Start with an Outline

A brief outline will make it easier to develop topic sentences and to arrange your paragraphs in the most effective order.

You should begin your outline by stating the thesis of your paper:

The English Civil War was caused by a combination of factors, including the empowerment and organization of Puritan forces, the absolutist tendencies of James I and the personal ineptitude of his son Charles I.

Next, list the topic sentences for each of the paragraphs (or sections) of the paper:

  1. The war and its aftereffects lasted twenty years.
  2. Historically, the Protestants had believed themselves persecuted.
  3. In the 1620s Protestants dominated Parliament and attempted to enact legislation which would provide guidelines for both religious worship and political representation.
  4. During his reign in the early 1600s, James I had attempted to silence Puritan protests and to solidify the role of the monarchy as unquestioned head of state.
  5. Charles I's lack of personal diplomacy and his advisers' desire for personal power gave the Puritans the excuses they needed to declare war on the monarchy.

You might notice that the topic sentences derive directly from the thesis, and explain, prove, or expand on each of the thesis' claims.

Once you have an outline at hand, you can follow three steps to help you write your paragraphs effectively:

  1. Use your thesis to help you organise the rest of your paper.
  2. Write a list of topic sentences, and make sure that they show how the material in each paragraph is related to your thesis.
  3. Eliminate material that is not related to your thesis and topic sentences.

 

Written by Dorothy Turner

Writing Topic Sentences

A topic sentence (also known as a focus sentence) encapsulates or organises an entire paragraph, and you should be careful to include one in most of your major paragraphs. Although topic sentences may appear anywhere in a paragraph, in academic essays they often appear at the beginning.

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 fast-food chains make their profits from adding a special ingredient called "forget sauce" to their foods.

If this sentence controls the paragraph that follows, then all sentences in the paragraph must relate in some way to fast food, profit, and "forget sauce":

Made largely from edible oil products, this condiment is never listed on the menu.

This sentence fits in with the topic sentence because it is a description of the composition of "forget sauce."

In addition, this well-kept industry secret is the reason why ingredients are never listed on the packaging of victuals sold by these restaurants.

The transitional phrase "In addition" relates the composition of "forget sauce" to secret fast-food industry practices.

"Forget sauce" has a chemical property which causes temporary amnesia in consumers.

Now the paragraph moves on to the short-term effect on consumers:

After spending too much money on barely edible food bereft of any nutritional value, most consumers swear they will never repeat such a disagreeable experience.

This sentence describes its longer-term effects:

Within a short period, however, the chemical in "forget sauce" takes effect, and they can be depended upon to return and spend, older but no wiser.

Finally, I finish the paragraph by "proving" the claim contained in the topic sentence, that many fast-food chains make their profits from adding a special ingredient called "forget sauce" to their foods.

Analysing a Topic Sentence

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.

Consider the last paragraph about topic sentences, beginning with the topic sentence itself:

Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements.

This is my claim, or the point I will prove in the following paragraph. All the sentences that follow this topic sentence must relate to it in some way.

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.

These two sentences show how the reader can compare thesis statements and topic sentences: they both make a claim and they both provide a focus for the writing which follows.

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.

Using the transitional word "further" to relate this sentence to those preceding it, I expand on my topic sentence by suggesting ways a topic sentence is related to the sentences that follow it.

Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.

Finally, I wrap up the paragraph by stating exactly how topic sentences act rather like tiny thesis statements.

 

Written by Dorothy Turner

Dividing your Argument

Starting a new paragraph is a signal to your reader that you are beginning a new thought or taking up a new point. Since your outline will help you divide the essay into sections, the resulting paragraphs must correspond to the logical divisions in the essay. If your paragraphs are too long, divide your material into smaller, more manageable units; if they're too short, find broader topic sentences that will allow you to combine some of your ideas.

Look at the list of sentences below:

In preparation for study some students apportion a negligible period of time to clearing off a desk, a table, a floor; others must scrub all surfaces and clean all toilet bowls within 50 meters before the distraction of dirt disappears.
Some eat or pace while they work.
Some work with deep concentration, others more fitfully.
Students might smoke, or chew their nails, or stare blankly at walls or at computer screens.
If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library.
The kitchen, and the bedroom function as study spaces.
Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully.
Being sedentary seems to inspire others.
Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets.
Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed.
Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

Were these sentences simply combined they would yield nothing but a long list of facts, not obviously related to one another, except that they all refer to students and the way we study. There is too much information here to include in one paragraph. The solution is to develop two topic sentences under which all (or most) of the above information will fit.

For most students the process of studying involves establishing a complex set of rituals which come to be repeated, with little variation, every time a task is assigned by a professor.

If we add the first five sentences to this topic sentence we have a unified but general description of the types of "rituals" or study patterns which are such an important part of academic life.

For most students the process of studying involves establishing a complex set of rituals which come to be repeated, with little variation, every time a task is assigned by a professor. In preparation for study some students apportion a negligible period of time to clearing off a desk, a table, a floor; others must scrub all surfaces and clean all toilet bowls within 50 meters before the distraction of dirt disappears. Some eat or pace while they work. Some work with deep concentration, others more fitfully. Students might smoke, or chew their nails, or stare blankly at walls or at computer screens.

The rest of the sentences are more specific. They concern the distribution of individual time, space and effort, and relate the rituals involved in study to those less commonly associated with school. A topic sentence might look something like this:

Work tends, therefore, to be associated with non-work-specific environments, activities, and schedules. If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library. What about the kitchen? The bedroom? In fact, any room in which a student habitually studies becomes a learning space, or a place associated with thinking. Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully. Being sedentary seems to inspire others. Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets. Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed. Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

Some organisation and a couple of topic sentences have transformed a long and undifferentiated listing of student activities into two unified paragraphs with a logical division between them.

 

Written by Dorothy Turner

Developing Unified and Coherent Paragraphs

A paragraph is unified when every sentence develops the point made in the topic sentence. It must have a single focus and it must contain no irrelevant facts. Every sentence must contribute to the paragraph by explaining, exemplifying, or expanding the topic sentence. In order to determine whether a paragraph is well developed or not, ask yourself: "What main point am I trying to convey here?" (topic sentence) and then "Does every sentence clearly relate to this idea?"

There are several ways in which you can build good, clear paragraphs. This section will discuss three of the most common types of paragraph structure: development by detail, comparison and contrast, and process. Finally, it will suggest that most paragraphs are built of a combination of development strategies.

Paragraph Development by Detail

This is the most common and easiest form of paragraph development: you simply expand on a general topic sentence using specific examples or illustrations. Look at the following paragraph (you may have encountered it before):

Work tends to be associated with non-work-specific environments, activities, and schedules. If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library. What about the kitchen? The bedroom? In fact, any room in which a student habitually studies becomes a learning space, or a place associated with thinking. Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully. Being sedentary seems to inspire others. Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets. Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed. Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

The topic sentence makes a general claim: that school work tends not to be associated only with school. The rest of the sentences provide various illustrations of this argument. They are organised around the three categories, "environment, activities, and schedules," enumerated in the topic sentence. The details provide the concrete examples which your reader will use to evaluate the credibility of your topic sentence.

Paragraph Development by Comparison and Contrast

You should consider developing your paragraph by comparison and contrast when you are describing two or more things which have something, but not everything, in common. You may choose to compare either point by point (X is big, Y is little; X and Y are both purple.) or subject by subject (X is big and purple; Y is small and purple.). Consider, for example, the following paragraph:

Although the interpretation of traffic signals may seem highly standardized, close observation reveals regional variations across this country, distinguishing the East Coast from Central Canada and the West as surely as dominant dialects or political inclinations. In Montreal, a flashing red traffic light instructs drivers to careen even more wildly through intersections heavily populated with pedestrians and oncoming vehicles. In startling contrast, an amber light in Calgary warns drivers to scream to a halt on the off chance that there might be a pedestrian within 500 meters who might consider crossing at some unspecified time within the current day. In my home town in New Brunswick, finally, traffic lights (along with painted lines and posted speed limits) do not apply to tractors, all terrain vehicles, or pickup trucks, which together account for most vehicles on the road. In fact, were any observant Canadian dropped from an alien space vessel at an unspecified intersection anywhere in this vast land, he or she could almost certainly orient him-or-herself according to the surrounding traffic patterns.

This paragraph compares traffic patterns in three areas of Canada. It contrasts the behaviour of drivers in the Maritimes, in Montreal, and in Calgary, in order to make a point about how attitudes in various places inform behaviour. People in these areas have in common the fact that they all drive; in contrast, they drive differently according to the area in which they live.

It is important to note that the paragraph above considers only one aspect of driving (behaviour at traffic lights). If you wanted to consider two or more aspects, you would probably need more than one paragraph.

Paragraph Development by Process

Paragraph development by process involves a straightforward step-by-step description. Those of you in the sciences will recognise it as the formula followed in the "method" section of a lab experiment. Process description often follows a chronological sequence:

The first point to establish is the grip of the hand on the rod. This should be about half-way up the cork handle, absolutely firm and solid, but not tense or rigid. All four fingers are curved around the handle, the little finger, third finger and middle finger contributing most of the firmness by pressing the cork solidly into the fleshy part of the palm, near the heel of the hand. The forefinger supports and steadies the grip but supplies its own firmness against the thumb, which should be along the upper side of the handle and somewhere near the top of the grip. (from Roderick Haig-Brown, "Fly Casting")

The topic sentence establishes that the author will use this paragraph to describe the process of establishing the "grip of the hand on the rod," and this is exactly what he does, point by point, with little abstraction.

Paragraph Development by Combination

Very often, a single paragraph will contain development by a combination of methods. It may begin with a brief comparison, for example, and move on to provide detailed descriptions of the subjects being compared. A process analysis might include a brief history of the process in question. Many paragraphs include lists of examples:

The broad range of positive characteristics used to define males could be used to define females too, but they are not. At its entry for woman Webster's Third provides a list of "qualities considered distinctive of womanhood": "Gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly." Among the "qualities considered distinctive of manhood" listed in the entry for man, no negative attributes detract from the "courage, strength, and vigor" the definers associate with males. According to this dictionary, womanish means "unsuitable to a man or to a strong character of either sex."

This paragraph is a good example of one which combines a comparison and contrast of contemporary notions of "manliness" and "womanliness" with an extended list of examples.

 

Written by Dorothy Turner