Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Topic Sentences

by Lindsey Strang

While most college writers are familiar with the traditional structure of an essay (i.e., introduction, body, conclusion), many are not aware that this same model can, and in most cases should, be applied to individual paragraphs as well.  Perhaps the most important of these elements is the paragraph’s introduction, which is called the topic sentence. The topic sentence serves the same function as the introduction to an essay, only on a smaller scale. It is basically a “mini-thesis” which should explicitly state the argument a paragraph is about to make. A topic sentence can do two things: make a transition from the previous paragraph and briefly state what you will be arguing in this one.

If you struggle with topic sentences, you might choose to write them last. Once you complete a paragraph and are more certain about its function, you can go back to the beginning of the paragraph to make that function explicit with a topic sentence. A good tactic, which we often utilize at the Writing Center, is to read a paragraph and then ask yourself: what is this paragraph saying and how does it relate to your essay’s thesis? Usually, when we ask this question, students respond with one basic sentence which explains the general point of the paragraph (i.e., what it is saying or proving). While you of course may want to tweak the wording, this is your topic sentence! 

For example, suppose you are writing a paper which argues that Wal-Mart is bad for America. The body of this type of essay would obviously need to support this claim by outlining the specific threats that this corporation poses to American society. Here are some sample topic sentences you might include:

  • The continually increasing number of Wal-Mart stores across the country poses a serious threat to small businesses. 
          This topic sentence works because it is a straightforward, concise 
          statement which makes it clear that the paragraph that follows will 
          discuss your general thesis (Wal-Mart is bad for America) in terms 
          of one specific realm that is negatively impacted by the corporation: 
          small businesses.

  •  Wal-Mart is not only bad for its small business competitors, but for its own employees as well.
          This is a good topic sentence, specifically for a paragraph following 
          the one that was just outlined, because it does two things. First, it 
          offers a smooth transition by tying this paragraph to the one that 
          precedes it by mentioning small businesses at the beginning. 
          Next, it introduces the new topic, Wal-Mart’s poor treatment of 
          its employees. This paragraph would go on to explain, more 
          specifically, how Wal-Mart mistreats its employees (i.e., low 
          wages, child labor, etc.).

This process can be repeated over and over until you have covered all your bases and sufficiently defended your thesis. Remember, when you are writing an essay, clarity is key. It is always preferable to reveal as much as possible from the outset, rather than making your reader wait until the end of a paragraph to discover your point. Topic sentences accomplish this goal.


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