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Mastering topic sentences

Have you ever been to a new country where you couldn’t understand the road signs? Perhaps you were somewhere remote with no road signs at all (or no road). It’s not fun getting hopelessly lost, so pity the poor reader who must navigate a piece of writing with poorly written topic sentences – the road signs of an essay. They guide the reader, helping them understand the direction of each paragraph. So crucial are topic sentences, in fact, that reading these alone is an effective skimming reading strategy.

Let’s examine a few potholes to avoid when crafting topic sentences.

Problem topic sentence #1

Can you spot the issue with the topic sentence below in an essay about global food consumption? You may have to look hard to even find the topic sentence itself…

Raising livestock requires large quantities of feed and this puts strain on natural resources. In addition, the decomposition of manure releases carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change. There is broad agreement among environmentalists that the meat industry is a major contributor to environmental degradation.

Diagnosis: The topic sentence – the last line – comes too late in the paragraph.

Solution: The topic sentence needn’t always be the opening sentence. However, if you are offering examples, as in the above, it’s advisable to start with the topic of the paragraph (aka topic sentence), followed by supporting examples, research, statistics, or case studies. Here’s a better version:

There is broad agreement among environmentalists that the meat industry is a major contributor to environmental degradation. For example, raising livestock requires large quantities of feed and this puts strain on natural resources. In addition, the decomposition of livestock manure releases carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change.

Problem topic sentence #2

Being too vague is not in vogue – at least when it comes to writing topic sentences. Take a look at the sentences below (courtesy of University of Houston-Victoria) and see if you can identify the vague sentence and its more focused, and therefore effective, alternative.

  • Today’s technology is affecting people’s learning.
  • Today’s technology forces young people to improve their skills through ongoing training.

Diagnosis: The first topic sentence suffers from a case of severe Vague-itis because it’s not clear what the paragraph is going to be about. Technology could be affecting learning in a gazillion ways. Back to our analogy, it’s like holidaying in Russia and turning down a road with a name like Йошкар-​Ола. You have no idea where you’re going to end up. On the other hand, the second topic sentence is much clearer. Can you think why?

Solution: Think of your topic sentence as a mini-thesis which states the goal of the paragraph. The second sentence achieves this by offering the writer’s point of view and so the direction of the paragraph is evident. We know that by taking this highway exit, we’re going to find out more about continuing education classes. We’re not lost! Hooray! Yippee!

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Ways to improve topic sentences

Knowing the street name (the topic or subject of the paragraph) doesn’t help much if you end up at Burger King when you thought you were headed to a Chinese restaurant. Think of it as having a faulty GPS. A topic sentence should also have a “Controlling Idea” that guides or frames the supporting sentences that follow it in the rest of the paragraph.

Here are some examples of making the topic clearer with a specific controlling idea.

Home ownership is good for society. [How is home ownership good for society?] → There are social and economic benefits to home ownership.

People abuse animals in experiments. [Who? What experiments?]. → Animals are often harmed by the cosmetic industry in experiments to test their products.

Public schools are good. [“Good” is a vague word]. → According to research, learners at public schools excel as much academically as private school learners.

So, to summarize, a topic sentence should consist of two elements: the Topic/subject and the Controlling Idea. These help the reader know what to expect and where the paragraph is heading.

In this topic sentence, our GPS is functioning well because the topic/subject (the main point of the paragraph) is clear, as is the Controlling Idea. But not so fast. The Controlling Idea should now inform the supporting sentences that follow as per the below example:

Chocolate is not only delicious; it also has physiological effects. Chocolate releases endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals. It also contains caffeine, which provides us with energy. In addition, chocolate contains a cannabinoid, which can provide a hypnotic effect when consumed in significant quantities.

The sentences following the topic sentence relate closely to the controlling idea (chocolate’s physiological effects). Now imagine that the supporting sentences were unrelated to the controlling idea, like this:

Chocolate is not only delicious; it also has physiological effects. Junk food in general can be consumed as a comfort food. Even though we know chips, chocolate, and sweets are unhealthy, they can give us a temporary lift when we feel depressed or bored.

While there is a tenuous relationship between the topic sentence and the supporting sentences, their relationship is on rocky ground (they may need couple counseling). Firstly, we never find out about what the physiological effects of chocolate are. In addition, suddenly we’re talking not just about chocolate but everything else in the sweet aisle. I’m feeling peckish now.

Looking at this topic sentence, can you think what the supporting sentences will be about?
The mechanics of a digital camera can be mastered by following basic rules.

If you said that the supporting sentences will discuss the basic rules of how to master a digital camera, give yourself a pat on the back. Also notice how this topic sentence expresses the writer’s point of view or opinion – as does our first example (“Chocolate is delicious”). This is one way that a Controlling Idea can set the parameters or limit the scope of the paragraph. Think of it as orange cones cordoning off an area on the road.

The second way that the Controlling Idea can, well, control the supporting sentences and unify the paragraph is by setting limitations in an objective manner. For instance:

When preparing a laboratory report, you must complete five sections.

Here “laboratory report” is the topic, while the “five sections” is the factual, objective Controlling Idea. The reader can then predict that the essay will go on to describe these five sections.

Phew! After traveling tricky linguistic highways with our new-and-improved GPS, we have safely arrived at our hotel in Vladivostok. Mission accomplished – our essay has been clearly navigated by the reader.

By Leigh-Anne Hunter

More juicy tips for writing Stronger Topic Sentences can be found here.


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