Skills to Develop
- Identify characteristics of a good topic sentence
- Identify the three parts of a developed paragraph
- Apply knowledge of topic sentences and parts of a developed paragraph in an assignment
This section addresses paragraph composition. In the next chapter, we will look at identifying common assignment purposes and how to select appropriate content for a particular audience, but here we will look at what actually makes up a paragraph. Composing an effective paragraph requires a method similar to building a house. You may have the finest content, or materials, but if you do not arrange them in the correct order, then the final product will not hold together very well.
Imagine reading one long block of text, with each idea blurring into the next. Even if you are reading a thrilling novel or an interesting news article, you will likely very quickly lose interest in what the author. During the writing process, it is helpful to position yourself as a reader. Ask yourself whether you can focus easily on each point you make. One technique that effective writers use is to begin a fresh paragraph for each new idea they introduce.
Paragraphs separate ideas into logical, manageable chunks. One paragraph focuses on only one main idea and presents coherent sentences to support that one point. Because all the sentences in one paragraph support the same point, a paragraph may stand on its own. To create longer assignments and to discuss more than one point, writers group together paragraphs.
A strong paragraph contains three distinct components:
Topic sentence. The topic sentence is the main idea of the paragraph.
Body. The body is composed of the supporting sentences that develop the main point.
Conclusion. The conclusion is the final sentence that summarizes the main point.
The foundation of a good paragraph is the topic sentence, which expresses the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence relates to the thesis, or main point, of the essay and guides the reader by signposting what the paragraph is about. All the sentences in the rest of the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.
This section covers the major components of a paragraph and examines how to develop an effective topic sentence.
How long should a paragraph be?
One answer to this important question may be “long enough”—long enough for you to address your points and explain your main idea. To grab attention or to present succinct supporting ideas, a paragraph can be fairly short and consist of two to three sentences. A paragraph in a complex essay about some abstract point in philosophy or archaeology can be two-thirds of a page or more in length. As long as the writer maintains close focus on the topic and does not ramble, a long paragraph is acceptable. In general, try to keep the paragraphs longer than one sentence but shorter than two-thirds of a page of double spaced text, or roughly 75 to 200 words in length.
Journalistic style often calls for brief two- or three-sentence paragraphs because of how people read the news, both online and in print. Blogs and other online information sources often adopt this paragraphing style, too. Readers often skim the first paragraphs of a great many articles before settling on the handful of stories they want to read in detail.
You may find that a particular paragraph you write may be longer than one that will hold your audience’s interest. In such cases, you should divide the paragraph into two or more shorter paragraphs, adding a topic statement or some kind of transitional word or phrase at the start of the new paragraph. Transition words or phrases show the connection between the two ideas.
In all cases, however, be guided by what your instructor wants and expects to find in your draft. Many instructors will expect you to develop a mature style as you progress through the semester’s assignments.
Developing a Topic Sentence
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and read the first sentence of an article. Are you fairly confident that you know what the rest of the article is about? If so, you have likely read the topic sentence. An effective topic sentence combines a main idea with the writer’s personal attitude or opinion. It serves to orient the reader and provides an indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. Read the following example.
Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many provinces.
This topic sentence declares a favourable position for standardizing math and English education. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to provide supporting details and facts as to why standardizing math and English education might improve student learning in many provinces. If the purpose of the essay is actually to evaluate education in only one particular province or to discuss math or English education specifically, then the topic sentence is misleading.
When writing a draft of an essay, allow a friend or colleague to read the opening line of your first paragraph. Ask your reader to predict what your paper will be about. If he or she is unable to guess your topic accurately, you should consider revising your topic sentence so that it clearly defines your purpose in writing.
Main Idea versus Controlling Idea
Topic sentences contain both a main idea (the subject, or topic that the writer is discussing) and a controlling idea (the writer’s specific stance on that subject). Just as a thesis statement includes an idea that controls a document’s focus, a topic sentence must also contain a controlling idea to direct the paragraph. Different writers may use the same main idea but can steer their paragraph in a number of different directions according to their stance on the subject. Read the following examples.
Marijuana is a destructive influence on teens and causes long-term brain damage.
The anti-nausea properties in marijuana are a lifeline for many cancer patients.
Legalizing marijuana would create a higher demand for Class A and Class B drugs.
Although the main idea—marijuana—is the same in all three topic sentences, the controlling idea differs depending on the writer’s viewpoint.
Circle the main idea and underline the controlling idea in each of the following topic sentences.
Exercising three times a week is the only way to maintain good physical health.
Sexism and racism are still rampant in today’s workplace.
Raising the legal driving age to 21 would decrease road traffic accidents.
Owning a business is the only way to achieve financial success.
Dog owners should be prohibited from taking their pets on public beaches.
Characteristics of a Good Topic Sentence
Five characteristics define a good topic sentence:
A good topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
Weak example. People rarely give firefighters the credit they deserve for such a physically and emotionally demanding job. (The paragraph is about a specific incident that involved firefighters; therefore, this topic sentence is too general.)
Stronger example. During the October riots, Unit 3B went beyond the call of duty. (This topic sentence is more specific and indicates that the paragraph will contain information about a particular incident involving Unit 3B.)
A good topic sentence contains both a topic and a controlling idea or opinion.
Weak example. In this paper, I am going to discuss the rising suicide rate among young professionals. (This topic sentence provides a main idea, but it does not present a controlling idea or thesis.)
Stronger example. The rising suicide rate among young professionals is a cause for immediate concern. (This topic sentence presents the writer’s opinion on the subject of rising suicide rates among young professionals.)
A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.
Weak example. In general, writing an essay, thesis, or other academic or nonacademic document is considerably easier and of much higher quality if you first construct an outline, of which there are many different types. (This topic sentence includes a main idea and a controlling thesis, but both are buried beneath the confusing sentence structure and unnecessary vocabulary. These obstacles make it difficult for the reader to follow.)
Stronger example. Most forms of writing can be improved by first creating an outline. (This topic sentence cuts out unnecessary verbiage and simplifies the previous statement, making it easier for the reader to follow.)
A good topic sentence does not include supporting details.
Weak example. Salaries should be capped in baseball for many reasons, most importantly so we don’t allow the same team to win year after year. (This topic sentence includes a supporting detail that should be included later in the paragraph to back up the main point.)
Stronger example. Introducing a salary cap would improve the game of baseball for many reasons. (This topic sentence omits the additional supporting detail so that it can be expanded upon later in the paragraph.)
A good topic sentence engages the reader by using interesting vocabulary.
Weak example. The military deserves better equipment. (This topic sentence includes a main idea and a controlling thesis, but the language is bland and unexciting.)
Stronger example. The appalling lack of resources provided to the military is outrageous and requires our immediate attention. (This topic sentence reiterates the same idea and controlling thesis, but adjectives such as appalling and immediate better engage the reader. These words also indicate the writer’s tone.)
Choose the most effective topic sentence from the following sentence pairs.
a. This paper will discuss the likelihood of the Liberals winning the next election.
b. To boost their chances of winning the next election, the Liberals need to listen to public opinion.
a. The unrealistic demands of union workers are crippling the economy for three main reasons.
b. Union workers are crippling the economy because companies are unable to remain competitive as a result of added financial pressure.
a. Authors are losing money as a result of technological advances.
b. The introduction of new technology will devastate the literary world.
a. Rap music is produced by untalented individuals with oversized egos.
b. This essay will consider whether talent is required in the rap music industry.
Using the tips on developing effective topic sentences in this section, create a topic sentence on each of the following subjects. Remember to include a controlling idea as well as a main idea.
An endangered species:
The cost of fuel:
The legal drinking age:
A controversial film or novel:
Collaboration: Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Writing at Work
When creating a workplace document, use the “top down” approach—keep the topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph so that readers immediately understand the gist of the message. This method saves busy colleagues precious time and effort trying to figure out the main points and relevant details.
Headings are another helpful tool. In a text-heavy document, break up each paragraph with individual headings. These serve as useful navigation aids, enabling colleagues to skim through the document and locate paragraphs that are relevant to them.
Developing Paragraphs That Use Topic Sentences, Supporting Ideas, and Transitions Effectively
Learning how to develop a good topic sentence is the first step toward writing a solid paragraph. Once you have composed your topic sentence, you have a guideline for the rest of the paragraph. To complete the paragraph, a writer must support the topic sentence with additional information and summarize the main point with a concluding sentence.
This section identifies the three major structural parts of a paragraph and covers how to develop a paragraph using transitional words and phrases.
Identifying Parts of a Paragraph
An effective paragraph contains three main parts: a topic sentence, the body, and the concluding sentence. A topic sentence is often the first sentence of a paragraph. The body of the paragraph usually follows, containing supporting details. Supporting sentences help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence. The concluding sentence is the last sentence in the paragraph. It reminds the reader of the main point by restating it in different words. Figure 3.4 provides a template you can use for organizing your paragraphs.
Figure 3.4 - Paragraph Structure Graphic Organizer
Read the following paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
After reading the new TV guide this week, I had just one thought—why are we still being bombarded with reality shows? This season, the plague of reality television continues to darken our airwaves. Along with the return of viewer favourites, we are to be cursed with yet another mindless creation. Prisoner follows the daily lives of eight suburban housewives who have chosen to be put in jail for the purposes of this fake psychological experiment. A preview for the first episode shows the usual tears and tantrums associated with reality television. I dread to think what producers will come up with next season, but if any of them are reading this blog—stop it! We’ve had enough reality television to last us a lifetime!
The first sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It tells the reader that the paragraph will be about reality television shows, and it expresses the writer’s distaste for these shows through the use of the word bombarded.
Each of the following sentences in the paragraph supports the topic sentence by providing further information about a specific reality television show. The final sentence is the concluding sentence. It reiterates the main point that viewers are bored with reality television shows by using different words from the topic sentence.
Paragraphs that begin with the topic sentence move from the general to the specific. They open with a general statement about a subject (reality shows) and then discuss specific examples (the reality show Prisoner). Most academic essays contain the topic sentence at the beginning of the first paragraph.
Now take a look at another paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
Last year, a cat travelled 200 kilometres to reach its family, who had moved to another city and had left their pet behind. Even though the cat had never been to the new home, it cat was able to track down its former owners. A dog in my neighbourhood can predict when its master is about to have a seizure. It makes sure that he does not hurt himself during an epileptic fit. Compared to many animals, our own senses are almost dull.
The last sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It draws on specific examples (a cat that tracked down its owners and a dog that can predict seizures) and then makes a general statement that draws a conclusion from these examples (animals’ senses are better than humans’). In this case, the supporting sentences are placed before the topic sentence and the concluding sentence is the same as the topic sentence.
This technique is frequently used in persuasive writing. The writer produces detailed examples as evidence to back up his or her point, preparing the reader to accept the concluding topic sentence as the truth.
Sometimes, the topic sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph. Read the following example. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
For many years, I suffered from severe anxiety every time I took an exam. Hours before the exam, my heart would begin pounding, my legs would shake, and sometimes I would become physically unable to move. Last year, I was referred to a specialist and finally found a way to control my anxiety—breathing exercises. It seems so simple, but by doing just a few breathing exercises a couple of hours before an exam, I gradually got my anxiety under control. The exercises help slow my heart rate and make me feel less anxious. Better yet, they require no pills, no equipment, and very little time. It is amazing how just breathing correctly has helped me learn to manage my anxiety symptoms.
In this paragraph, the underlined sentence is the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea—that breathing exercises can help control anxiety. The preceding sentences enable the writer to build up to his main point (breathing exercises can help control anxiety) by using a personal anecdote (how the writer used to suffer from anxiety). The supporting sentences then expand on how breathing exercises help the writer by providing additional information. The last sentence is the concluding sentence and restates how breathing can help manage anxiety.
Placing a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph is often used in creative writing. If you notice that you have used a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph in an academic essay, read through the paragraph carefully to make sure that it contains only one major topic.