Thesis Statements: Working Backwards

This method works for students who think through writing and find their argument by first diving in and writing their essay. Most students who use this method finally articulate their thesis at the end their essay, having reached what feels like a conclusion. Don’t make this rookie mistake! When you have found your argument, which usually comes together in your last paragraph, often in the last sentence or two, you can now a) congratulate yourself for making it through the hardest part, figuring out your idea, and b) go back and make the entire essay work with your newly articulated gem of a thesis.


To do this:

  • First, write the essay.
  • Reread your essay and underline what you think is your thesis statement. For students who dive in and think through writing, it usually appears at or near the very end of the essay. You will know it because it feels like an ah-ha moment and makes coherent sense out of all of the material you have presented.
  • Take this thesis and go back to your introduction. Place the thesis statement at the end of the introduction (usually the bottom of the first paragraph) and then reread your entire paragraph. Does it make sense with this new thesis? It might, but usually you will have to re-write some or most of your introduction in order to lead up to your great idea. Often, students begin their introductions with generalizations in order to gently lead the reader into their essay. Do you do this? If so, try again, only, this time be bold and specific in an attempt to snag your reader’s attention. You might try cutting and pasting the entire last paragraph of your essay to the beginning—perhaps you will get lucky and it will work as an introduction.
  • The next step is called a reverse outline. Do not skip this step—it is quick and will make sure your essay is organized to present your argument in a logical fashion. To make a reverse outline:
    • Read over your essay and write down a phrase that captures what each separate paragraph discusses, one line per paragraph. It should look like a list.
    • Then consider how your newly articulated thesis relates to each and every paragraph. Often this is really the place you need to spend time editing, for you may have to rewrite the material in each paragraph somewhat. For example, you may need to discuss the quotations you use a bit differently, so that they more clearly support your idea. Or you may need to find new quotations that do a better job of buttressing your argument. You may also need to move the paragraphs around, to reorganize them so that they create a clearer narrative logic. Your reverse outline should help you better see the order you present your material.
    • Wait, you are almost done! Now just check that all of your topic sentences, or the sentences that begin every paragraph, also take into account your new thesis. They should act like signposts for your reader, pointing in a direction, and should suggest or relate to the way you are spinning your thesis.
    • Chances are, you need a new conclusion so it doesn’t feel like you lead the reader off a cliff. Good conclusions reiterate without repeating, while simultaneously pointing to a new direction or larger meaning. Once you have done this, make sure to spell-check and read what you have written slowly and out loud to yourself to hear any mistakes.


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