Writing with Style Writing and Style Manual 
Poway Unified School District

The Basic Structure of an Academic Essay

Thesis statements | Main ideas and support theses | Evidence and concrete detail | Commentary | Transitions | Introductions | Conclusions  

Thesis Statement

Your main “claim” for your paper - This is what you are trying to to prove. Your thesis must take a position that genuinely can be argued from more than one side. It should be factual. It should not be so broad that it cannot be adequately supported in the scope of your paper not so narrow that it cannot support a full analysis. 




Your explanation of HOW the evidence proves your main idea, and in turn, your thesis.  You must have commentary for each piece of evidence.  Commentary is the hear of your paper.  




Support reasons WHY your thesis is true.  Each reason must be supportable by facts.  


Proof that supports your main idea must be supported by convincing evidence.  Acceptable evidence includes quotations, examples, statistics, or other factual information.

Thesis statements:

The thesis statement is the most important part of your paper.  It states your purpose to your audience. In your thesis statement, you explain what your paper will prove. The form of your thesis statement will vary depending on the form of your writing. However, for most academic writing, your thesis should identify your subject and take a position on that subject. A strong thesis statement will direct the structure of the essay. The thesis should be explicitly stated somewhere in the opening paragraphs of your paper, most often as the last sentence of the introduction.  Often a thesis will be one sentence, but for complex subjects, you may find it less awkward to break the thesis into two sentences.

Check your thesis statement:

  • Have I identified my subject?
  • Is my subject narrow or broad enough for the scope of my paper?
  • Have I made a truly debatable claim regarding that subject?
  • Does the structure of my thesis statement give the reader an idea of the structure of my paper?

Keep Revising Your Thesis

Many students feel they need a "perfect" thesis before they an start writing their paper. However, you probably won't even fully understand your topic until after you've written at least one draft.  Keep testing and revising your thesis as you write.

Sample thesis statements:  

The United States government should not fund stem-cell research because such research is not ethical, cost-effective, or medically necessary.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens shows the process by which a wasted life can be redeemed.  Sidney Carton, through his love for Lucie Manette, is transformed from a hopeless, bitter man into a hero whose life and death have meaning.

America's use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II was an unnecessary action that caused unprecedented civilian casualties for purely political ends.

Thesis Statement Help

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Main ideas and support theses

As you develop your thesis statement, you also identify a number of main ideas or reasons why your thesis is true. Each of these reasons is called a main idea or support thesis.  Your major thesis states what you will prove in your whole paper, while your support thesis states what you will prove in each paragraph or section.  Each paragraph (or set of paragraphs for longer papers) is organized around one of your main ideas:

Sometimes your main ideas will be stated in the major thesis. The reader will expect to see these main ideas treated in this order in the writer’s paper.

The United States government should not fund stem-cell research because such research is not ethical, cost effective, or medically necessary.

Issues of right or wrong should come first when considering funds for stem cell research.

Stem cell research is too expensive.

Other methods can be used to conduct medical research

Sometimes the main ideas are implied by the major thesis.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens shows the process by which a wasted life can be redeemed.  Sidney Carton, through his love for Lucie Manette, is transformed from a hopeless, bitter man into a hero whose life and death have meaning.

Sydney Carton is a hopeless, bitter man.

Sydney Carton is transformed by his love for Lucie Manette. 

Sydney Carton’s death redeems his wasted life.

Sometimes the main ideas are not directly stated in the major thesis and must be provided for the reader as the essay progresses.

America’s use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II was an unnecessary action that caused unprecedented civilian casualties for purely political ends.

A conventional invasion would have cost lives, but the casualties would have been limited to combatants.

A firebombing attack would have been effective, even if it cost some civilian lives.

Civilian causalities from the nuclear bombing and resulting fallout were far greater than they would have been from a conventional invasion and firebombing attack combined.

The United States lost the moral high ground by using nuclear weapons first.

The United States used the atomic bomb not to save lives but for political and strategic reasons.


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Evidence and concrete detail

Each of your main ideas must be supported by specific evidence, also called concrete detail. This evidence must be both factual and convincing to the reader. It should clearly connect your main idea to your thesis by proving your point. Acceptable evidence includes

  • material directly quoted from literature or research
  • expert opinion
  • historical facts
  • statistics
  • specific examples
  • other factual data

Start collecting evidence as soon as you know what topic you are going to write about, even if you don’t have a thesis statement or specific idea for your paper yet. Ways to collect evidence include 

  • note cards
  • sticky notes
  • notes from class discussion
  • notes from lab experiments
  • charts or graphic organizers
  • dialectical journals
  • learning logs
  • highlighting reading material
Collecting Evidence:

Using colored sticky notes, note cards, or highlighters can help keep you organized!

Use a different color for each topic, and note important information as you read.


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Adding Evidence to Your Writing

When you integrate your evidence into your paper, often you will use direct quotations, especially when writing about literature. 

See the sections on Parenthetical Documentation and Incorporating Quotations into your Writing  for more on how to do this.

Direct quotation:
When Carton and Darnay first meet at the tavern, Carton tells him, “I care for no man on this earth, and no man cares for me” (Dickens 105).

Whenever you include a quotation from another source in your own writing, you must make sure that it fits grammatically into your text. The quoted material should form a com                                                                                                                                                               plete thought when added to your sentence. It should be so smoothly integrated that it is impossible to tell where your voice leaves off and the quotation begins, were it not for the quotation marks! Check your writing by reading it aloud. 

Before his death, Sidney Carton envisions Lucie and Darnay telling their son his “story, with a fair and faltering voice.” He achieves redemption when he goes to meet death, saying, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” (Dickens 387). 

Poorly integrated evidence makes your writing choppy and your point unclear to the reader. 

Sidney Carton achieves redemption at the end of the book. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” (Dickens 387).

You may also paraphrase or put the information into your own words. Remember always to cite the original source of the information, even if you do not use a direct quotation.

According to Barton Bernstein, President Truman and his administration did not even pursue alternatives to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (288).

Whether you use direct quotations or paraphrase to incorporate your evidence, you MUST avoid plagiarizing your original sources. It is considered plagiarism to

  • use another writer’s exact words w/o quotation marks and a citation
  • use another writer’s ideas or line of thinking w/o a citation
  • use another writer’s key terminology or even sentence structure in your paraphrase, even WITH a citation

See the section on Plagiarism for more information on how to properly use outside sources in your writing.

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Commentary refers to your explanation and interpretation of the evidence you present in your paper.  Commentary tells the reader how the concrete detail connects to your main idea and proves your point.  It does NOT summarize or restate the same information contained in the concrete detail. Commentary may include interpretation, analysis, argument, insight, and/or reflection.  The ratio of commentary to concrete detail will vary depending on the form and purpose of your essay.

Examples of Commentary on Concrete Details

Concrete Detail | Commentary

When Caron and Darnay first meet at the tavern, Carton tells him, “I care for no man on this earth, and no man cares for me” (Dickens 105). Carton makes this statement as if he were excusing his rude behavior to Darnay.  Carton, however, is only pretending to be polite, perhaps to amuse himself.  With this seemingly off-the-cuff remark, Carton reveals a deeper cynicism and his emotional isolation.

Acccording to Baron Bernstein, President Truman and his administration did not even pursue alternatives to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (288).Rather than attempt other, more conventional, methods such as non-nuclear bombing raids and ground force invasion, the United States pushed forward a devastating attack on essentially civilian targets. The Truman administration simply wanted to prove the power of the Allied forces to cause extreme damage to innocent civilian populations. This action was intended to prove American strength and willingness to use its power not just to the Japanese, but the USSR as well.

When writing commentary, you must always keep your audience and purpose in mind. Consider the following questions as you look at your evidence:

  • Why is this example particularly apt or fitting?
  • What does this example reveal about my topic?
  • What do I want my reader to gain or understand from my use of this example?
  • How does my example prove or illustrate the main idea of my paragraph?
  • How does my example prove my thesis?
  • How does my example relate to other examples that I have already discussed or plan to discuss later in my paper?


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Transitions are words that help the audience follow your train of thought. Transitions help the reader connect new information to what he or she has just read.


Transition words can be used to

Show location above, across, near, between, inside, below, throughout
Show time after, as soon as, finally, during, then, when, next
Compare also, likewise, as, similarly
Contrast although, however, but, even though, yet
Emphasize this reason, especially, in fact, in particular
Draw conclusions as a result, finally, therefore, in conclusion, thus
Add information additionally, for example, besides, moreover, also
Clarify that is, in other words, for instance



Lead-ins are special transitions that provide context for the reader when introducing evidence or concrete detail. A lead-in should include the essential information needed to make sense of the example that follows it. Information in a lead-in may include

  • speaker’s name, title, or qualifications  

  • location, time, or setting of the quotation 

  • situation or occasion when the quotation was made

Notice in the following examples how the lead-ins provide context for each quotation, but also include some of the writer’s own commentary to help the audience understand the purpose of the quotations.

Later, however, when the confident Sidney Carton returns alone to his home, his alienation and unhappiness become apparent:  “Climbing into a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears”  (Dickens 211).  

The Stem Cell Research Foundation opposes cloning used to create children, but believes that some kinds of cloning have legitimate scientific benefitsAccording to their position statement, “Reproductive cloning has been shown to be highly unsafe in animals, and we do not believe its use is acceptable in humans. However, the cloning of a patient’s cells in order to create genetically compatible stem cells, also called therapeutic cloning . . . may lead to cures for serious and often deadly diseases” (“Stem Cell Research”).


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An introduction is like a first impression; you want your readers to think your paper is interesting enough to be worth their time. Most people form first impressions very quickly, so it is important to catch your reader’s interest from the start with an attention-getter or creative opening:

Attention-getting Openings 

  • A startling fact or bit of information
  • A meaningful quotation
  • A universal idea related to your thesis
  • A rich, vivid description or image
  • A fresh analogy or metaphor
  • An interesting anecdote, story, or dramatic episode
  • A thought-provoking question
  • Beginning in the middle of the action


    Save the First for Last

    While it is important to have at least a working version of your major thesis as you start to write, you can usually save the introduction for later.  That way it will introduce what you actually have written, instead of what you had intended to write.  In addition, you can tie your introduction more effectively to your conclusion by writing them both at the same time.

    Openings to Avoid

    • Dictionary definitions of words your reader should know
    • Rhetorical questions that use the word you  (“Did you know …”)
    • An announcement of topic (“This paper will be about …”)
    • Overly broad or general statements (“There are many novels, all of which have characters. Some characters are heroes, and some are not.”)
    • A “book report” list of irrelevant facts (William Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era in England. He wrote many plays. One of these plays was Hamlet.)

    Once you have your reader’s attention, you should provide essential background about your topic and prepare the reader for your major thesis.  A strong introduction functions as a map for the rest of the essay, previewing major ideas that you will consider in your paper. Finally, end your introduction with your major thesis.  Because the major thesis sometimes sounds tacked on, make special attempts to link it to the sentence that precedes it by building on a key word or idea.

    Map Your Course 

    When previewing your main topics in your introduction, make sure you list them in the order in which they appear in your paper. The introduction should serve as a map to the reader, showing where the essay is headed.


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    Your conclusion wraps up your argument and leaves the reader with some final thoughts.  Your conclusion should stem from what you have already written. Effective conclusions, therefore, often refer back to ideas presented in a paper’s introduction. 

    In general, your conclusion should echo your major thesis without repeating the words verbatim.  However, since your paper has already proven your thesis, your conclusion should move beyond it to reflect on the significance of the ideas you just presented.  It should answer the reader’s question, “OK, I’ve read your paper, but so what?” In other words, why are your ideas important for the reader?

    Effective Conclusions

    Effective conclusions always consider the audience and purpose.  Depending on your paper’s purpose, you may use one or more of the following ideas:


    • Reflect on how your topic relates to larger issues (in the novel, in society, in history)
    • Show how your topic affects the reader’s life
    • Evaluate the concepts you have presented
    • Issue a call for action on the part of your audience
    • Ask questions generated by your findings
    • Make predictions
    • Recommend a solution
    • Connect back to introduction, esp. if you used a metaphor, anecdote, or vivid image
    • Give a personal statement about the topic

    Conclusions to Avoid

    • Beginning with “In conclusion …”
    • Restating or summarizing the main points of your paper without providing further insight into the significance of these ideas
    • Bringing up a new topic not previously covered in your paper
    • Adding irrelevant details (esp. just to make a paper longer)
    • Preaching or lecturing to your audience
    • Overstating or over-generalizing the connection to larger issues
    • Sounding clichéd, hollow, or insincere
    • Lapsing into the use of the pronoun you

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    Updated 6/23/03 by D.Hogan
    Poway Unified School District
    ©February 2003