In an academic essay, the first sentence of each new paragraph is called the topic sentence. Topic sentences are often considered “mini-thesis statements,” offering a subsection of the paper’s main argument. In fact, if you read the thesis statement and topic sentences alone, you should have an outline detailing exactly what the paper is about and the relationships between paragraphs and supporting evidence. To write good topic sentences in your next paper, remember these four tips:
1. Give the reader an idea of what the paragraph is about—and be specific.
Say you are writing an essay about Romeo & Juliet, and your argument is that the play is not the great romance people think it is. Your topic sentences should reinforce this idea but offer something a little more specific than just restating the main argument. For example, you might have a topic sentence that states, “Romeo is not romantic because at the beginning of the play, his love interest is Rosaline, not Juliet.” The rest of the paragraph would provide evidence showing how Romeo is in love with another woman until he quickly “falls in love” with Juliet and forgets his former flame. This topic sentence introduces an example and gives just the right amount of detail for the reader.
2. Avoid using lists.
Each paragraph in your essay should have one solid idea backed up with supporting evidence from the text or outside research. Therefore, a topic sentence should never have the format, “In this paragraph, I will discuss x, y, and z.” To use our Romeo & Juliet example, the topic sentence should not state, “Romeo & Juliet is a bad example of romance because the lovers have only known each other for three days, are too young for love, and are too immature.” A better tactic would be to break each of these three ideas (“known each other for three days,” “too young for love,” and “too immature”) into three paragraphs, with a topic sentence for each one.
3. Provide a transition between paragraphs.
While a topic sentence is meant to advance an argument and add new evidence, it should also reach back to the previous paragraph and ensure a smooth transition between ideas. There are four main types of transitions:
- Compare: Likewise, similar
Example: “Like Romeo’s constant praises of Juliet’s beauty, Juliet’s conversations with her Nurse suggest that physical attraction is the main motivation for Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.”
- Contrast: On the other hand, conversely, although, while, though, however, unlike
Example: “Unlike Romeo, who once courted Rosaline, Juliet has a lack of experience with men and is immature in matters of love.”
- Addition: Additionally, in addition, moreover, also, furthermore
Example: “Furthermore, Juliet’s lack of interest in Paris suggests that she is predisposed to ‘fall in love’ with a man who she thinks is a better alternative.”
- Passage of time: At the beginning, at the end, then, next, after, finally
Example: “At the end of the play, Romeo kills himself not only because of his love for Juliet, but because of his combined grief brought about by her supposed death, his exile, and the murders of Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris.”
4. Avoid overuse of rhetorical questions or quotes.
Student writers are tempted to start new paragraphs by posing a question, such as “Why is Romeo & Juliet considered a great romance?” However, in most academic essays, these questions tend to waste valuable space and do not add much to the paper. Using strong, declarative statements better supports an argument than asking a question for readers to interpret for themselves.
In addition, quotes should be used sparingly or not at all in topic sentences. For example, a poor topic sentence is, “In Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare writes, ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” This sentence does not add any analysis or any of the writer’s own thoughts; it only quotes from the text. For writers who like to use quotes often, a better method is to integrate a snippet of a quote into a topic sentence. For example, “Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ are neither star-crossed nor lovers: they are two immature teenagers whose poor decisions lead to too many deaths throughout the play.” This sentence borrows from one of the play’s most famous lines (“star-crossed lovers”), but the argument is entirely the writer’s own and is much more compelling.
What are some of your best topic sentences? Let us know in the comments below.
Paragraphs & Topic Sentences
A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.
Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.
A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.
Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.
Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.
Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.
Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.
Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.
The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.
George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”
In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.
Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.
A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.
Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.
Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.
Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.
Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”
SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS
(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)
- To show addition:
- again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
- To give examples:
- for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
- To compare:
- also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
- To contrast:
- although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
- To summarize or conclude:
- all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
- To show time:
- after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
- To show place or direction:
- above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
- To indicate logical relationship:
- accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus
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