In an academic essay, the first sentence of each new paragraph is called the topic sentence. Topic sentences are often considered “mini-thesis statements,” offering a subsection of the paper’s main argument. In fact, if you read the thesis statement and topic sentences alone, you should have an outline detailing exactly what the paper is about and the relationships between paragraphs and supporting evidence. To write good topic sentences in your next paper, remember these four tips:
1. Give the reader an idea of what the paragraph is about—and be specific.
Say you are writing an essay about Romeo & Juliet, and your argument is that the play is not the great romance people think it is. Your topic sentences should reinforce this idea but offer something a little more specific than just restating the main argument. For example, you might have a topic sentence that states, “Romeo is not romantic because at the beginning of the play, his love interest is Rosaline, not Juliet.” The rest of the paragraph would provide evidence showing how Romeo is in love with another woman until he quickly “falls in love” with Juliet and forgets his former flame. This topic sentence introduces an example and gives just the right amount of detail for the reader.
2. Avoid using lists.
Each paragraph in your essay should have one solid idea backed up with supporting evidence from the text or outside research. Therefore, a topic sentence should never have the format, “In this paragraph, I will discuss x, y, and z.” To use our Romeo & Juliet example, the topic sentence should not state, “Romeo & Juliet is a bad example of romance because the lovers have only known each other for three days, are too young for love, and are too immature.” A better tactic would be to break each of these three ideas (“known each other for three days,” “too young for love,” and “too immature”) into three paragraphs, with a topic sentence for each one.
3. Provide a transition between paragraphs.
While a topic sentence is meant to advance an argument and add new evidence, it should also reach back to the previous paragraph and ensure a smooth transition between ideas. There are four main types of transitions:
- Compare: Likewise, similar
Example: “Like Romeo’s constant praises of Juliet’s beauty, Juliet’s conversations with her Nurse suggest that physical attraction is the main motivation for Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.”
- Contrast: On the other hand, conversely, although, while, though, however, unlike
Example: “Unlike Romeo, who once courted Rosaline, Juliet has a lack of experience with men and is immature in matters of love.”
- Addition: Additionally, in addition, moreover, also, furthermore
Example: “Furthermore, Juliet’s lack of interest in Paris suggests that she is predisposed to ‘fall in love’ with a man who she thinks is a better alternative.”
- Passage of time: At the beginning, at the end, then, next, after, finally
Example: “At the end of the play, Romeo kills himself not only because of his love for Juliet, but because of his combined grief brought about by her supposed death, his exile, and the murders of Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris.”
4. Avoid overuse of rhetorical questions or quotes.
Student writers are tempted to start new paragraphs by posing a question, such as “Why is Romeo & Juliet considered a great romance?” However, in most academic essays, these questions tend to waste valuable space and do not add much to the paper. Using strong, declarative statements better supports an argument than asking a question for readers to interpret for themselves.
In addition, quotes should be used sparingly or not at all in topic sentences. For example, a poor topic sentence is, “In Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare writes, ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” This sentence does not add any analysis or any of the writer’s own thoughts; it only quotes from the text. For writers who like to use quotes often, a better method is to integrate a snippet of a quote into a topic sentence. For example, “Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ are neither star-crossed nor lovers: they are two immature teenagers whose poor decisions lead to too many deaths throughout the play.” This sentence borrows from one of the play’s most famous lines (“star-crossed lovers”), but the argument is entirely the writer’s own and is much more compelling.
What are some of your best topic sentences? Let us know in the comments below.
Date published November 5, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: September 17, 2015
If argumentative essays were newspaper articles, thesis statements would be the headlines—and as a thesis statement is like the headline of an essay, a topic sentence is like the headline of a paragraph. This is because, like the thesis, they let the reader know what to expect.
Topic sentences have three basic functions:
- Describe all and only the topic matter of the paragraph.
- Clearly situate the paragraph’s content in relation to the thesis.
- Provide a transition from the preceding paragraph.
View topic sentences in an example essay
1. How much topic matter to cover with a topic sentence
All and only
Though small, the words “all” and “only” are both very important here. The first requires your topic sentence to cover enough information, while the second limits the amount of information the topic sentence should cover.
All of the information in the paragraph should relate clearly to the topic sentence. This means, reciprocally, that the topic sentence should be just broad enough to account for, with some detail, all the points you make in the paragraph. Make sure the topic sentence is sufficiently expansive and precise. To help with this, use key words from the most important point(s) you make in the body of the paragraph.
However, only the information in the paragraph should be covered by the topic sentence (except in the case of compound topic sentences). This means that the topic sentence should not be any broader than the topic matter in the paragraph requires.
Thinking of these all and only requirements, consider your topic sentence to present a miniature mirror-image of the paragraph’s content. Everything you see in the paragraph you should also see in the topic sentence; on the other hand, usually, information that you don’t see in the paragraph you should not see in the topic sentence.
When revising your paragraphs, if you notice a difference between what the topic sentence covers and what the paragraph covers, you always have two options: change the topic sentence or change the paragraph. Perhaps you will need to carefully add a few words to the topic sentence; or perhaps something important is missing from the paragraph, and you will need to add that. On the other hand, perhaps your topic sentence is too broad, and you need to cut something from it; or perhaps your paragraph covers information irrelevant to the topic sentence, and you need to delete that information or find it a new home.
Compound topic sentences
Sometimes a topic sentence works more like a section introduction, outlining information that will come over the next two or three paragraphs. In this case, you should use two topic sentences in the same paragraph, what we might call a compound topic sentence. The first of the two is the section-heading-like topic sentence—the same “all and only” rules apply to this topic sentence, but it covers a few paragraphs’ worth of information. The second topic sentence picks up one part of the first and covers all and only the information in the present paragraph.
Example Compound Topic Sentence
[First T.S.] The government has three main obstacles to developing tidal hydro power on the coast: funding, location, and technological innovation. [Second T.S.] The problem of funding results from prior financial commitments and the relatively low budget of the province.
The present paragraph would continue to discuss funding, while the next paragraph would take up location, starting with another topic sentence.
2. Connection to the thesis or overall argument
Covering only the first basic function, the topic sentence is incomplete. We might know what the paragraph is about, but we need to know why this information is important to the main point of the essay. The second function of the topic sentence clarifies this matter—connect the topic sentence to the thesis.
To ensure that your topic sentences fulfill this second function, ask yourself, “How does this paragraph help the reader understand why my thesis is right? How can the reader identify the connection between the point I make here and the overall point that I earlier set out to make?” Answers to these questions should be obvious from the topic sentence.
To help ensure these connections are clear, re-use key words that you’ve used in your thesis, and make sure that you are explicit about how the paragraph explores the larger point. To illustrate, for the compound topic sentence we considered a moment ago, consider the following thesis:
Example Thesis Statement
Efforts from NGO’s and the government to establish tidal hydro power in Nova Scotia face many obstacles, but by working together the two groups can meet with success by 2020.
Our compound topic sentence establishes the connection to the parts of this thesis by specifically mentioning “the government” and “obstacles,” so that the reader knows what part of the thesis the associated paragraphs will explore, and by giving some further detail, so that the reader better understands what nuances of the paper will pick out.
As we saw with compound topic sentences, the topic sentence for a paragraph does not always need to relate directly to the thesis. For example, the topic sentences that follow a compound topic sentence refer to the compound topic sentence, but it refers to the thesis. Similarly, in longer essays that use subsections, topic sentences can refer to the main point laid out in the subsection’s introduction.
What’s important here is that the topic sentence either connects to the thesis or connects to something else, which in turn connects with the thesis.
Being the sentence that encapsulates the paragraph, a topic sentence often provides an ideal place to transition from the topic matter of the previous paragraph or section to the topic matter of the present paragraph or section. Transitioning is really an optional function of the topic sentence, but if the transition does not appear in the topic sentence, normally it should appear be just before the topic sentence.