Writing Tip Wednesday: Topic Sentences (Part 1)

Dear Master’s Programs student,

Last week we examined ways to improve presentation to enhance our papers. This week, we’ll look at one particular—and powerful—way to improve the presentation of your paper: the topic sentence.

A topic sentence is like a thesis for an individual paragraph, i.e. the topic sentence must clearly state the main idea of its paragraph. Sometimes writers use the term “cueing” to describe this attribute of the topic sentence: a good topic sentence will “cue” the reader, or give him a clear indication about what’s coming up.

Below are two key attributes of a strong topic sentence, and some questions you can ask yourself to improve your topic sentences.

Cue the right idea
It’s very easy to miscue your reader just by including a few unnecessary words, so it’s important to scrutinize your topic sentences to make sure they mean exactly what you want. All academic writing should be stripped of unnecessary fluff, but this is especially important for topic sentences.

For example, consider this topic sentence: Many advocates within higher education claim that a student-centered approach to academic advising is the best method presently available.

As a reader, I expect this paragraph to be about the claims higher education advocates make. (This sentence also implies that some people make this “claim,” but it may not actually be true.) If the purpose of this paragraph is to show that a student-centered approach actually is best, the writer might consider something like this: A student-centered approach to academic advising is the most effective method presently available (Gordon, Habley, & Grites, 2008).

Ask yourself what the key verbs are in the sentence (“claim,” in the first example). Also ask yourself who the key actors are (“many advocates,” in the first example). If the topic sentence emphasizes verbs or actors who are not the true focus, eliminate those extra terms.

Cue the main concept, not just an example
Many writers make the mistake of substituting an example for their topic sentence. Remember that the topic sentence should be an idea, and your examples work to support that idea.

Ask yourself, “What’s the main point of this paragraph?” Make sure that point—not just a supporting example—is featured in your topic sentence. If you do mention an example in the topic sentence, be sure you’ve clearly identified it as such, so the reader doesn’t mistake it for your key assertion. You might use a pattern like this: “The instructor effectively uses a variety of techniques supported by the socio-cultural theory to enhance student learning; for example, she provides opportunity for scaffolded small group discussions.” This “main idea, semi-colon, example” structure can be a helpful way to combine key ideas and support details.

Next week, we’ll look at two other key features of the topic sentence.

Until then, happy writing!

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