A Self-Guided Learning Strategy for Writing Strong Thesis Statements in Academic Articles

HSE Academic Writing Center
9 min readDec 13, 2022

By Dr. Melvin Hall, Ph.D. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of Wisconsin — Madison. He has taught academic writing, argument, and critical thinking for over fifteen years with an emphasis on the cultural role of rhetoric and comparative rhetoric.

“For the student of composition . . . concentration on what you’re doing in making meaning is the best way of learning to write.”

— Ann Berthoff

Writers learn how to write strong thesis statements by observing and analyzing the structure of thesis statements written in their disciplines’ journal articles. To that end, this blog suggests a dialogic strategy that writers can use when reading journal articles to analyze and document thesis statements’ organizational and linguistic structures.

What’s the dialogic structure of thesis statements?

A strong thesis is situated in and responds to a discipline’s dialogue or argument about a particular problem or question of particular importance or urgency to a group of researchers. Academic thesis statements tend to have a dialogic structure. This structure assumes that writers are “speaking” to one another, describing problems, posing questions, exchanging claims, and asking for evidence and support for claims.

A thesis statement’s dialogic structure has four parts:

1. Situation — a conversation between interlocutors from which emerges a writer’s thesis as a contributing claim to the community’s ongoing argument

2. Claim — a response, answer, or assertion addressed to colleagues about a problem or question being debated or discussed by a research community

3. Support — provides a logical structure linking key support to the claim (a response to a question asking for support (what do you have to go on?)

4. Outline — describes for the reader the article’s outline — how the argument supporting the thesis will unfold.

Why is it important to situate a thesis statement in a dialogue?

Dialogue is the basic social and linguistic structure that constitutes each discipline. In general, every discipline’s dialogue takes the form of a friendly argument, an exchange of claims, questions, observations, and support.

The writer’s thesis statement emerges from the discipline’s ongoing argument about a particular problem, question, or puzzle.

Thesis statement’s situatedness in a dialogue is vital because strong claims and thesis statements are addressed to colleagues, seeking their agreement with the claim. And a writer who can imagine and create the discipline’s dialogue will write strong, relevant, and meaningful thesis statements addressed to colleagues, asking them to see the issue under discussion from a particular perspective.

Why does the writer’s handbook strategy work?

The handbook is a writer’s personal reference of organizational patterns, phrases, linguistic structures, and rhetorical moves used to write thesis statements across the disciplines. Keeping such a handbook allows the writer to collect models that they can imitate to write their own strong thesis statements. The more skilled a writer is at observing the structure of thesis statements in their discipline’s articles, the more skilled the writer will be at writing strong thesis statements.

What does the writer observe and record in the Handbook?

A thesis statement’s dialogic structure orients the writer’s close reading and study of articles in two ways:

1. The writer carefully observes the entire introduction, not just the thesis sentence(s) per se.

2. The writer records the linguistic structures, phrases, patterns, and rhetorical moves used to create a dialogue and situate a claim. The writer can then employ these models to write strong, situated thesis statements.

How can a thesis statement’s dialogic situation be analyzed?

In the Handbook entry below, I will demonstrate an example of analysis. The article (for a better idea how the proposed algorithm works, it’s advisable to skim the articles first. See the references at the end.) is taken from Environmental Science:

Article’s Title: Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services

Introduction: Six paragraphs

Thesis statement: Located in paragraphs #5 and #6

Thesis Statement # of Sentences: Three sentences — located in paragraph #6

Paragraphs #1, 2, 3, & 4 create the context (tell the story of) the dialogue / argument about “ecosystem services.” Paragraph #4 specifically states the problem/question.

Paragraph #5 describes the article’s organization of the analysis and lists the claim’s support.

Paragraph #6 explicitly states the article’s claim/thesis.

The analysis shows that paragraphs #1 to #4 create the discipline’s dialogue/argument between various colleagues from which the article’s thesis statement and claim emerges in paragraphs #5 and #6.

Look at the map of linguistic structures, phrases, and rhetorical moves used to create the dialogue (the framing of the problem). These collected linguistic structures, phrases, and rhetorical moves can then be imitated when the writer practices drafting a thesis statement.

Paragraph #1 introduces key concept — colleagues’ first statement about “ecosystem services” introduced.

· “Ecosystems provide a range of services. . .”

· “Interest in ecosystem services in both the research and policy community has grown rapidly”

· “The value of. . . was estimated to be. . .”

· “This admittedly crude underestimate. . . stimulated a huge surge in interest in this topic.”

Paragraph #2 introduces a unique turn in the community’s discussion of ecosystems.

· “The concept of ecosystem services gained broader attention when. . .”

· “The TEEB report was picked up extensively by the mass media, bringing ecosystem services to a broader audience.”

· “Ecosystem services have now also entered the consciousness of. . .”

· “Hundreds of projects and groups are currently working toward. . .”

Paragraph #3 describes why the concept of ecosystem services is important to the discourse community’s conversation / debate and frames the problem being debated.

· “Probably the most important contribution of the widespread recognition of ecosystem services is that it reframes the relationship between. . .”

· “This reframing the way we look at nature is essential to solving the problem of how. . .”

Paragraph #4 describes the on-going community debate and frames a problem / question.

· “There has been an on-going debate about what some see as commodification of nature.”

· “We think that these critiques are largely misplaced once one understands. . .”

Paragraph #5 describes the article’s contribution (analysis) to the current debate and problem / question.

· “In this paper we. . . update. . . compare. . . estimate. . . review. . .”

Paragraph #6 states the article’s thesis statement (the writer’s contribution to the community’s debate and argument — answers the question or responds to the problem outlined in the introduction).

· “We do not claim that. . . Quite the contrary, we advocate pluralism based on. . .”

· “However, within this range of approaches. . .”

Now let’s examine what’s emerging from the dialogue, where claim, support, and outline in the thesis statement are.

Paragraph #5 provides the outline of the article’s support, and the analysis is explained in the paragraph’s four sentences enumerated below.

· “In this paper we. . .

1. Update

2. Compare

3. Estimate

4. Review. . .”

The writers use a reporting verb in each of the paragraph’s four sentences to introduce the claim’s supporting analysis and outline the article’s argument.

Paragraph #6 asserts the article’s claim in three sentences enumerated below.

1. “We do not claim that. . .

2. Quite the contrary, we advocate pluralism based on. . .

3. However, within this range of approaches. . .”

Here we notice that the thesis statement’s claim is expressed in three sentences. Sentence #2 introduces the writers’ claim proper. Sentences #1 and #3 augment and further situate the writers’ claim.

What’s a prototype of a thesis statement’s dialogic structure?

The example below provides a simple frame of reference (prototype) for the four-component dialogic structure of a thesis statement made present in a vast majority of academic articles: situation, claim, support, and outline. Writers can use this prototype as a heuristic point of comparison for discovering many different forms of a thesis statement’s dialogic structure throughout the disciplines.

The example is taken from a CATO Institute Foreign Affairs / International Relations.

Article’s title: Millennials and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Next Generation’s Attitudes toward Foreign Policy and War (And Why They Matter)

Introduction: Four paragraph

Thesis statement: Paragraphs 3 and 4

Thesis Statement # of Sentences: three sentences claim and support in paragraph 3 and four sentences outline of argument in paragraph 4.

Paragraph #1 introduces the article’s key concept (millennials) and their relation to foreign affairs.

Paragraph #2 states the articles problem and question — gives urgency to the thesis.

Paragraph #3 states the articles thesis (claim + support).

Paragraph #4 outlines the article’s argument.

Dialogue Mapped: Linguistic structures, phrases, and rhetorical moves

Paragraph #1 introduces the article’s key concept (millennials) and their relation to foreign affairs.

· “The Millennial Generation has arrived.”

· “In addition to being more likely to. . . the Millennials also have distinct attitudes toward. . .”

· “If you ask college students to name their first important international affairs-related memory”

· “Most millennials, in fact, have few, if any, adult memories of.”

Paragraph #2 states the article’s problem and question — gives urgency to the thesis.

· “However, unlike Generation X, their most recent predecessors, Millennials are. . .”

· “To understand future currents of U.S. public opinion, not to mention the actions of future foreign policy leaders, we need to understand the emerging and evolving foreign policy attitudes of the Millennial Generation.”

Paragraph #3 states the article’s claim in the paragraph’s first sentence.

“In this report we argue that. . .”

Paragraph #3 states three reasons, gives / lists support why the claim in the paragraph’s second sentence is true.

“Millennials perceive. . . , a. the world to be. . . , b. are more likely to. . . , and c. may have. . .”

Paragraph #3 provides an additional claim or caveat to the article’s claim in the paragraph’s third sentence.

“That said, Millennials also. . .”

Paragraph #4 outlines the article’s argument (presentation of analysis and support) in the paragraph’s four sentences.

1. “The following section reviews. . .” (sentence #1)

2. “We then provide a. . .” (sentence #2)

3. “Along the way we also provide. . .” (sentence #3)

4. “We conclude with. . .” (sentence #4)

Why does the dialogic structure and situating look different?

Dialogic structure and situating are present in nearly every discipline’s articles. However, the disciplines may order or present the introduction’s dialogue (situation) differently. The thesis statement’s three components (claim, support, and outline), too, may be re-ordered. Sometimes the support precedes the claim. In other instances, the claim precedes the support. In other words, writers must be on the lookout for many different species of thesis statement’s dialogic structure — even within their own discipline.

Of course, all disciplines use a combination of linguistic structures to create many different species of the dialogic structure. In the Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Economics, for example, very few quotations are used to create the dialogue. Signal phrases with the author’s name are more sparsely used to introduce colleagues’ claims, concepts, and positions. Instead, the most common type of linguistic structures used to create the dialogue are paraphrases, summaries, and parenthetical citations. We notice this style in the example above taken from the Environmental Sciences. In the Humanities and Social Sciences, signal phrases including the author’s name followed by quotations are more often used to create the dialogue.

What are the self-guided learning strategy’s key takeaways?

Five important assumptions undergird the method of self-learning outlined in this blog:

1. Writers best learn when they teach themselves by carefully observing and imitating the structure of thesis statements made present in their discipline’s articles.

2. Keeping a handbook of linguistic structures, phrases, and rhetorical moves provides a systemic way for writers to collect models they can imitate to write their own strong thesis statements.

3. The prototypical structure of thesis statements across disciplines is dialogic — consisting of four components: situation, claim, support, and outline.

4. The thesis statement per se is quite often, if not always, more than one sentence — an entire paragraph or two.

5. Strong thesis statements emerge from (are situated in) in a discipline’s ongoing dialogue.

References

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Pleg, S., Anderson, S.J., Kubiszewki, I. Farber, S., Turner, K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change, 26, 152–158.

Thrall, A. T., & Geopner, E. (2015). Millennials and U.S. Foreign Policy: The next generation’s attitudes toward foreign policy and war (and why they matter). CATO Institute. https://www.cato.org/white-paper/millennials-us-foreign-policy-next-generations-attitudes-toward-foreign-policy-war-why

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