Online Guide to Writing and Research

Chapter 2: The Writing Process


Thesis Statement and Controlling Idea

After you have begun the research and decided on your subject, the next step in the planning process is to determine your working thesis. A thesis statement states the purpose and topic of your writing, and the controlling idea indicates the direction and, often, the writing strategy you will adopt. Your thesis statement will often be based on your synthesis of the information you have gathered from class, from your experience, and from research. This early in your writing, your thesis statement is really a working thesis that you use to begin thinking about your topic. You may revise this thesis many times before you are finished thinking and ready to write your final draft.

Some students struggle with how to write a thesis statement and how to use it in their writing. Your thesis statement may take its shape from different ways of weaving your material and thoughts together. Although you may devise a unique way that works well for you, there are three methods that seem to work for many students.

The first method is simply to restate the assignment in your own words. Restating the assignment often helps you understand it better and gives you a point at which to begin writing. Table 2.1 can help you with this method and others. Restating enables you to articulate your point of view and write what you know and how you think about your assignment topic.

The next method works when you have researched your topic first. Simply sum up what your research has led you to believe or what you think it means. This method helps you start organizing your thoughts as you look to your research to support your thesis.

The third method works for students who like to jump into the writing with only minimal preliminary organizing and planning. Think of your topic as a question, and write your assignment as though you are answering it. As you line up your supporting statements, you will discover what you want to write. Your thesis should suggest to you an organization for your ideas and often will show you areas where you need to study or read more.

If you are a first-year student for whom college writing is a new experience, your thesis statement may be simple. Your teacher may ask you to write a few paragraphs on a simple topic to demonstrate learning in your course work. For example, after reading about illuminated manuscripts in an art history class, you might be asked to discuss any modern application of illumination. Your thesis statement might look like the one here.

We can see the techniques of illuminated manuscripts on the World Wide Web pages of the Internet today.

In another example from a humanities class, your American history teacher might ask you to reflect on the clash of cultures in precolonial America. Your thesis might look like this one.

When Columbus came to the New World, he brought disease, guns, and a new religion to the native peoples he found there.

Clearly, to meet the expectations of these shorter writing assignments, your working thesis statement must synthesize information you are learning.

The thesis statement for a more formal research writing assignment might resemble the following, written for a research paper for a capstone course in business management. This thesis statement suggests that the writing will be more analytical and that the author will synthesize the results of the analysis.

The "data model" is a powerful tool for management feedback and strategic planning.

This more complex thesis statement will likely undergo many iterations as the student synthesizes the concepts learned and looks for applications. He or she will also narrow the topic to a manageable size to meet the expectations stated in the assignment and reflect the desired level of learning.

Some examples of other kinds of thesis statements are listed here, along with some possible writing strategies they suggest. Keep in mind that you may develop strategies other than those suggested here.

Table 2.2
Relating the Thesis Statement to a Writing Strategy

Thesis Statement Possible Writing Strategy
  • Reader-centered writing techniques will make your writing clear, concise, and effective.
Analysis with definition, application, and examples
  • Breakthrough research is revolutionizing the treatment for diabetes, a condition that causes nerve damage manifested by blindness, deafness, loss of feeling, and intense pain.
Synthesis with some division/classification and causal analysis
  • The design of most information systems will require the systems analyst to use the procedural model, the logical model, and the business-oriented mathematical model.
Synthesis with definition and application
  • To make a decision about whether to expand business in Japan or in Canada, a company needs to know the economics and business practices of each culture.
Analysis with comparison and contrast; evaluation
  • Disney’s failure in France can be attributed to the company’s lack of understanding of the French culture, business practices, and politics.
Cause and effect, comparison, synthesis

Many writers use a checklist to evaluate the appropriateness of their chosen thesis statement. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have someone else read your thesis statement and give you feedback. Your thesis statement is effective if you can answer yes to these questions.

  • Did I state the thesis specifically and include only one main idea to discuss?
  • Does my thesis statement tell the reader what my writing strategy is and how I will develop my ideas?
  • Can I support my thesis with evidence from class readings, research, and experience?

Once you have a working thesis statement, what do you do with it? Your clearly stated thesis should suggest to you some ideas for organizing your information, so now may be a good time to discuss outlining. If you can’t think of how to organize your essay at this point, you can always use one of the techniques mentioned for getting started, such as the journalist’s questions, brainstorming, or freewriting.