The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison
The Writer's Handbook
Developing a Thesis Statement

Identify a topic

Your topic is the subject about which you will write. Your assignment may suggest several ways of looking at a topic; or it may name a fairly general concept that you will explore or analyze in your paper.

  • Consider what your assignment asks you to do
  • Inform yourself about your topic
  • Focus on one aspect of your topic
  • Ask yourself whether your topic is worthy of your efforts

Generate a topic from an assignment

Below are some possible topics based on sample assignments.

Sample assignment 1

Analyze Spain's neutrality in World War II.

Identified topic

Franco's role in the diplomatic relationships between the Allies and the Axis

Reason

This topic avoids generalities such as "Spain" and "World War II," addressing instead on Franco's role (a specific aspect of "Spain") and the diplomatic relations between the Allies and Axis (a specific aspect of World War II).

Sample assignment 2

Analyze one of Homer's epic similes in the Iliad.

Identified topic

The relationship between the portrayal of warfare and the epic simile about Simoisius at 4.547-64.

Reason

This topic focuses on a single simile and relates it to a single aspect of the Iliad (warfare being a major theme in that work).

Developing a Thesis Statement--Additional information

Consider what your assignment asks you to do

Your assignment may suggest several ways of looking at a topic, or it may name a fairly general concept that you will explore or analyze in your paper. You'll want to read your assignment carefully, looking for key terms that you can use to focus your topic.

  • Sample assignment: Analyze Spain's neutrality in World War II
  • Key terms: analyze, Spain's neutrality, World War II

Inform yourself about your topic

After you've identified the key words in your topic, the next step is to read about them in several sources, or generate as much information as possible through an analysis of your topic. Obviously, the more material or knowledge you have, the more possibilities will be available for a strong argument. For the sample assignment above, you'll want to look at books and articles on World War II in general, and Spain's neutrality in particular.

Focus on one aspect of your topic

As you consider your options, you must decide to focus on one aspect of your topic. This means that you cannot include everything you've learned about your topic, nor should you go off in several directions. If you end up covering too many different aspects of a topic, your paper will sprawl and be unconvincing in its argument, and it most likely will not fulfull the assignment requirements.

For the sample assignment above, both Spain's neutrality and World War II are topics far too broad to explore in a paper. You may instead decide to focus on Franco's role in the diplomatic relationships between the Allies and the Axis, which narrows down what aspects of Spain's neutrality and World War II you want to discuss, as well as establishes a specific link between those two aspects.

Ask yourself whether your topic is worthy of your efforts

Before you go too far, however, ask yourself whether your topic is worthy of your efforts. Try to avoid topics that already have too much written about them (i.e., "eating disorders and body image among adolescent women") or that simply are not important (i.e. "why I like ice cream"). These topics may lead to a thesis that is either dry fact or a weird claim that cannot be supported. A good thesis falls somewhere between the two extremes. To arrive at this point, ask yourself what is new, interesting, contestable, or controversial about your topic.

As you work on your thesis, remember to keep the rest of your paper in mind at all times. Sometimes your thesis needs to evolve as you develop new insights, find new evidence, or take a different approach to your topic.