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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Topic Sentences: An Introduction

Screenshot from Nintendo game _Duck Hunt_

For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up during a time when game developers were just beginning to explore the potential of 8-bit graphics, the sight of an NES zapper calls to mind nostalgia. Duck Hunt was the very first first-person shooter I ever played, and it is still the most memorable. While pointing the light gun at anything was fun in the beginning, when I was done fooling around and wanted to actually be successful at the game I had to learn how to aim properly to hit the targets.

In writing, paragraphs have to be aimed towards targets as well. Topic sentences accomplish this task for you by pointing your paragraphs in the direction of the main point you're trying to cover. They also let your reader know where you're heading, clarify your ideas, and organize your points. It's can be fun and productive to just mess around writing anything that comes to mind, but if you want your paper to have any chance of being successful, you need to add topic sentences.

A Topic Sentence Defined

A topic sentence is a sentence that states the main idea of a paragraph. It is usually, but not always, located at the beginning of the paragraph. Additionally, a good topic sentence is concise, taking no more words than are absolutely necessary to state the main idea.

Hopefully this definition sounds familiar to you. If not, take a peek at my post about thesis statements. Getting a feeling of deja vu yet? Topic sentences and thesis statements are so similar to one another because they both serve to focus writing. Whereas a thesis statement states the direction of an entire essay and is located at the end of the introductory paragraph, a topic sentence only states the focus of a single paragraph and is placed at its beginning. Interestingly, when you break a paragraph down to its basic components, it's essentially a miniature essay. However, that's a topic to tackle in another post.

Examples of Topic Sentences

It’s time to see what topic sentences look like in action. In the following examples, I will write the topic sentences in bold for easier identification. Notice how the topic sentence contains the main idea of the paragraph and the remaining sentences are 1) relevant and 2) support and/or expand on the topic sentence.

  • Charismatic people always seem to know the right things to say and when to say them.  They don’t pepper their sentences with ‘uhs’ or desperately search for words.  They are polished and articulate, which creates a commanding and powerful presence.  But this enviable performance is not by chance, it is the result of careful preparation.”

    ~Solovic, Susan W. The Girls' Guide to Power and Success. New York: MJF Books, 2001. 79. Print.
  • "Unlike a disease, which has a specific pathological origin, a syndrome is a condition that exists only as a collection of symptoms. Consider cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the body to produce an unnaturally large amount of sticky mucous, resulting in long-term deterioration of the lungs, as well as other conditions related to mucous production. The disease is present when a person receives a specific gene from both parents. The genes are the cause, the excess mucous production is the effect, and the lung deterioration and a few other conditions are the symptoms. The symptoms are specific to the disease and lead to the specific diagnosis."

    ~Hammerly, Milton, and Cheryl Kimball. What to Do When the Doctor Says It's PCOS. Massachusetts: Fair Winds Press, 2003. 91. Print.
  • The legal profession is known for its mind-boggling complexities, but also for its clever terminology.  One of my favorite creations from this latter category is the ‘attractive nuisance.’  The phrase seems almost perfectly to summarize the yin and yang of life, with its sweet, naughty temptations.  Sadly, in legal terms, what it more specifically refers to is one’s backyard swimming pool, which looks so inviting to the youth of the neighborhood that they can almost be expected to try and jump in at some point.”

    ~Beneke, Jeff. The Fence Bible. Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2005. 13. Print.

Who Uses Topic Sentences?

Don't pick up your favorite novel to find examples of topic sentences. In fact, most professional writers whose work is found in bookstores do not use explicit topic sentences in their writing. You definitely won't find many topic sentences in journalism or online; people perusing Internet posts and newspaper articles have short attention spans and will not read large chunks of text, so paragraphs are often no longer than two sentences (if even that long).

However, topic sentences are expected and often required in academic writing, including writing produced in professions that require reports (e.g., medical professionals writing research, lawyers and paralegals working on briefs, and even managers writing productivity reports). If you have any aspirations of making it through your high-school, college, and professional writing responsibilities unscathed, you're going to need to learn start writing topic sentences. But don’t think of topic sentences as a chore; the fact is, writing them will end up saving you time and effort.

How Topic Sentences Make Writing Easier for You

Getting in the habit of writing topic sentences for each paragraph as you work on an essay will actually make writing your essay faster and easier. You have to know what you're trying to say with each paragraph before you can write the topic sentence, so you're essentially being forced to organize your thoughts as you commit them to paper. As someone who's written more essays than she can count during the span of her still-ongoing academic life, trust me when I say making an outline of your main points before you start writing will make writing topic sentences a piece of cake. Once you know what main point or sub-point you're presenting in a paragraph, all that's left to do is supply the evidence to support the paragraph’s main point.

Why wouldn't you want to make essay writing easier for yourself? A topic sentence is a sentence that writes itself because if you know your main point, you know your topic sentence. It's essentially one less sentence you have struggle over in your essay, letting you focus your energy where you need it most: supporting your arguments.  

Not only do topic sentences help you write papers, being able to identify other writers’ topic sentences has benefits of its own.  Since a topic sentence contains the main idea of a paragraph, it can be used to summarize writing sections easily and efficiently.  Professional tutoring services for the SAT and LSAT frequently teach students to look for topic sentences in paragraphs as a simple, fast “trick” to locate information to answer questions. Apply this technique to textbooks to isolate important points quickly and create an outline of each chapter’s main ideas.

Final Thoughts

Topic sentences are considered one of the basics of good writing and mastering them is not something most people can accomplish without practice.  There is much more to learning how to execute them successfully than what I can contain in a single blog post, so stay tuned for future posts that transform main points in an outline into topic sentences, break down the elements of essay paragraphs, and  include examples of paragraphs missing topic sentences.  I will be writing many more blog posts on this topic because I know just how essential a skill writing topic sentences is for you to be successful in your writing endeavors.

A dog in the game Duck Hunt held up the birds you shot when you aimed well. Readers won't do that to let you know your paragraphs hit the mark so remember to get feedback on your writing before you submit it to a professor or supervisor.


Photo credit: MethodShop


I loved the topic sentence examples!  The internet as a whole would benefit tremendously and it would enrich people's lives if people took the time to write properly.  The internet as a whole has seen a steady decline in meaningful content, and intelligent writing.

The one paragraph regarding the "attractive nuisance" seemed aline to me. How is the term "attractive nuisance" an interchangeable synonym for swimming pool? I don't know, but I have found one of the most detrimental things to our civilization is legalese, and the courts, and everything that goes with it.  Only in the "legal" world do they take ordinary words that mean one thing, and twist them around to mean entirely new things.

If anyone needs lessons in proper writing, it would be anyone involved in the "legal" system.

Thanks for the kind words! I was fascinated by the legal definition of "attractive nuisances" as well! It's not obvious from the paragraph that the idea of a swimming pool was just being used as an example of a potential attractive nuisance, so I can understand your confusion. Here's the paragraph that follows the one I excerpted for my example:

"Although the laws vary from place to place, as a general rule property owners are considered to be responsible for keeping curious children away from any inviting, but potentially dangerous objects on their property.  If you have a pool or pond on your property, or a trampoline, old car, or pile of dirt, kids are going to be drawn to it, and it's your responsibility to see that they do not get close enough to hurt themselves. Some states no longer use the expression 'attractive nuisance' in their statutes, but most will still have related rules.  Some types of attractive nuisance can simply be carted away, but others require the erection of a fence or other barrier to keep children away.This situation most commonly arises regarding residential swimming pools, and many localities have strict rules about the type of fence needed to restrict access to the pool area."

You can glean from the title of the book this quote came from that the author is about to tell us just what kinds of fences are needed and how to build them. Pretty thorough for a handy-man type of book!

I liked your summary on topic sentences! You may wish to edit the following, however(happens to me on occasion too!)

If you have any aspirations of making it through your high-school, college, and professional writing responsibilities unscathed, you're going to need to learn start writing topic sentences.

Look at Learn start -- I think it needs a "to" in there.

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