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Curriculum and Student Achievement

Body Paragraphs: Topic Sentences

Drafting effective, well-organized body paragraphs takes a great amount of thought and revision. In American academic and business writing, writers are encouraged to discuss one topic per paragraph. Writers usually indicate to the reader what that one topic is with a topic sentence. Indeed, the topic sentence is often referred to as the most important sentence in the paragraph because it states what the paragraph is about for the reader. 

These important sentences function to state your point for the paragraph and often imply or state the relationship that exists between that paragraph and the thesis of the paper.

Another way of thinking about the function of a topic sentence is to think about the topic sentence as a controlling idea for a paragraph. The topic sentence creates or establishes the context for the paragraph, so it controls the other sentences in the paragraph. Essentially, your topic sentences should state both a topic and your opinion or point of view about that topic.

Where does the topic sentence go in a paragraph?

Topic sentences can go anywhere in a paragraph (beginning, middle, or end); however, topic sentences are most often the first or second sentence of a paragraph. By putting your topic sentences early, you allow your reader to grasp immediately the overall point of your paragraphs, which may be especially important if you’re working with ideas that are complex or if you’re writing to audiences with low reading ability or with little technical knowledge of your subject.

Your goal, then, is to create specific topic sentences that state not only a topic but your point of view about that topic. Let’s consider a vague topic sentence versus a specific topic sentence:

With the specific topic sentence example, the writer expresses a specific point that the paragraph will discuss. In the vague topic sentence example, the writer has not given the reader a clear idea what the paragraph is about. As you can see, the specific topic sentence gives you a better idea about the writer’s goal (or her point of view) for the paragraph and tells the reader the direction the writer will take in the paragraph. In this case, the direction is clear: the writer will discuss continuing education classes. The topic sentence, however, doesn’t exist independent of the paragraph, but rather it functions within the paragraph to create the context. Again, it controls the other sentences in the paragraph. Let’s look at an example of a topic sentence that controls the other sentences in the paragraph.

Chocolate does more than just taste good—it has physiological effects. Chocolate contains caffeine, which provides spurts of energy. It releases endorphins, which create a sense of relaxation and comfort. Chocolate also contains a cannabinoid which, when consumed in very large quantities, can lead to altered states of consciousness.

In this paragraph about chocolate, the reader immediately knows the subject of the paragraph (chocolate does more than just taste good), but we also know the writer’s opinion or point of view about the subject (not only does it taste good but it has physiological effects). The physiological effects of chocolate are this paragraph’s controlling idea, so all other sentences in the paragraph will relate to that controlling idea. In this case, the other sentences provide examples of the physiological effects of chocolate, so the sentences do relate to the topic sentence.

What happens when a writer doesn’t create specific topic sentences that control the supporting sentences in a paragraph? Let’s look at an example.

Example 1: Topic Sentence with Supporting Sentences

Humor affects people's actions. Major advertisers often use cartoon commercials to tickle consumers' funny bones. Many major companies also use satires of American culture to convince consumers that they need particular products.

After reading this paragraph, were you able to identify the controlling idea or main point for the paragraph? Well, you probably knew the paragraph would be about humor. That’s a start, but it doesn’t tell you very much. The other sentences in the paragraph don’t seem to relate well to the topic sentence either, so the topic sentence wasn’t specific enough to control the supporting sentences. The reader has to work too hard to connect the supporting sentences to the topic sentence. The writer of the paragraph above completed a second draft of the paragraph with a specific topic sentence.

Example 2: Topic Sentence with Supporting Sentences

Humor in advertising, when used properly and cleverly, can persuade people to prefer a specific brand of product. Major advertisers often use computer animated characters in commercials to tickle consumers' funny bones. Two examples of the use of computer animated characters are especially important. Geico’s employment of a computer animated gecko resulted not only in increased brand recognition but also in an increased profit . . .

After reading the second paragraph, you probably knew exactly what the reader was going to discuss. Again, in this example we can see that a specific topic sentence expresses a controlling idea for the paragraph. In this case, we knew that the writer was discussing the ability of humor to persuade people to use a particular product.

We can learn one more thing from the example above—it often takes revising your paragraph (including your topic sentences) to create a specific topic sentence and an effective paragraph.

Essentially, topic sentences will state the main idea of your paragraphs and give your readers a sense of direction for the paragraphs. A specific topic sentence allows the writer to effectively control the other information in the paragraph and the reader to easily understand the writer’s point for the paragraph.

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