Posts Tagged Topic sentence

A stroke of genius – An example

Last week I talked about the key ingredient in changing a good essay into a great one – the ‘stroke of genius’. In this post I’ll provide an example of

You don't need to be Einstein to use a 'stroke of genius' in your essay

one I’ve written to give you an idea of what it might look like.

Note: There is no formula or template for adding a ‘stroke of genius’ to your essay. It is up to you how you phrase it and where you put it.

The example below is from the essay I used as my example for how to construct a conclusion.

This was most strongly apparent when they disagreed on the major issues of relevant daily pay and the selling of holidays. Interestingly enough, despite the employer’s unitarism, the review itself was a product of the pluralist model – it was a bargaining session. That is one of the reasons the subsequent Holidays Amendment Bill (2010) has been strongly opposed by the unions, they feel betrayed by the Government’s decision to not uphold the recommendations they bargained for during the review (“Unions urge Government to protect worker leave entitlements”, 2010). In fact, in some regards, while initially portraying a democratic pluralist approach to fixing the Holidays Act (2003), the Government has now switched to a unitarist approach to do what it feels is best for New Zealand as a whole.

That’s it? That’s a ‘stroke of genius’?

Yes it is. It doesn’t have to be in the same realm as E=mc2, all you need to do is make a few clever connections between the evidence you’ve provided in your body paragraphs. Not too hard is it?

Where, when, what

Where and When: I usually place my ‘stroke of genius’ in my conclusion as part of my twist like I have done in this example. While this is a very good place for it, if your essay’s argument is itself a ‘stroke of genius’ then you will need to make your insightful links throughout your essay – usually in your topic sentences. You need to present the evidence clearly first before you start making links and connecting dots.

What: In this example I have made connections more than just the parties’ views  (unitarist or pluralist) presented in negotiations. I linked their philosophies to specific developments affecting the negotiation process itself – such as the Review of the Holidays Act – and how the parties’ responses fitted into either the unitarist or pluralist framework. Basically it boils down to:

  1. Unitarism and Pluralism are opposing viewpoints
  2. Each party discusses the Act through a pluralist mechanism – a bargaining session
  3. The Government, which is essentially pluralist, uses a unitarist action: doing what it thinks is best, which angers the pluralist unionists.

By pointing out these links in an eloquent way, the marker can see that you understand the subject you’re writing about and you can think outside the box. This is the secret to a great mark.

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Beginning to tackle the information jungle


Ready to tackle the information jungle?

Welcome back, ninjas.

Connectives increase the persuasiveness of your essay’s argument – from answering the question at the biggest ‘macro’ level to the paragraph level. Connectives can even be used on the sentence level to connect smaller scale points.

NB: You can put connectives in other places besides the start of sentences, although that’s where they often naturally fit when I use them – especially when connecting together paragraphs because they help opening topic sentences introduce arguments effectively.

Importantly, using connectives explains how you reached your conclusions from the evidence. Otherwise, people could misinterpret what you wrote. The results of any ambiguity or uncertainty can be as disastrous (and amusing) as the example of incorrect punctuation in the “Dear John” letter. Don’t throw words on a page and hope the reader draws the same conclusion form them that you do!

In the last post, we looked at one use of connectives: using them to introduce more supporting sub-arguments – or looking at an alternative point of view. This sets out logical chains of reasoning – including causal relationships. Note that those are relationships between two items where a change in one causes an effect in the other – it’s not a casual relationship; that’s very different! (Another reason to proofread your essay to make sure the spelling is correct for the meaning you want to communicate).

Another way to use connectives is to focus the reader on the most important parts of the essay landscape. Just as you can use topic sentences to pause and balance, you can use connectives to carry the marker along to your next brilliant point, or you can dwell on one concept and make it even more brilliant. It’s like you’re guiding the marker through a jungle of information, so show them what’s worth seeing. A good guide will tell the group when they’re moving on (and were they’re heading to) and when they’re simply staying put, if that’s best for the group.

In some cases, it’s best to stay put. Emphasise points that are noteworthy or interpret the relative significance of your evidence. These thoughts can be introduced with connectives such as

“critically, … “; “importantly, … “; “significantly, … “; “notably, … “; ” slightly off-setting this, … “; “negligibly, … “; “interestingly, … “; “logically, … “; “evidently, … ” – and many more. (I suppose that “many more” itself is a connective phrase in the broader sense; it could be used to introduce more supporting evidence, then the next connective can interpret the value of that vast collection of evidence).

So now you know how to use essay nunchaku to tackle the information jungle! Go tackle it!

Photo Credit: Image via Wikipedia

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The essay ninja's nunchaku

Nunchaku (Ssahng Jol Gohn; 쌍절곤), one of hapkid...

The essay version is less violent

In previous posts, we’ve covered how to structure your essay’s arguments by separating them into ‘mini argument’ paragraphs. We’ve also covered how to order essay paragraphs to best guide your marker through various pieces of evidence and interpretation, based on the thematic and technique-based framework. There is one simple trick that makes these two things a lot easier, though: use connectives.

Connectives do an important job: they, well, connect paragraphs. That’s one of the most powerful uses of them, anyway. Technically, connectives show a relationship between two sentences – or sometimes two parts of a sentence (in which case they’re usually conjunctions). But the main point is that they connect thoughts. Like the stitching between patches in a patchwork quilt, or maybe the chain that links the rods in a pair of nunchaku, connectives link two substantial components together.

Importantly, connectives are also useful because they improve the flow of your essay; guiding the reader to your conclusion. Consider how you are going to order your paragraphs. This will give you ideas on the type of connectives to use to link them.  We’ve touched on using connectives to introduce contradictory evidence in the “Paragraphing – an example (and a coffin)” post.

Since arguments can be represented on a spectrum, the sequence and direction of the arrows can show the direction of the argument. If an arrow points in the same direction as a previous one, then it is backing up the evidence in the previous point or paragraph. Connecting words like “furthermore, similarly, also, in addition” etc. can be used to introduce the second point. If an arrow points in the opposite direction, then the evidence suggests a different interpretation than that of the previous point. Connectives like “contrastingly, on the other hand, alternatively, ironically” etc. can be used depending on the context.

When linking between mini-arguments, connectives that imply causal relationships, derivations, or proofs are particularly compelling. Examples of connectives you could try for this purpose: “Since that decision was made..”; “Following on from this…”; “Hence, …”; “Thus, …”; “Therefore, …”; “Predictably …”; “Moreover…”. The more proof you seem to be piling up, the more persuasive. (All other things, like the quality of that evidence, being equal).

Connectives link threads of comments and thoughts so they’re easy to follow – and as strong as a (nunchaku) chain. Use them if you want to increase your essay’s readability and persuasiveness.

References: here are some websites I found useful for the technical aspect of connectives. See what you think.

Photo Credit: image via Wikipedia

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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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The big picture: the first thing you should check

So you’ve taken your break and now you’re back at your computer with your essay in front of you. So what should you check first?

Check the big picture first.

Wait, one read through isn’t enough?!

Nope, you should definitely read through your essay a couple of times before you hit the print button. Checking, editing, and proofreading your work is extremely important. Remember your mark is based not just on what you write but also the marker’s impression of you – if there are grammatical errors and typos in your essay their impression won’t be very favourable!

Okay, so what do I need to check first?

First up is looking at the essay as a whole and focusing on content.

You are checking that:

  • the introduction roughly follows the formula
  • it introduces your argument and the topics of your body paragraphs effectively
  • your body paragraphs are well constructed – don’t forget topic sentences!
  • they are all similar in length – zoom out or use print preview to check this
  • your conclusion roughly follows the formula
  • it concludes your argument effectively and mentions what you discussed in your body paragraphs
  • most importantly, you are answering the essay question throughout your essay!

While this is a broad check of what you’ve written, if you do see a typo or grammatical error – fix it up as you go. If there is something that doesn’t sound quite right or you think should be re-written better, don’t dwell on it – highlight it in yellow (or whatever colour takes your fancy); you’ll have time to fix this up on the next check.

But then why not just check everything at once?

Well, because the more things we focus on, the more likely we are to miss something. So focus on the big picture first, get that right and then go after detail. Also, that way you save time; because if you start with the detail you may ending up fixing parts of paragraphs that get deleted at the big picture checking stage.

Getting the big picture right is the easiest and the most important thing you should do. Over the next few weeks we will look at the detail and making sure what you hand in is perfect.

Photo Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

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An example of nuance

Rendering of human brain.

Use this! (Image via Wikipedia)

Getting something better with less effort sounds like a dream – but that’s what we covered last week. Recap it now to revise how to grab the freedom you are given when writing essays and using that freedom to its full advantage.

So how did you go in the challenge? Did you notice examples of nuanced arguments made in real life? Or nuanced discussion points that you could’ve raised, but didn’t? I promised an example of how to use the nuanced argument strategy, so here it is. It’s an essay question that you might find in an English assignment.*

The example:

“Q: The main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?.”

  1. You can argue ‘yes, the main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience’ by using examples of humour, suspense etc.
  2. You can also argue ‘no, the purpose of a film is not to entertain -it’s to educate’. Or you could go as far as saying ‘the purpose of a film is to indoctrinate – or solely to make money’. Those are extreme positions, though – good luck arguing them.

A nuanced argument: elegant and sophisticated.

  1. one nuanced argument would be to define “entertain[ing] an audience” to include feelings of horror and pity, as well as happiness.

Tip: I thought of this idea by looking at the key word “entertain” and asking what that implies – and doesn’t imply – and what it could imply with a slight stretch of the imagination.

Another nuanced argument would be that through the emotional film techniques (entertainment) a higher purpose is achieved: conveying a deeper message about society, humans as individuals etc. [launch into an amazing thematic topic sentence here!]

Tip: this was triggered by looking at the keyword “purpose”.

It’s all about analysing the question really. Just do it in an open-minded, even quirky way.

NB: Nuanced arguments don’t have to be full paragraphs – they can be smaller points within paragraphs too, but I find they are often important enough and big enough to justify a full paragraph length of explanation.

I’m sure there are other ways you could approach that question, but it’s important to answer it in a way that’s unique to you. As long as it’s reasonable and you can back it up with evidence and express it well, of course. So let your uniqueness peep through the academic façade of your writing. Write on!

*based on a true assignment question. Some of the words may have been changed to protect the identity of the film mentioned, to comply with all relevant legislation, and to completely alter the meaning of the original question.

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Paragraphing – an example (and a coffin)

Coffin icon

Weird? I know. The example essay will explain why this image is here… (Image via Wikipedia)

In previous posts, we’ve looked at how to structure paragraphs to produce coherent, compelling, and persuasive essays.

To recap quickly:

Once you’re comfortable with what each individual paragraph should do, you can master the art of arranging them effectively. We looked at both chronological ordering and ordering paragraphs by similarities and/or differences.

These topics are quite abstract. Enough to do your head in; after all, I’ve been writing lots of paragraphs about how to write paragraphs! So here’s an example of how I ordered paragraphs in one of my essays (we first saw part of this essay in the second “SEX” post). I’ll show you the ordering and the basis on which the paragraphs were constructed by reproducing the first and last sentences of each paragraph. (See how useful topic sentences are?). I’ll write comments in normal text underneath the italics of the example.


The poem opens with direct speech: “’I’m rising five’”, exclaims the character in the poem.

Nicholson shows us how when we are young we lack knowledge outside of our uncomplicated small-scale experiences; and don’t recognise how carefree our lives are – we place the utmost importance on growing up.

The start of my essay’s body discusses the start of the poem; the overall method of ordering is chronological as you will see. Note that in the first sentence I begin the paragraph by focusing on Techniques, then the evidence throughout the paragraph this leads to a Thematic closing topic sentence.

Our early years present us with so many opportunities, Nicholson believes.

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

The paragraph both began and ended with a Thematic focus. Between the topic sentences there was still Technical content, though. It’s important to have good Technical content to back up your arguments and make them more convincing.

As we mature, our perspectives change.

The boy’s mentality is shown throughout the poem by using the same line-placement technique. It is like a chain of reasoning, but this results in a rather chilling conclusion….

Notice that even in the closing topic sentences of this thematic paragraph, I refer to a chain of techniques that reveal the evolving perspectives of the boy. This further reflects the chronological ordering that is the basis of my essay’s analysis. This poem lends itself to the chronological approach because it’s theme is about progression and growing up.

NB: I don’t think I’d be so creative now to end a paragraph in a formal essay with ellipsis, but I got away with it that time. 😉

Positive images are still used for a while, though.

The space that is left unused means that the stanza lacks the detail of the previous, more densely packed stanza. This could reflect how blank and empty our lives are when we incessantly worry about the future.

Here I used a different approach to link to this paragraph. A link is made based on a similarity. The previous paragraph set up expectation of a progression, but I choose to emphasise the similarity of the imagery (so it’s a Technique focused paragraph again). This gives the reader a clear overview of what to expect, while still making the current point clear; aim for clarity in your essay.

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.

It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.

Another new approach to mix things up: this time a contrast is used to link the paragraphs. “Although” is a great linking word to use to signal a difference in the next paragraph. “On the other hand”, “however”, “in contrast”, and “nevertheless” are a few others. Experiment with them to find ones that work for you – the ‘fit’ often depends on the specific situation.

By the last stanza, Nicholson’s motif of the fruit trees has developed into an extended metaphor for the human life cycle.

The future holds the same fate for all of us: death. Nicholson reminds us not to be excessively captivated by the future.


(There. So now you know why there’s a coffin as the image for this post.)

Back to chronological linking of paragraphs after a little variety to add interest for the reader.

Often, my closing topic sentences are more creative and expressive than my opening topic sentences. I also prefer to close with a theme – and the sentence I leave in the reader’s mind at the end of each paragraph can target emotional responses (without becoming a poem or novel itself; it’s still an essay).

So there it is – ah, I’m at my word limit. ‘Bye for now’.

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Essays for generals (Part V) – divide and conquer

WWII Divide and Conquer 5

Image via Wikipedia

Welcome back, generals.

Today’s briefing covers an important lesson: effectively deploying your regiments to get more marks. This clever trick not only helps you when you’re planning your paragraphs, but it also helps you adapt as you write (as long as you’re using a word processor).

Tip: combine similar and related ideas into single paragraphs; split paragraphs that are too large.

Too many students feel that they have to write paragraphs based around the way the concepts first came into their heads and then got scribbled in a margin to make a bullet-point plan. This is not the case. Don’t be restricted by your first thoughts. You have the freedom to experiment and change how they’re put together and expressed.

For example, say your essay is about marketing and you have a paragraph on one mini-argument. It’s about how using advertising is crucial in supporting a broader marketing strategy, say. If this has ended up as a huge paragraph, you have two options:

  1. Cut it back
  2. Split in two

You could consider splitting the advertising paragraph into one about advertising in traditional media and one about online advertising, perhaps. Splitting a humongous paragraph retains more information in your essay, but it also ensures that all of that information is easier to read. I suggest “cutting back” egregious paragraphs as much as possible first, though. Cull out the unnecessary words, thoughts, phrases – and even full sentences. Make your essay clearer by removing written clutter.  If you streamline your big paragraph first, you may find that you don’t need to split it after all. However, even if you still split the monster paragraph later, you have higher quality content to split.

Conversely, if you had two small paragraphs on these topics, they will probably make a stronger case together – you may have to adjust your topic sentences, but once that’s done, the new ‘super’ paragraph will be all the more persuasive with it’s ‘extra’ pieces of evidence. Here’s an example of a paragraph with opening and closing topic sentences.

Combining and splitting paragraphs gives you more flexibility when you’re planning – and writing – your essay. It’s a useful strategy to employ if you want to unlock all the potential of your writing by structuring it in paragraphs that persuade your marker.

Now, go forth and “divide and conquer”.

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