What is a topic sentence?
A topic sentence states the main point of a paragraph: it serves as a mini-thesis for the paragraph. You might think of it as a signpost for your readers—or a headline—something that alerts them to the most important, interpretive points in your essay. When read in sequence, your essay’s topic sentences will provide a sketch of the essay’s argument. Thus topics sentences help protect your readers from confusion by guiding them through the argument. But topic sentences can also help you to improve your essay by making it easier for you to recognize gaps or weaknesses in your argument.
Where do topic sentences go?
Topic sentences usually appear at the very beginning of paragraphs. In the following example from Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye establishes the figure of the tragic hero as someone more than human, but less than divine. He backs up his claim with examples of characters from literature, religion and mythology whose tragic stature is a function of their ability to mediate between their fellow human beings and a power that transcends the merely human:
The tragic hero is typically on top of the wheel of fortune, half-way between human society on the ground and the something greater in the sky. Prometheus, Adam, and Christ hang between heaven and earth, between a world of paradisal freedom and a world of bondage. Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning: Milton’s Samson destroys the Philistine temple with himself, and Hamlet nearly exterminates the Danish court in his own fall.
The structure of Frye’s paragraph is simple yet powerful: the topic sentence makes an abstract point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates on that point using concrete examples as evidence.
Does a topic sentence have to be at the beginning of a paragraph?
No, though this is usually the most logical place for it. Sometimes a transitional sentence or two will come before a topic sentence:
We found in comedy that the term bomolochos or buffoon need not be restricted to farce, but could be extended to cover comic characters who are primarily entertainers, with the function of increasing or focusing the comic mood. The corresponding contrasting type is the suppliant, the character, often female, who presents a picture of unmitigated helplessness and destitution. Such a figure is pathetic, and pathos, though it seems a gentler and more relaxed mood than tragedy, is even more terrifying. Its basis is the exclusion of an individual from the group; hence it attacks the deepest fear in ourselves that we possess—a fear much deeper than the relatively cosy and sociable bogey of hell. In the suppliant pity and terror are brought to the highest possible pitch of intensity, and the awful consequences of rejecting the suppliant for all concerned is a central theme of Greek tragedy.
The context for this passage is an extended discussion of the characteristics of tragedy. In this paragraph, Frye begins by drawing a parallel between the figure of the buffoon in comedy and that of the suppliant in tragedy. His discussion of the buffoon occurred in a earlier section of the chapter, a section devoted to comedy. The first sentence of the current paragraph is transitional: it prepares the way for the topic sentence. The delayed topic sentence contributes to the coherence of Frye’s discussion by drawing an explicit connection between key ideas in the book. In essays, the connection is usually between the last paragraph and the current one.
Sometimes writers save a topic sentence for the end of a paragraph. You may, for example, occasionally find that giving away your point at the beginning of a paragraph does not allow you to build your argument toward an effective climax.
How do I come up with a topic sentence? And what makes a good one?
Ask yourself what’s going on in your paragraph. Why have you chosen to include the information you have? Why is the paragraph important in the context of your argument? What point are you trying to make?
Relating your topic sentences to your thesis can help strengthen the coherence of your essay. If you include a thesis statement in your introduction, then think of incorporating a keyword from that statement into the topic sentence. But you need not be overly explicit when you echo the thesis statement. Better to be subtle rather than heavy-handed. Do not forget that your topic sentence should do more than just establish a connection between your paragraph and your thesis. Use a topic sentence to show how your paragraph contributes to the development of your argument by moving it that one extra step forward. If your topic sentence merely restates your thesis, then either your paragraph is redundant or your topic sentence needs to be reformulated. If several of your topic sentences restate your thesis, even if they do so in different words, then your essay is probably repetitive.
Does every paragraph need one?
No, but most do. Sometimes a paragraph helps to develop the same point as in the previous paragraph, and so a new topic sentence would be redundant. And sometimes the evidence in your paragraph makes your point so effectively that your topic sentence can remain implicit. But if you are in doubt, it’s best to use one.
There is an assumption in the world that an essay is something literary you write for school about a topic that no one but your teacher will ever care about. At first glance, the dictionary does nothing to allay that sense. The very first definition is of “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.”
The reality, if any of you have read a blog recently, is that essays can be much more than that. They can be anything really. And here, the dictionary comes to our aid. The second definition of an essay is “anything resembling such a composition.” So really, essays are written compositions about anything.
Unfortunately, they can also be annoying, tedious and obnoxious. Whether it’s a high school essay, a college research paper or even an important office memo at your new job, at any given moment chances are you’d probably rather not be doing it. And the fact that you HAVE to do it just adds to the misery.
The stress of it all has twenty different things going on in your head at once: Where to start? What do I write about? How do I keep the momentum? What about pacing? I need a good grade, or a promotion, WITH A RAISE, a lot is riding on this!
Calm yourself. Writing the perfect paper, the kickass memo, the stellar essay — about ANYTHING — is not only possible, it’s easy.
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What Is My Secret?
An essay is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. That’s why I stole my formula from an ancient military tactic, invented by the Spartans (the guys in the movie 300). This tactic was a favorite of great generals like Brasidas and Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates) and was deployed successfully in combat countless times. I figure: if this one trick can protect a ten thousand-man march through hostile territory, country after country, it can probably work for something as silly and temporary as a paper or an essay.
We’re going to use this tactic as a metaphor — also a great term to use in our essays — for the structural elements of our essay. It will allow us to forget your teacher’s boring prompt. Forget “Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail” and all that nonsense.
Here’s Xenophon talking about this tactic in his Anabasis:
It would be safer for us to march with the hoplites forming a hollow square, so that the baggage and the general crowd would be more secure inside. If, then, we are told now who should be in the front of the square and who organize the leading detachments, and who should be on the two flanks, and who should be responsible for the rear.
Basically, their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly as well as slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared a hollow square in advance, “we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job.”
My method works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to, but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of “writing,” you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis that begins each paragraph and a concluding sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and this serves as the point of return — much like Chuck Palahniuk’s concept of “chorus lines” (see Fight Club, where, whenever the plot gets off track, he immediately comes back to something like, “I am Jack’s sense of rejection”). The idea is to keep the reader protected, just the troops flowing in and out of the square kept the hollow middle, and thus the whole square, safe.
Let’s say you’re a high school student taking English or a college student stuck in a writing-intensive core class. You’re going to have to write a paper. It’s just a fact of life. So instead of fighting it, let’s just make it as easy as possible.
The outline I’m about to give you is simple. Essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more than reiteration and support of the ideas in those original sentences. Just like the tactics of Brasidas, you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense — everyone (every word) knows their job.
No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. You have taken the prompt and made it your own. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by following them. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.
I’ll go into specific examples soon, but here’s a hypothetical outline for a five-page paper:
1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: “When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble.”
2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: “This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — with blatant corruption and illegal activity — eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream.”
3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.) Ex: Though Gatsby was a bootlegger, he was driven by hope and love, rather than the greed that motivated his status-obsessed guests.
4. One Sentence for second body paragraph. (Just like the sentence you just did)
5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. “The 1920s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind.”
Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can’t support it until you’ve made it.
1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.
-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence
-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion
-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author’s words. Normally you can use even less: “It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an ‘orgiastic future.'”
1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
7. Last sentence must transition to a general statement about human nature. “The American Dream — and any higher aspiration — requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standards.”
That’s it. Seriously. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It’s self-generating, self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?
Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so you don’t have to later, and excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is fulfillment. Like I said earlier, with this structure you place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise. And that is a great essay.
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