Your thesis statement is a road map for your paper, and states quite clearly what you will argue. This belongs very close to the beginning of your paper, as in this discipline, we don't have time for "fluff." Historians tend to value clear, concise statements of argument followed by well-developed defense over flowery wording or excessive description.
Please note: You are not learning a better or worse method of writing a thesis statement than you learned in English class. You're learning a different type of thesis statement. "What does what" style thesis statements are fairly close to what we need in social studies, but they serve a different purpose.
A thesis is not an introduction. It is often part of the introduction, but that serves to wrap the thesis in supporting information and structure so that the thesis can clearly state the intent of the paper.
Your goal when writing a thesis: Tell your reader your argument, and how you're going to prove it.
This sounds like a much larger task than it really is. The word "thesis" scares more students than it should. Ultimately, you're going to prove something that you believe to be true about history based on evidence. For example:
Rome fell during the fifth century because of a lack of internal cohesion and political corruption, not simply because their military was overwhelmed by too many barbarian invaders.
Whether or not you actually agree with the statement above is unimportant.1 Ultimately, an instructor knows what the author of this paper is going to attempt to prove, and knows what categories of evidence that author is going to use. That's the goal.
An instructor is best able to grade your paper if they know what you're trying to prove at the outset. Your instructor can't grade the effectiveness of your argument (which is almost always the point of a history paper) if they don't know what it is. You're not writing an episode of CSI, where you'd try to avoid spoilers. As a matter of fact writing a CSI episode isn't a bad way to think about it. A history paper without a thesis statement is like a CSI episode without a murder. Lots of stuff happens, but what are they trying to solve? Hint: the viewer needs to know that the murder happened right at the beginning, just like your reader needs to know your argument right away.
Thesis vs. Introduction
A thesis statement belongs in the introduction region of your paper, but it is not your introduction itself. Your thesis is your argument, and your introduction is what wraps your thesis in context. Context is the historical situation. You may argue that historical actor or nation x did y in your thesis, but that makes little sense without some explanation of what x really is and why y is important to history. Your introduction is the couch that your thesis statement sits on to make its point.
Write a good introduction, but make your thesis statement a clear sentence or two that outlines your argument.
Do's and Don'ts
- Make your argument clear at the outset.
- Form your thesis AFTER you do your research, and BEFORE you actually write your paper.
- Choose a side. A strong thesis chooses a point and argues it. A weak thesis tries to argue everything to avoid being wrong.
- Write the thesis statement before you write your paper, but if you're struggling with the intro, come back to the introduction components. See above.
- Try to write a paper without a thesis statement. It will be weaker. There's a reason your instructors focus on thesis statements so much.
- Include phrases such as "in this paper."
- Waste your reader's time keeping the thesis a surprise to be discovered at the end of the paper.
- Form your thesis before you have done your research. This leads to cherry picking (i.e., using evidence that proves your point, and ignoring evidence that disproves or challenges your point). Another way to phrase this: don't write your thesis before you know anything.
- Make a value judgment in your thesis. For example, Dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was bad constitutes a biased thesis. Instead, base your point on evidence: Dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused levels of destruction that could have been avoided.2
The Broad Thesis Myth
Because many students are more worried that they won't be able to meet the minimum word count than they are worried that they won't make a good argument, they try to make the thesis statement very broad. This results in a thesis statement that sounds like this:
There are many similarities and differences between the empires of Alexander the Great and ancient Rome.
Your instructor's first reaction to this will be, "Obviously." Additionally, you have given yourself no guidance. Students with vague thesis statements tend to discuss surface level similarities and differences. For example, the Roman Empire surrounded the Mediterranean and Alexander's empire stretched eastward. Rome lasted longer, and Alexander's empire fell apart relatively quickly. These statements are not interesting. Instead, consider a thesis like this:
The Roman Empire outlasted the empire of Alexander the Great because the Romans established effective administration to rule, tax, and protect the provinces, where Alexander failed to provide lasting and durable bureaucracies to administer his empire.
This thesis statement gives you direction, gives your reader expectations, and ensures that you will be proving a point, not just stating the obvious. Not only do you have all of these benefits, but you can write far more words and pages about a specific topic than you can about something so broad that you have no guidelines. A broad topic may allow for a wide range of topics to be included, but without guidance, none of them will have much impact. A specific thesis will give the author and the reader expectations that they can work within.The above example focuses on administration, taxation, and longevity, which means that certain sources, types of evidence, and arguments are going to make a lot of sense.
How to Write Your Thesis Statement
Deciding what your argument will be is the only part that hasn't been addressed yet, and it's the hardest part. These are the steps:
- Review the prompt. What is the historical question that you're tasked with answering? Know this before you start reading resources and learning, or you will have no idea what to focus on.
- Conduct research. Read provided materials, find more resources, and keep track of what you find and what you learn as you do so. Focus on information that relates to the prompt. Don't skip this step!
- Ask yourself the prompt's question, then answer it. Once you have read enough about the subject of the prompt, you should be able to form an answer to it. Write down your answer to the prompt.
- Make a list of sources that prove your point. If you don't have enough after your research, this is the time to find more. If you really can't find enough sources, or they don't really support your point enough, perhaps you should come up with a better answer to the prompt.
- Structure your argument based on your evidence. Organize your sources into categories; in support of or in opposition to your argument (a good paper considers alternative or disagreeing arguments too), background information or pointed evidence, etc.
- Revisit your answer to the question based on #3. Rephrase it to include the specifics that you will be arguing. A vague thesis is a useless thesis. You'll have plenty to write about in your body paragraphs, so don't worry about specifying your argument's steps clearly in your thesis statement.
Once you have written a clear, directional thesis statement, you can start organizing your paper and writing your body paragraphs.
- 1. There is a massive amount of historical debate over the "fall" of Rome and whether or not it even "fell." The debate more or less begins with Edward Gibbon's thesis, which argued that Rome fell due to a decline in civic virtue, which is partly caused (in his estimation) by the rise of Christianity. Significant amounts of scholarship have argued that neither of these things were actually the cause, and/or that defining the "fall" of Rome as 476 CE is somewhat arbitrary.
- 2. For this thesis statement, you would need to prove that there were alternative diplomatic or military solutions that were either brushed aside or ignored.