of actually writing the paper. Since initial trial thesis statements are often far too broad in their scope, they frequently must be to bring them within more manageable limits. There are several common methods that can be used to "limit," modify or otherwise restrict the scope of an overly broad thesis statement.

  • The "reason clause" - a clause that can be used to deepen a thesis statement by making it more specific, or by otherwise limiting its scope. Reason clauses are typically introduced by words such as "because of," "in order to," "by," or "if."
  • The "concession clause" - a clause that can be used to acknowledge an alternate or even inconsistent viewpoint or to otherwise limit the source of the writer's assertion. "Concession clauses" are typically introduced by words such as "although," "regardless of," "while," "even though," or "despite."

IX. Where does the thesis statement actually appear in the final paper?
Unlike the paper's topic that is almost always located somewhere in the first paragraph of every paper, a thesis sentence might not always appear in the first paragraph of the paper. Indeed, it might not appear until the very last paragraph of the paper, or in some cases, it might never even appear in the paper at all. Remember that the whole purpose of having a thesis statement is to provide a sort of "roadmap" for both the writer and the reader that clearly identifies and articulates the main assertion the writer is making in the paper, as well as how that assertion will be made. If the finished paper clearly follows this "roadmap," then the thesis statement has succeeded in accomplishing its purpose, regardless of whether or not the statement itself actually physically appears anywhere in the paper itself.

X. What is an actual example of a "thesis statement" within the context of a typical legal research paper?

Example: "This paper will examine the effectiveness of the "U.S. Endangered Species Act."

This is NOT a thesis statement! It is a "purpose statement," (i.e., a promise or a statement of intention as to the purpose of the paper). While such a purpose statement may be useful as a starting point in writing the paper, something more is necessary to make this a true thesis statement. Still, with a little refinement, a purpose statement can be turned into a thesis statement.
"The U.S. Endangered Species Act is effective in preserving species placed at risk due to the destruction of their habitats because of the increased restrictions that it imposes upon private landowners."
Now, this is a thesis statement. Notice how the original (and very broad) "purpose statement" (the effectiveness of the E.S.A.) has been narrowed to a very specific question (the effectiveness of the E.S.A. in preserving species habitats by increasing restrictions on private landowners). Notice also that this thesis statement takes an actual position with respect to this issue (i.e., that the E.S.A. has been effective). Such a position is controversial, since not every reader is likely to agree, but it is nevertheless arguable. No longer does this thesis merely ask a question or state a topic. It asserts a definite position, and it gives a specific reason for this position (i.e., increased restrictions imposed upon private landowners). This thesis is written in the active voice, making a positive assertion that is clear and unambiguous. This particular thesis statement still does not explain what those "increased restrictions" are, or how they operate to improve species habitat, so there may still be some room for further precision as the thesis is further refined during the actual writing of the paper.

Once you have carefully and thoroughly reviewed the preceeding materials you should be ready to try your hand at developing your own "thesis statement." Select "Thesis Questionnaire" from the dropdown menu below.


 Edward C. Martin 2005