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
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
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
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.
Relating the Thesis Statement to a Writing Strategy
Thesis Statement Possible Writing Strategy
• Reader-centered writing techniques will
make your writing clear, concise, and
Analysis with definition,
• Breakthrough research is revolutionizing
the treatment for diabetes, a condition
that causes nerve damage manifested by
blindness, deafness, loss of feeling, and
Synthesis with some
and causal analysis
• The design of most information systems
will require the systems analyst to use the
Synthesis with definition
procedural model, the logical model, and
the business-oriented mathematical
• 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.
comparison and contrast;
• 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,
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
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.
A Simple Approach to Thesis Writing
(Adapted from "The Guaranteed Mackworth Thesis Formula", by Alan
Mackworth, revised by Tim Brecht, thanks to Ondrej Lhotak for an addition to the
Background and Related Work section)
Abstract (<= 1 page)
• one page stating what the thesis is about
• highlight the contributions of the thesis
Chapter 1: Introduction (~5-10 pages)
• Thesis Statement (one or two sentences)
o What is your thesis about and what have you done?
o If you have a hypothesis what is it?
o How will you test (prove/disprove) your hypothesis?
o Why is this problem you've worked on important
• Goals / Objectives
o What are you trying to do and why?
o How will you or the reader know if or when you've met your
• **** Contributions *****
o What is new, different, better, significant?
o Why is the world a better place because of what you've done?
o What have you contributed to the field of research?
o What is now known/possible/better because of your thesis?
• Outline of the thesis (optional)
Chapter 2: Background / Related Work (~8-20 pages)
• More than a literature review
• Organize related work - impose structure
• Be clear as to how previous work being described relates to your own.
• The reader should not be left wondering why you've described something!!
• Critique the existing work - Where is it strong where is it weak? What are
the unreasonable/undesirable assumptions?
• Identify opportunities for more research (i.e., your thesis) Are there
unaddressed, or more important related topics?
• After reading this chapter, one should understand the motivation for and
importance of your thesis
• You should clearly and precisely define all of the key concepts dealt with in
the rest of the thesis, and teach the reader what s/he needs to know to
understand the rest of the thesis.
Chapter 3: Theory / Solution / Program / Problem (~15-30 pages)
• continuing from Chapter 2 explain the issues
• outline your solution / extension / refutation
Chapter 4: Implementation / Formalism (~15-30 pages)
• not every thesis has or needs an implementation
Chapter 5: Results and Evaluation (~15-30 pages)
• adequacy, efficiency, productiveness, effectiveness (choose your criteria,
state them clearly and justify them)
• be careful that you are using a fair measure, and that you are actually
measuring what you claim to be measuring
• if comparing with previous techniques those techniques must be described
in Chapter 2
• be honest in evaluation
• admit weaknesses
Chapter 6: Conclusions and Future Work (~5-10 pages)
• State what you've done and what you've found
• Summarize contributions (achievements and impact)
• Outline open issues/directions for future work
Bibliography / References
• Include references to:
o credit others for their work
o help to distinguish your work from others
o provide pointers to further detailed readings
o support your claims (if evidence can be found in others work)
• Ensure that ALL bibliographic entries are complete including: authors, title,
journal or conference, volume and number of journals, date of publication
and page numbers. Be careful to at least be consistent in punctuation.
• Learn how to use a good typesetting program that can track and format
bibliographic references (e.g., groff, latex, frame).
• Within the text of the thesis, a reference with a number of people can be
referred to as Lastname et al. (where et al appears in italics and the al is
followed by a period).
• My personal view is that URL's are not valid bibliographic references. They
and their contents change and they often contain material that has not
• Include technical material that would disrupt the flow of the thesis.
• Included for curious or disbelieving readers
• Before handing in a copy of what you've written you should proof
read it and make corrections yourself. Be critical of your own work
when you do this. You should think not only about syntax and
grammar but about the structure of the document and whether or
not your are making good arguments and whether or not someone
else will be able to follow and believe what you are saying. You
should repeat this process a large number of times before you
hand in a copy. Far too many people type something in, print it out
and hand it in. If this is the case you as a student are not doing your
job. It is not your supervisor's job to write your thesis.
• Try to aim for around 100 pages or less.
• Including a glossary or list of acronyms may be helpful.
• Start thinking about what your contributions are early on.
o How is what you are doing interesting and important?
o How will it make the world a better place?
o What are you doing or discovering that hasn't already been done or
isn't already known?
• For many people it is best to start by writing the "guts" of the thesis,
Chapters 3, 4 and 5. In some cases the results and conclusions may not be
known (or may change) while doing these chapters.
• Chapters 3,4 and 5 can take on different forms depending on the thesis and
approaches being used.
• Sometimes design, implementation and performance are subsections
within chapters and the chapters are broken down by other criteria.
• Remember (especially those doing experiments) that you must include
enough detail in your thesis so that someone else could read your thesis
and reproduce your results - without ever talking to you.
• The word performance is by itself quite meaningless. Stating that you've
improved performance significantly does not tell the reader anything.
There are problems with the word performance and the word improved.
Remember that there are often a number of different performance metrics
that can be applied to a system. Instead of using the word performance
state precisely what performance metric is improved. Also improved may
also be potentially ambiguous. State precisely what you mean. For
example: The mean response time has been decreased by 20%. Peak
bandwidth has been increased by 40%.
• Try to get an outline and style guidelines from someone else for the system
you use for formatting your thesis.
• All figures included should add to the work. As such, there should be text
included that refers to the figures (preferably before the figure is
encountered). The text should explain what the reader should get from the
figure - what are they supposed to notice and what is the figure explaining.
Often people just include a figure with no reference to the figure and no
explanation of what the figure is for - if the figure was not included no one
would notice (this is not a good approach). Note that when referring to a
figure or a section by name they should be capitalized as in -- Figure 3
shows the architecture of our system or in Section 4 we describe the
• Newest pet peeve. You do not write 3.3GHz or 16GB you write 3.3 GHz or
16 GB. This is equivalent to saying you are 6feet tall (instead of 6 feet tall).
• Using and misusing abbreviations.
o The word "it's" is an abbreviation of "it is" it is NOT a possessive
form of "it".
o The abbreviation of the phrase "for example" is written "e.g.". It
contains a period after the "e" and one after the "g". A comma is
also usually required with its use. This is an sentence that uses "for
example" (e.g., this is how to use for example). Quite often it is
enclosed in parentheses and you should avoid using it too often.
o The abbreviation of the phrase "that is" is written "i.e.". It contains a
period after the "i" and one after the "e". A comma is also usually
required with is use. This is a sentence containing an example of how
to use "that is" (i.e., this sentence is the example). Quite often it is
enclosed in parentheses and you should avoid using it too often.
o Don't use the abbreviation "etc.". The use of etc. is usually an
admission of ignorance. It is like admitting that the list you've given
is not complete but you don't know what is missing. If you did know
what was missing the list would be complete".
• You should purchase and use a book like "The Elements of Style" by Stunk
• You must not make minor modifications to someone else's work and
include it in your own work.
• If you want to explain someone else's work the best approach is to read it
over, put it aside, and then write in your own words what that work is
about (do this without referring to the original source).
• Latex thesis templates for UW
See the Section "UW E-Thesis Template".
• The Elements of Style
• Writing for Computer Science: The Art of Effective Communication, Justin
Zobel, Springer, 1998