Thesis and Purpose Statements
Use the guidelines below to learn the differences between thesis and purpose statements
In the first stages of writing, thesis or purpose statements are usually rough or ill-formed and are useful primarily as planning tools.
A thesis statement or purpose statement will emerge as you think and write about a topic. The statement can be restricted or clarified and eventually worked into an introduction.
As you revise your paper, try to phrase your thesis or purpose statement in a precise way so that it matches the content and organization of your paper.
A thesis statement is a sentence that makes an assertion about a topic and predicts how the topic will be developed. It does not simply announce a topic: it says something about the topic.
Good: X has made a significant impact on the teenage population due to its . . .
Bad: In this paper, I will discuss X.
A thesis statement makes a promise to the reader about the scope, purpose, and direction of the paper. It summarizes the conclusions that the writer has reached about the topic.
A thesis statement is generally located near the end of the introduction. Sometimes in a long paper, the thesis will be expressed in several sentences or an entire paragraph.
A thesis statement is focused and specific enough to be proven within the boundaries of the paper. Key words (nouns and verbs) should be specific, accurate, and indicative of the range of research, thrust of the argument or analysis, and the organization of supporting information.
A purpose statement announces the purpose, scope, and direction of the paper. It tells the reader what to expect in a paper and what the specific focus will be.
Common beginnings include:
"This paper examines . . .," "The aim of this paper is to . . .," and "The purpose of this essay is to . . ."
A purpose statement makes a promise to the reader about the development of the argument but does not preview the particular conclusions that the writer has drawn.
A purpose statement usually appears toward the end of the introduction. The purpose statement may be expressed in several sentences or even an entire paragraph.
A purpose statement is specific enough to satisfy the requirements of the assignment. Purpose statements are common in research papers in some academic disciplines, while in other disciplines they are considered too blunt or direct. If you are unsure about using a purpose statement, ask your instructor.
This paper will examine the ecological destruction of the Sahel preceding the drought and the causes of this disintegration of the land. The focus will be on the economic, political, and social relationships which brought about the environmental problems in the Sahel.
Sample purpose and thesis statements
The following example combines a purpose statement and a thesis statement (bold).
The goal of this paper is to examine the effects of Chile's agrarian reform on the lives of rural peasants. The nature of the topic dictates the use of both a chronological and a comparative analysis of peasant lives at various points during the reform period. . . The Chilean reform example provides evidence that land distribution is an essential component of both the improvement of peasant conditions and the development of a democratic society. More extensive and enduring reforms would likely have allowed Chile the opportunity to further expand these horizons.
For more tips about writing thesis statements, take a look at our new handout on Developing a Thesis Statement.
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Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences
A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:
1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]
2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.
3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]
Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]
4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.
Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:
1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.
3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.
4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.
5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."
Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.
1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.
2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.
Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]
3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis.
Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.