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Handbook for Historians

Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College

What is a Thesis Statement?

The thesis statement summarizes the central argument of your paper. It is placed at the top of the outline page, and appears again in the opening paragraph. A clearly stated thesis performs three functions:

  • it provides a focus for your research, helping to prevent time wasting digressions
  • it furnishes an organizational theme for the paper, which then becomes easier to write
  • it gives the reader precise knowledge of what the paper will argue, thereby making it easier to read

You cannot formulate a thesis statement until you know a great deal about your subject.  It is often wise to begin your research in pursuit of the answer to a question about your topic  - but this question is not a thesis statement.

A helpful web site that can advise you on how to formulate a thesis is:  http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/thesis-statements/

How to Develop a Thesis Statement

Guidelines for formulating the thesis statement are as follows:

  1. The thesis must focus on a single contention. You cannot list multiple reasons for the “truth” of your contention because the paper must follow a unified line of reasoning; a multifaceted thesis statement prevents this.
  2. The thesis must be precisely phrased and coherent. Generalizations and a failure to define terms results in vagueness and lack of direction in argumentation.
  3. The thesis must be a declarative statement. The object of your research was to answer a question; when you found the answer, you embodied it in your thesis statement. Hence a thesis can never be a question.


Here are some examples of thesis statements that strive to incorporate these recommendations...


POOR: Miguel Hidalgo’s uprising in 1810 led to a long war for independence in Mexico.   
WHY: The above-stated thesis is a statement of fact that provides no clue about what you plan to do with that fact in your paper. Since there is no argument here, this is not a thesis.

Improved: Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 uprising mobilized poor and native Mexicans whose violence frightened elites and prolonged the war for independence.
WHY: The above-stated thesis very specifically explains why the uprising resulted in a long war for independence. What’s more, it is debatable, since there may be other explanations for the war’s length. 


POOR: The creation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza created great tension between the Israelis and  Palestinians for numerous reasons.
WHY: The above-stated thesis is poor because it is too general and it deals with the obvious – that there is tension between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. It needs to explain what the “numerous reasons” are; focus on one of them; and drop the reference to the obvious. Remember: a thesis statement makes a specific argument and here only a vague reference to multiple reasons for tension is provided.

Improved: The creation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was both an expression of Zionist expansionism and a means to isolate Palestinian population centers.
WHY: The above-stated thesis is much better because it explains what the “numerous reasons” are and focuses on one of them. Now an argument has been created because a concrete explanation has been stated. Also,  this statement removes the obvious fact that tension exists between the two ethnic groups.


POOR: Louis XIV was a strong king who broke the power of the French nobility.
WHY: The above-stated thesis contains a vague judgment about Louis XIV; that he was “strong.” In addition, it fails to specify exactly how he broke the nobles’ power.

Improved: The Intendant System was the most effective method used by Louis XIV to break the power of the French nobility.
WHY: The above-stated thesis eliminates the vague word “strong” and specifies the mechanism Louis XIV used to break the nobles’ power. Moreover, since this  was not the only policy Louis XIV used in his efforts to control the nobles, you have shown that your paper will defend a debatable position.


POOR: Gandhi was a man of peace who led the Indian resistance movement to British rule.
WHY: The above-stated thesis does not clarify what about Gandhi made him a man of peace, nor does it specify anything he did to undermine British rule.

Improved: Gandhi employed passive non-resistance during his Great Salt March and that enabled him to organize the Indian masses to resist British rule.
WHY: The above-stated thesis specifies what has caused Gandhi to be remembered as a man of peace (his promotion of passive non-resistance to oppression) and it names one of the protests he organized against British rule. In addition, since it suggests that the technique of passive non-resistance is what made the Indian  populace rally behind him, it is debatable; there were other reasons why the poor in particular were ready to protest the British monopoly on salt.