Archive for category Topic Sentences

Pause and balance: how to use topic sentences


Balance! - and what makes your reader pause?

Last week we looked at the two main types of topic sentence. They both have different functions, so in this post we’ll examine how and when to use each type of topic sentence to create a balanced essay.

Technique-based topic sentences summarise the evidence you will present (literary devices in English Literature essays; quotations, citations, statistics, theories and other types of evidence in essays for other disciplines). Thematic topic sentences are the distilled interpretations or implications of that evidence. Technique-based topic sentences are useful for linking paragraphs as they summarise the bulk of the essay and make smooth transitions for readers because they are generally easy to understand. Thematic-based topic sentences can also be used to link paragraphs. However, because they communicate deeper thoughts, they can take a little longer to absorb. This is often advantageous, because it further breaks up your essay, and it increases the likelihood of your sophisticated thoughts being understood.

It’s the thought that counts. The closing thematic topic sentence is there to sum up the argument and present the thematic implications in a compelling and thought-provoking manner. It could be as simple as “Time destroys.” I like that short sentence. (We’ll discuss sentence types and how to deploy them effectively in a future post). I’d already explained how the imagery in the poem “Ozymandias” conveyed this thematic message, so that sentence was fine on its own. Pauses can be powerful. Can you see how ending a paragraph with that punchy topic sentence will prompt the reader to reflect on the message?

Have another look at the post on how to order paragraphs, but this time read the examples with a different focus: to hone your understanding of topic sentences. Do you see how they hold each paragraph together, while linking the separate paragraphs in order; guiding the reader through both technical and thematic subtleties?

Notice that the thematic topic sentences often work well as closing topic sentences, because the final sentence will linger in the reader’s mind for a while, before they move on to the next paragraph. Thus, ending topic sentences are a great place to communicate important thematic ideas. They’re also a great place to answer the question explicitly, so the reader feels that reading the preceding evidence was relevant and worth their time.

However, engaging with thematic concepts is especially important if you want to get top marks, so thematic topic sentences can be used at the start of a paragraph too. Sometimes you might feel your thematic repetition won’t add value through new layers of meaning, though. In these situations – and also when it simply reads better if you relate evidence to previous paragraphs – technique-based topic sentences are great as the first topic sentence of a paragraph.

In general, technique-based topic sentences make your essay flow; while thematic topic sentences may cause the reader to pause while you go deeper (and also answer the essay question). Both effects can be useful; there’s a time and place for everything – balance the two types of  topic sentence. Now you know which tool you can use to get the effect you want in each situation.

Photo Credit: Image by (aka Brent) via Flickr

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The two types of topic sentence

Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri ...

Image via Wikipedia

Since topic sentences function a bit like introductions and summaries to paragraphs, and because there are two main foundational concepts you can build paragraphs around, there are two main types of topic sentence: thematic and technique-based.

Technique-based topic sentences

Most students find technique-based topic sentences easier; you’re effectively introducing the paragraph by saying you’ll examine the imagery, or camera angles, or whatever. Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:

Conrad’s literary strategy involves using Marlow’s narrative to demonstrate the reader’s incomplete understanding, which parallels the main character’s developing discernment.

Thematic topic sentences are harder to grasp and are probably the more important of the two types, because their unique function demonstrates your ability to think and write well. Let’s look at thematic topic sentences in more detail.

Thematic topic sentences

Through explorations of themes, authors communicate messages, to a greater or lesser extent. However, these messages are often only implicit. On the other hand, thematic topic sentences should convey messages to the essay reader explicitly. Translate your interpretation of the author’s messages for your reader.

Sentences that discuss themes show higher-order thinking that will set your essay apart from those that merely re-tell the story. Themes, meanings, and messages are abstract and ethereal ideas that float above the surface of a text. So you don’t even need to refer to the poem, a character in a novel, or the plot in a short story in your thematic topic sentences; because the evidence in the preceding sentences should have already explained the important connection between your interpretation and the text itself. Thematic topic sentences communicate sophisticated ideas that draw conclusions, express insights, and generally do a little abstract philosophising.

Tip: abstract nouns feature frequently in thematic topic sentences.

Some examples

Some of the theory about thematic and technique-based writing was covered (although from a slightly different angle) in a previous post linked above, so let’s look now at a few examples.

Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:

Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected.

Here’s an example of a thematic topic sentence:

Soon his life’s opportunities are left behind him: opportunities are left stranded by humans every day.

Can you see how the thematic topic sentence powerfully communicates a message that has been extracted from the text? It’s a lesson; not the story itself. The more clearly you understand this distinction, the better essays you will write. On the other hand, the technique-based topic sentence is still tied very closely to the text, so they’re often easier to write because the techniques described are easily identifiable in the text. Thematic sentences require you to think harder.

Remember that good topic sentences improve the quality of the whole paragraph to which they belong. Now you know a few types of topic sentences and have seen a few examples, you can start incorporating these into your own essays. Think critically about how you’re using the different types of topic sentences and how each sentence fits with its paragraph; used well, topic sentences can make a world of difference. All the best!

Photo Credit: Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri … Image via Wikipedia

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Babushka dolls and burgers

babushka dolls

What's in these?

We’ve talked about answering the question – perhaps narrowing the question, using nuanced arguments, and remembering to use the wording of the question as a motif throughout your essay. Answering the question ensures that your essay is eligible to get marks; the other techniques make hard questions easier, conceive higher quality essays, and speed up the process so you have more free time.

It’s important that each paragraph is well structured in its own right, though. This goes beyond knowing when to split or combine thoughts into paragraphs or ordering the paragraphs well. Each paragraph is a mini-argument. So each paragraph has elements which work together to guide your reader through so that they reach your conclusion – or at least appreciate it and give you lots of marks!

Mini-introductions and conclusions

One important ingredient that strengthens a paragraph is an opening and closing topic sentence. This pair of topic sentences holds the paragraph together; making it easier for the reader to ‘pick up’ and digest its contents (the evidence that supports your argument). Topic sentences do this by introducing the main argument of the paragraph, which improving clarity. Then the closing topic sentence summarises, evaluates, and re-emphasises an important “take-out” point at the end of the paragraph. This makes the paragraph more compelling.

Using a pair of topic sentences is sort of like having an introduction and conclusion, on a smaller scale, for each paragraph. Essay writing is often like putting together a babushka doll; each component resembles the one that it’s inside, but it’s smaller and simpler. Repetitive? Perhaps, but that makes it clearer and more compelling. Balance the downside of repetition by using varied expression – but that’s a topic for a future post.

First attempts at topic sentences

Opening topic sentences share a similar function to headings, like the ones in this post. When considering your essay plan, think of the main point of each paragraph as being a heading. Of course, in most academic essays, you won’t use headings (some course lecturers will allow this – check with them before you submit your work). Instead, you can write ‘full sentence’ headings as the first lines of each paragraph – this is a good first attempt at nefarious “topic sentences”, but the two types of topic sentences is a topic (eek) for another time. For an example of topic sentences which shows how well they summarise the main strands of the essay’s argument, see this bird’s-eye-view of an essay.

I encourage you to use topic sentences – while they can be a challenge to write initially, with practice writing them will become second nature. Effective topic sentences can lift the rest of a paragraph. Results are far better than expected, based their proportion of words – try it!


Photo credit: ** Maurice ** via Flickr

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Social Entrepreneurship – An Essay Plan

Massetti, B. (2008) The Social Entrepreneurship Matrix as a "Tipping Point" for Economic Change. Emergence: Complexity & Organization, 10(3) 1-8.

Following on from my last post here is an example plan for an essay on social entrepreneurship:

Introduction in full: The concept of social entrepreneurship is a relatively new one. While some commentators argue that it has been around in practice for at least a century or more, for example the ‘Gung Ho’ response to Japan’s blockading of China’s industry during the late 1930’s, it is a largely misunderstood way of doing business. In recent years, researchers have aimed to cut through the myths and present social entrepreneurship as a viable world changing instrument. One of the clearest ways of presenting the basic forms of social entrepreneurship is Masseti’s Social Entrepreneurship matrix. Using the two forces that impact the social entrepreneur the most: profit and their mission, the matrix creates four quadrants that define the four most common types of social ventures. This essay will use the Social Entrepreneurship matrix to demonstrate that social entrepreneurship is both important and relevant to the New Zealand economy.

First paragraph topic sentence: Quadrant One is the traditional not-for-profit business. They are driven solely by their social mission and do not need to make a profit. Usually set up as charities these organisations rely on government funding or donations to cover their expenses.


  • World Vision: a huge part of New Zealand culture with the 40 Hour Famine.
  • Hospice: providing for those who have cancer and their families, also a big part of New Zealand culture with many people donating not just money but also clothes and other useful items. Supported by business organisation such as BNI (Business Network International).
  • Oasis: Brief bit on George Willdridge and the setting up of the Oasis centre for Problem Gamblers.

Second paragraph topic sentence: Quadrant Two is known as the Tipping Point and is made up of businesses that need make a profit as well as carry out their social mission. This is seen as the ultimate vehicle for change in the economy. As Stephen LeFebrve founder of Biovittoria says, the old way of doing business, where you had to screw someone before they screwed you, is changing to one of co-operation and creating win-win situations for all stakeholders. The change that Biovittoria has had on the provinces in China where they operate has been amazing.


  • Biovittoria: New Zealand company that has created self-sufficient and sustaining communities of workers in China.
  • Jaime Lerner and Curitiba: similar sort of thing, creating a win-win successful community.

Paragraphs three and four followed the same format, so I won’t post them as you should have the idea by now!

Bullet-pointed conclusion:

  • New Zealand is strong in both Quadrant One and Four.
  • Quadrant One helps those both here and overseas who cannot help themselves which strengthens the overall economy.
  • Quadrant Four helps the economy because the big successful corporations are giving back to the future of New Zealand through school programs and funding and by aiming to preserve New Zealand’s clean green image.
  • Quadrant Two is the ultimate goal and the effects on the economies of Guangxi and Curitiba are incredible and if there was something like that in New Zealand the economy would be greatly improved.

What do you think? My lecturer thought it was pretty good…

Also check out some of the links I’ve put throughout the plan; social entrepreneurship is a really cool thing!

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Cooking up the perfect essay

Now that's a paragraph!

Mmm, hamburger...

Want higher marks for your essays, but don’t know where to start? Here’s a trick that I learned that makes your essays clear, coherent, and compelling: use “Topic Sentences”.

Topic sentences are one of the most important and powerful components of a functional essay. They are the first and last sentence of each body paragraph. Simply put, their role is to introduce the main argument of the paragraph, then, at its end, summarise the point of the paragraph and show how the point relates to your essay’s overall answer. Which would you prefer to read: a well-planned paragraph that is structured with the main idea stated in the first sentence, further developed, then re-iterated at the end of the paragraph; or a random assemblage of thoughts that were just dumped on a page in clusters? The planned one of course – because the topic sentences make it easier to read.

Topic sentences are like the buns of a burger – they hold the rest of the paragraph’s information together and make it easier to ‘pick up’ for the reader. Topic sentences make your essay’s points clear. If markers can understand your argument, they’ll give you more marks. Unfortunately, some students write ‘paragraphs’ which suggest they erratically threw some ingredients around, rather than methodically making a burger (which isn’t that hard – just ask any McDonald’s worker). Messy paragraphs earn fewer marks. So don’t make a literary dog’s breakfast that looks like it was kicked around the floor then put on a plate. Give your paragraphs some structure! Use topic sentences. Make your essay clear and easier to follow – make it easier for the marker to give you marks.

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