Please use more topic sentences

In your technical writing.  Please!

What is a topic sentence, you ask?  Since they no longer seem to cover that in third grade…

A topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that provides the main idea of the paragraph.  Essentially it introduces a paragraph and summarizes what the paragraph is going to say.  It isn’t, “Now we turn to Table 2”.   It isn’t, “[Author (DATE)] studies X.”  What does Table 2 say?  Why is it there?  Why are you talking about Author (DATE)?  What is the relationship to your paper?  Convey this information in the first sentence of each paragraph.

The topic sentence should tell you why that paragraph is there.  If you don’t know why that paragraph is there, then maybe it shouldn’t be.

This PSA brought to you by a grumpy rumbler who has had to do waaay too many referee reports recently.

20 Responses to “Please use more topic sentences”

  1. independentclause Says:

    Please use topic sentences in all of your formal/academic writing. Sincerely, Indy Clause

  2. Sapience Says:

    It’s amazing how, even though I’m pretty sure topic sentences get introduced to students in elementary school, at pretty much every level we have re-remind ourselves/others. I’m still reminding students of the need for a topic sentence in my college courses. (I am not immune, but I also have a list of things I make myself check before I send anything out; topic sentences, passive voice, and unclear referents are the big ones.)

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I frequently write “Use paragraphs!” and “What is the topic sentence for this paragraph?” on the engineering design reports I grade for my classes. It seems that composition classes have given up on teaching sentence structure and paragraph structure. I’m not sure what they are teaching (I’ll have to talk with some Writing 1 instructors this week—maybe they are “teaching” but students aren’t learning).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If you read some humanities/education blogs there’s this thing going around based on “scientific evidence” that grammar and punctuation can’t be taught and that it is demoralizing to the student to try. It is thus bad to correct too many mistakes on student papers. So technical writing isn’t being taught in Comp classes and instead within the subject major.

      Based on our blog traffic, I am fairly sure that an example of a comp assignment is, “write about a wedding you have been to” or more specifically “write about your cousin’s wedding.”

      • Shannon Says:

        Yes. And this drives me nuts. Our comp people come in and tell us this – don’t correct too many mistakes. But what if there are many, many mistakes? I am typically all about “scientific evidence,” but here I am going to be a curmudgeonly skeptic and continue to use my red pen – A LOT.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It just doesn’t fit with my anecdotal experience. Maybe Econ majors have thicker skins.

  4. chacha1 Says:

    I learned the classic five-paragraph essay format in high school, which included topic sentences; but I’m pretty sure my fellow students who were not in the “accelerated” classes did not. I don’t know that they were taught any composition technique at all. In college I wasn’t taught any “hows” of writing. And I was an English, then French, then History major … which should have meant LOTS of “hows.”

    • chacha1 Says:

      Also fwiw I learned hardly any grammar until I started studying Spanish and then French. Basically if you could already speak decent English and write intelligibly they just herded you into the “fast track.” And this was in the 1970s … gourd knows what is being taught these days!

  5. crazy grad mama Says:

    Speaking as a frequent reader of academic writing: please make sure your paper has a point and that point is clear on first reading. (Topic sentences would help!)

    • Debbie M Says:

      But if the paper is clear, you won’t sound properly erudite and smarter than everyone.

      I had a roommate who was an English major in grad school and she was convinced that people were making stuff up (for students to memorize) about things like symbolism. As a psychology major in undergrad, I felt that psychologists made up terms so they would sound more knowledgeable around laypersons. Specifically, the TOT phenomenon. (That’s when you can’t quite remember something but it’s on the tip of your tongue.) I’ve heard that psychologist are no longer so defensive now that their science has been around twice as long, so they actually do know more stuff. (I was in college 1980-1984 and got to hear many interesting things from someone in grad school in psychology a couple of years ago.)

  6. Tree of Knowledge Says:

    Sigh. I teach comp. We do teach our students all of these things. The research suggests that teaching grammar and punctuation _out of context_ is what doesn’t work. If the educational blogs are leaving out the “out of context” explanation, or saying not to correct at all, then they are leaving out the most important part. So, things like worksheets don’t help most students. Just making corrections on a paper doesn’t help most students because you’ve fixed the error for them. And some students who get a ton of corrections see all of the marks and get overwhelmed and give up (others take it as a challenge; those are easy to teach). So what we do (what we should be doing anyway; I’ll admit that some of us suck) is teach it in the context of the student’s own writing.

    For example, this is what I do in a comp class. I make corrections on the first page. Then I only point out errors that interfere with meaning for the rest of the paper (usually I circle it or put a question mark); if I know what the student meant, I leave it alone. Then I note the 2-3 biggest patterns of error that I see and tell the student to work on those. If there are lots of errors, then I also tell them to go to the writing center for help with editing. And then–and this is the in context part–I meet with each student individually and go through the errors. I explain the logic behind the rule. I have the student explain to me what s/he is trying to say in the confusing sentences. We talk about what is confusing about this sentence and figure out why s/he made the mistake. Then we move on to the next problem sentence. Then I have hir find a problem sentence I didn’t mark and correct it. Then again. Usually, the mistakes are indicative of a conceptual issue. Students who know what a complete sentence is still have sentence boundary issues when they haven’t fully separated out the individual ideas they are writing about. Students also typically have problems with complicated rules. Commas are confusing if you don’t understand the logic behind them. Knowing all of the rules doesn’t help if they don’t make sense, and a lot of students just tune out when teaching it as a concept. But when you contextualize it in the essay, they get it (I’m confused by this sentence. What are trying to say? Ok, see that idea is extra information, so you need commas to tell me that. Without the commas, I think it is crucial to your point, which is why I am confused.) In my developmental grammar class, students give presentations on their biggest grammar problem and teach the class all of this stuff too. (And there are follow up assignments where they have to apply what they’ve learned to their own papers.) I don’t lecture on grammar; all of that is done individually. In my developmental class, I do this with every essay. In the other first-year comp classes, I do it with one essay and students have to show progress on the errors we discussed in subsequent essays. And we also talk about all of the other writing issues a student is having in the conferences.

    I also go over topic/point sentences. Everyone teaching comp in my department has a point-sentence outline assignment for the long papers. We do teach that paragraphs should have only one idea and teach several strategies for how to identify problems and revise. We teach multiple organizational patterns, introductions and conclusions, thesis statements, transitions, quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing, multiple citation styles, how to use and integrate sources, what an appropriate academic source is, adjusting style for audience and purpose, how to connect evidence to claims and claims to theses; I could go on. And by the time they leave my class, they can do these things on their own, without me walking them through it. Some just barely get it, but they have to demonstrate competency to pass.

    And it’s exhausting and frustrating because I know–I know–the papers they turn in in their other classes don’t demonstrate that they can do this. I see it when they take literature classes from me. And it’s not because I didn’t teach them or they didn’t learn it. It’s because their writing reflects their understanding of the material. So if they don’t have all of the concepts sorted out in their own heads, they write run-on sentences and don’t see it. And if they don’t know what their point is or why an example is useful–they just know they have to have one, then their essays lack topic sentences. Once they get the concept sorted out, the papers suddenly get better again. Or they only write one draft in their other classes and don’t revise (so you see all of the messy thinking on paper, not a finished piece)–I think this is probably the most common. Or they’re out of practice because they’re not writing as frequently as they do in a writing class.

    Sorry about the super long comment. I’m teaching 3 different writing instruction classes this semester (and 1 lit class) and am exhausted. Our science faculty keep telling us we don’t teach their students how to write, which doesn’t fit with my experience of teaching writing to their students. Getting students to transfer skills is across classes is hard.

    Oh, and the write about a wedding prompt is stupid. It doesn’t matter what a student writes about in a comp class since the point is the writing, but it should be topics students are interested in so they’ll be invested in their papers.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m fairly sure that many of them are writing about *my* cousin’s wedding.

      p.s. I think what you’re talking about can only be done when the class sizes are reasonable. A lot of required comp classes aren’t. And many of them are taught by whatever English PhD (or MA) adjunct they can get to take the class for the least amount of money.

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      It sounds like you are doing a great job. I wish all writing instructors were so conscientious. As you say, it is exhausting work. (I taught tech writing to engineers for 14 years, and have taught several writing-intensive engineering classes since then.)

      In my current class, with a 5-to-10-page design report every week, I make the students redo the report if there are serious errors (like any mistake on the schematics). I do expect them to fix the grammar and paragraphing problems that I point out, and most of them are capable of doing so, when pushed. I think that you are right that a big chunk of the problem is “they’re out of practice because they’re not writing as frequently as they do in a writing class.” Way too many engineering classes require no writing at all, or the writing is only looked at for a few keywords, not for proper writing style.

    • Fiona McQuarrie Says:

      Just curious – do you require the students to meet with you to discuss their papers?

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        I don’t know whether Fiona’s question is addressed to Tree of Knowledge or to me. For the electronics course with the design reports, I don’t meet with the students individually—I’m already working essentially full time on the course, and with 45 students, I couldn’t meet with them more than once a quarter. The writing is not the main point of the course (though I believe that every upper-division course should be practicing and providing feedback on writing or oral presentation skills).

        Although a few students do multiple drafts of the design report, to get it up to minimum standards, I expect most of the feedback to result in improvements in future design reports, rather than redoing the current report (they have a new report to write every week).

      • Fiona McQuarrie Says:

        I was responding to Tree, but your informtion is really interesting too! Thanks!

      • Tree of Knowledge Says:

        Yes. Every paper in developmental writing; one paper for all other first-year writing classes.

  7. Debbie M Says:

    I don’t even know whether I write topic sentences. I think so.

    I remember learning that you are supposed to first write what you are about to write about, then write it, and then summarize that. I can’t stand to do that, and I hate reading stuff like that. It feels overly repetitive and like talking down to my reader.

    When I’m reading, I find myself skipping all titles and headings, assuming they’re redundant, which sometimes gets me into trouble with blogs! (Sometimes the title sets the tone and that is necessary to properly understand the blog entry. Or even just helpful, like you’re deliberately controversial posts.)

    Comments on papers I wrote mostly said that I needed better transitions. I’m probably still bad at that, though I’m not philosophically opposed. Also, I know I overuse pronouns, leaving confusion in my wake.

    In summary, (just kidding, I’m done now).


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