As we recently discussed in our tight writing segment in episode 940, it is important to have a strong BLUF (bottom line up front) in your writing and to support it with clarifying details. Let the reader know from the beginning what your purpose is, especially the “so what,” which you may remember from our recent interview with communication pro Matt Abrahams. The same is true of paragraphs. Think of each paragraph as a mini-essay. You want your readers to know what you plan to present in each paragraph, so starting out with a strong topic sentence is important. It helps you and your readers understand the structure and direction of your writing.
What is a topic sentence?
According to our trusty friends Merriam-Webster and Collins Dictionary, a topic sentence usually comes at the beginning of a paragraph (or longer section) and expresses the main or essential point of that paragraph or section. Generally speaking, you should stick to one main topic per paragraph; that will keep your writing organized and make it more digestible for your readers.
What does a topic sentence do?
According to the Touro University Writing Center, “the topic sentence is the most important sentence in a paragraph. Sometimes referred to as a focus sentence, the topic sentence helps organize the paragraph by summarizing the information in the paragraph.” It lets readers know what’s coming in the rest of the paragraph (and readers like that). Just make sure you follow through with what you’re promising by including supporting details for your topic sentence in each paragraph.
What is the difference between a topic sentence and a thesis statement?
Also, keep in mind the difference between a thesis statement and a topic sentence. If you are writing something longer, like an essay, thesis, or other academic paper, you will likely include a thesis statement at the beginning that will summarize the entire piece versus just one paragraph. Touro describes the thesis statement as “… a road map that will tell the reader or listener where you are going with this information or how you are treating it.” Each paragraph that follows, then, should contain a topic sentence that relates back to and supports the overall thesis statement.
What is a controlling idea?
Here’s one way to look at it: Every topic sentence has a topic and a controlling idea. The topic is the main subject you’re writing about. The controlling idea (or ideas) then steer that topic in a certain direction. According to the Rochester Institute of Technology Supporting English Acquisition webpage, “The controlling idea is the point of the paragraph. It guides the ideas that provide support for the paragraph and limits the scope of the paragraph.”
Examples of topic sentences and controlling ideas
Here are some examples:
Let’s say our thesis statement is “The Grammar Girl podcast is a useful tool for learning about writing and the English language.” The topic sentence for our first paragraph then might be “I love Grammar Girl’s podcast because it provides real-life examples and practical tips.” The topic is “Grammar Girl’s podcast,” and the controlling ideas are “real-life examples and practical tips.” This prepares the reader for the rest of the paragraph or section, which might provide some examples of “real life examples” and “practical tips.”
For our second example, let’s say our thesis statement is “Getting a kitten will change your life.” (Yes, our chaotic kitten is back!) Our first topic sentence then might be “My kitten has two modes: feline tornado and sleep.” The topic is “my kitten,” and the controlling ideas are “two modes: feline tornado and sleep.” This paragraph could then provide adorable examples of the kitten’s tornado-like behavior and how much he sleeps.
How can I write a good topic sentence?
Let’s look at some specific tips for writing a good topic sentence:
First, you don’t have to include all the five W’s in your topic sentence (the who, what, when, where, and why), but you should include as many as necessary to provide context and give your readers a clue about what is coming up. More importantly, though, the topic sentence should include the “so what” of what follows.
Include the ‘so what’
Consider the following example: “My husband is the best!” OK, we’re sure he is, but why? What does he do? Why is that important? Now compare that to: “My husband is the best because he takes care of me when I am sick, allowing me to recuperate.” This topic sentence gives a lot more context and detail by including the so what (it allows me to recuperate). You could then follow this up with a specific example of when he took care of you and how that made a difference or other examples of his greatness.
To expand on one of our earlier examples by including the “so what,” we could write, “My kitten has two modes: feline tornado and sleep, which means I have to carefully schedule my video calls.”
Keep it short and focused
Next, keep your topic sentences relatively short and stick to one controlling idea (or at least a couple of related ones, like in the examples we discussed earlier). If you try to include all your thoughts in your topic sentence, your readers may be confused about what your main point is and where you’re heading. So keep it simple! Don’t confuse your readers with too much detail upfront. This includes direct quotations; save them for the supporting details.
Make it cohesive
Also, remember that, while each topic sentence introduces a single paragraph, they should all relate back to your overall topic and main point. Think cohesiveness! A normal paragraph will have an introduction, which will be the topic sentence; a body, where you will provide your supporting details; and a conclusion. Keep it coherent by adding transitions between sentences and paragraphs, using parallel structure (the same verb tense, for example), keeping paragraphs short and generally related to one topic, and being consistent with your grammar and point of view. (For example, are you writing in first or third person?) Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services has a great example of a cohesive paragraph on their webpage, and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes.
Start with an outline
Finally, consider putting together an outline before you start writing. Top-line bullets will be your topic sentences, and sub-bullets will be the bodies of your paragraphs.