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5.2: Identifying Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

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    Being able to identify the purpose and thesis of a text, as you’re reading it, takes practice. This section will offer you that practice.

    One fun strategy for developing a deeper understanding the material you’re reading is to make a visual “map” of the ideas. Mind maps, whether hand-drawn or done through computer programs, can be fun to make, and help put all the ideas of an essay you’re reading in one easy-to-read format.

    Your understanding of what the “central” element of the mind map is might change as you read and re-read. Developing the central idea of your mind map is a great way to help you determine the reading’s thesis.

    The center is a yellow star-shaped human form, labeled Dave. Primary lines leading away from it include "free," "Aranya," and "Anger." Color-coded lines lead to phrases that are difficult to see clearly.

    Figure

    - Hand-drawn Mind Map

    Locating Explicit and Implicit Thesis Statements

    In academic writing, the thesis is often explicit: it is included as a sentence as part of the text. It might be near the beginning of the work, but not always–some types of academic writing leave the thesis until the conclusion.

    Journalism and reporting also rely on explicit thesis statements that appear very early in the piece–the first paragraph or even the first sentence.

    Works of literature, on the other hand, usually do not contain a specific sentence that sums up the core concept of the writing. However, readers should finish the piece with a good understanding of what the work was trying to convey. This is what’s called an implicit thesis statement: the primary point of the reading is conveyed indirectly, in multiple locations throughout the work. (In literature, this is also referred to as the theme of the work.)

    Academic writing sometimes relies on implicit thesis statements, as well.

    This video offers excellent guidance in identifying the thesis statement of a work, no matter if it’s explicit or implicit.

    Topic Sentences

    We’ve learned that a thesis statement conveys the primary message of an entire piece of text. Now, let’s look at the next level of important sentences in a piece of text: topic sentences in each paragraph.

    A useful metaphor would be to think of the thesis statement of a text as a general: it controls all the major decisions of the writing. There is only one thesis statement in a text. Topic sentences, in this relationship, serve as captains: they organize and sub-divide the overall goals of a writing into individual components. Each paragraph will have a topic sentence.

    Graphic labeled Parts of a Paragraph. It shows a hamburger separated into different layers. From the top down, they are labeled "topic sentence (top bun)"; "supporting details (tomatoes, lettuce, and meat)"; "colourful vocabulary (mustard, ketchup, and relish)"; "concluding sentence (bottom bun)."

    Figure

     

    It might be helpful to think of a topic sentence as working in two directions simultaneously. It relates the paragraph to the essay’s thesis, and thereby acts as a signpost for the argument of the paper as a whole, but it also defines the scope of the paragraph itself. For example, consider the following topic sentence:

    Many characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun have one particular dream in which they are following, though the character Walter pursues his most aggressively.

    If this sentence controls the paragraph that follows, then all sentences in the paragraph must relate in some way to Walter and the pursuit of his dream.

    Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements. Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence makes a claim of some sort. As the thesis statement is the unifying force in the essay, so the topic sentence must be the unifying force in the paragraph. Further, as is the case with the thesis statement, when the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way. Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.

     The following diagram illustrates how a topic sentence can provide more focus to the general topic at hand.

    Placement of Topic Sentences

    What if I told you that the topic sentence doesn’t necessarily need to be at the beginning? This might be contrary to what you’ve learned in previous English or writing classes, and that’s okay. Certainly, when authors announce a topic clearly and early on in a paragraph, their readers are likely to grasp their idea and to make the connections that they want them to make.

    However, when authors are writing for a more sophisticated academic audience—that is an audience of college-educated readers—they will often use more sophisticated organizational strategies to build and reveal ideas in their writing. One way to think about a topic sentence, is that it presents the broadest view of what authors want their readers to understand. This is to say that they’re providing a broad statement that either announces or brings into focus the purpose or the meaning for the details of the paragraph. If the topic sentence is seen as the broadest view, then every supporting detail will bring a narrower—or more specific—view of the same topic.

    With this in mind, take some time to contemplate the diagrams in the figure below. The widest point of each diagram (the bases of the triangles) represents the topic sentence of the paragraph. As details are presented, the topic becomes narrower and more focused. The topic can precede the details, it can follow them, it can both precede and follow them, or the details can surround the topic. There are surely more alternatives than those that are presented here, but this gives you an idea of some of the possible paragraph structures and possible placements for the topic sentence of a paragraph.

    Consider some of the following examples of different topic sentence placements in a paragraph from a review essay of the beloved children’s book, The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss. Paragraph structures are labeled according to the diagrams presented above, and topic sentences are identified by red text.

    Topic Sentence-Details-Topic Sentence

    A good children’s book requires an exciting plot and a problem with which children can sympathize. In The Cat in the Hat there is plenty of action, depicted in the wild antics of the cat, and later in the amazing but dangerous and messy tricks of Thing 1 and Thing 2. All this excitement and action naturally draws children into the story and keeps the plot moving forward at a pace that maintains their interest. There is also tension to be resolved. The fish senses danger and constantly warns the children not to participate in the cat’s perilous stunts. And later, as the mother’s return becomes more imminent, the children begin to heed the fish’s warning and finally wish to contain the chaos and clean up the mess, but how? While this plot is fantastic enough to fuel any child’s imagination, it also contains a problem with which any child can relate: a mess and the threat of a parent’s disapproval. The careful balance of action, tension, and relatability is what makes this book an enduring childhood favorite.

    Topic Sentence-Details

    The careful balance of action, tension, and relatability is what makes Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat an enduring childhood favorite. In The Cat in the Hat there is plenty of action, depicted in the wild antics of the cat, and later in the amazing but dangerous and messy tricks of Thing 1 and Thing 2. All this excitement and action naturally draws children into the story and keeps the plot moving forward at a pace that maintains their interest. There is also tension to be resolved. The fish senses danger and constantly warns the children not to participate in the cat’s perilous stunts. And later, as the mother’s return becomes more imminent, the children begin to heed the fish’s warning and finally wish to contain the chaos and clean up the mess, but how? While this plot is fantastic enough to fuel any child’s imagination, it also contains a problem with which any child can relate: a mess and the threat of a parent’s disapproval.

    Note

    You can relocate the topic sentence to the end here, and you’ll have an example of the Details-Topic Sentence method of organizing the paragraph.

    Details-Topic Sentence-Details

    In The Cat in the Hat there is plenty of action, depicted in the wild antics of the cat, and later in the amazing but dangerous and messy tricks of Thing 1 and Thing 2. All this excitement and action naturally draws children into the story and keeps the plot moving forward at a pace that maintains their interest. The careful balance of action, tension, and relatability is what makes Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat an enduring childhood favorite. There is definitely tension to be resolved here. The fish senses danger and constantly warns the children not to participate in the cat’s perilous stunts. And later, as the mother’s return becomes more imminent, the children begin to heed the fish’s warning and finally wish to contain the chaos and clean up the mess, but how? While this plot is fantastic enough to fuel any child’s imagination, it also contains a problem with which any child can relate: a mess and the threat of a parent’s disapproval.

    Explicit and Implicit Topic Sentences

    Similar to thesis statements, topic sentences may be explicit or implicit.

    Consider the following paragraph from an essay titled “The Bothersome Beauty of Pigeons,” by author and Boise State writing professor, Bruce Ballenger. It’s important to note that this is a personal narrative essay rather than a more traditional academic essay, but the paragraph provides a good example of an implied topic. In this essay Ballenger takes the time to consider the beauty of pigeons, a bird that’s usually thought of as nothing more than a nuisance. Just prior to this paragraph, Ballenger talks about how he used a fake owl to scare away pigeons on his property. He goes on to explain,

    My pigeons moved next door where an elderly couple feed them bird seed and have the time and willingness to clean up after their new charges; so it seems, in this case, things have worked out for everyone. But the large flocks still haunt the piazzas in Florence and Venice, the squares in London, and similar places in nearly every city across the globe. Despite their ability to distinguish between a Van Gogh and a Chagall, pigeons still deposit droppings that deface the great marble statues and facades–the works of art and architecture that are part of our human heritage–and yet people still buy bags of seed for about a dollar and pose for photographs, drenched in doves. Meanwhile, officials in these cities continue, sometimes quietly, to wage war against the birds (“Introduction”).

    Here, Ballenger seems to be saying that in spite of the attempts of so many to rid themselves of the pigeons, others are still drawn to them and will feed them and encourage them to come back. His main idea seems to be that the battle against pigeons is a losing proposition, but he doesn’t come out and say so. His message in this paragraph is implied. Do you think this paragraph would be improved with an explicit topic sentence?

    EXERCISE 1: Identify the Topic and Focus

    Choose a piece of writing, perhaps an essay or some news articles found online, and for each paragraph identify (1) the topic and (2) the more focused idea. Remember, the topic sentence applies more focus to the broader topic to help narrow the scope of the paragraph. For example, the topic of a paragraph might be school lunches. The more focused idea of that same paragraph might be the idea of having students plant school gardens as a way to help incorporate more fresh produce in the menu.

    Self-Check

     

     

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    5.2: Identifying Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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