When you don’t have much time to revise, focus on topic sentences.

by Nicole Kagan and Nicolas Yan

What are topic sentences?

Topic sentences are sentences that lead each paragraph of an essay. Think of them as flags: at the beginning of each paragraph, you are “flagging” to the reader what the direction of the paragraph will be (more concretely, what the claim you are making in that paragraph is).  

Why are topic sentences important?

Topic sentences are important both for the reader and for the writer. Because topic sentences clearly present arguments in a way that flows, they allow a reader to understand not only the direction of each paragraph, but also the snowball structure of the paragraphs taken together. That is, before you can prove Y (your thesis), you must first prove X1, X2, and X3 (every claim made in the body paragraphs). For the writer, meanwhile, topic and supporting sentences are essential for conceptually and specifically outlining the structure of the essay and increasing its clarity. 

Paying attention to topic sentences can often deliver the highest return on investment when it comes to editing your paper, especially if you don’t have much time. As a general rule of thumb, somebody reading your essay should be able to gain a good understanding of what your argument is about by simply reading the introduction, each topic sentence, and the conclusion. By going through this “skim-reading” exercise and revisiting your topic sentences, you should be able to identify any logical or structural weaknesses in your argument, particularly with regards to the order of your paragraphs.

So what makes for an effective topic sentence?

An effective topic sentence should accomplish four main functions:

  1. It should highlight the claim (i.e., the main idea) of the paragraph that follows;
  2. It should organize and advance your argument by relating back to your thesis statement and developing your argument’s logical progression;
  3. It should create signposts that enable the reader to easily follow your argument, often by utilizing bridge words (see this blog post for more on bridge words); and
  4. It should be specific—if it would be possible to pick up your topic sentence and drop it into another essay with a different thesis, then it is not specific enough. 

To illustrate these functions more clearly, let’s take a look at the topic sentences of an example essay.

Imagine that you have been asked to discuss whether the most effective way of reducing gas consumption is providing government subsidies for electric vehicles. You might decide to argue this thesis:

Although subsidizing electric vehicles would help to reduce gas consumption, an effective government strategy must also boost the demand of electric vehicles relative to gas-powered cars by instituting a gas tax.

Your argument might proceed according to the following steps:

  1. First, you might begin with a general explanation of how subsidies work.
  2. Next, you might explain how subsidizing electric vehicle production would reduce gas consumption.
  3. Then, you might concede that pursuing a strategy of government subsidies in isolation may have some drawbacks.
  4. Next, you might argue that governments should simultaneously pair subsidies for electric vehicle production with a tax on gas.
  5. Finally, you might want to address a potential counterargument.

Your topic sentences should therefore mirror the structure of your argument:

  1. TS1: To understand this argument, it’s important to understand that government subsidies work by encouraging companies to increase the production of a particular good by lowering production costs.
  2. TS2: Government subsidies for electric vehicles would reduce gas consumption by increasing the supply, and decreasing the price, of electric vehicles.
  3. TS3: However, insofar as subsidizing electric vehicles would only target the supply of electric vehicles, pursuing such a strategy in isolation would have certain drawbacks.
  4. TS4: Therefore, in order to target both the supply of and the demand for electric vehicles, governments should simultaneously pair electric vehicle subsidies with a gas tax.
  5. TS5: Though some might argue that subsidizing public transportation would be a more effective way of reducing gas consumption, such a policy would overlook those who live in more rural areas that lack connectivity to public transportation networks. 

Each of these example topic sentences clearly highlights the claim, or main idea, of the paragraph that will follow. Additionally, these sentences clearly organize and advance the argument—each topic sentence logically builds upon the previous one. The argument would not make sense if the topic sentences were rearranged (for example, TS4 could not precede TS3, since the claim in TS4 logically depends on the claim in TS3). Furthermore, using signpost words (like “however,” and “therefore”) helps to signal transitions between ideas to the reader. And perhaps most important, these topic sentences make specific claims that would not easily fit into a different argument. Finally, they pass the “skim-reading” test; reading each of the topic sentences would give the reader a pretty good idea of the overall argument, even without the body paragraphs.

Why does everything have to be an argument?

by Elliot Schiff

My first year of college, in Expos and other humanities classes, I would get this feedback from my instructors: “Elliot, could you make your thesis statement more argumentative?” Or, “Elliot, this is a good paragraph but it’s missing an argumentative topic sentence.” I couldn’t help but think, “Why does everyone think this argument thing is so great?” It felt like everyone in an academic position of power over me had met in some room and decided unanimously that argument is good and we like argument. Why?

I’ll give you two answers, one theoretical and one practical. These are answers that I’ve come to understand through my experience as a writer, a student, and a tutor.

Imagine that there’s a national academic conference of experts on bouncy balls (maybe there is? maybe there should be…). Who knows what they’d look like or be wearing — probably elbow patches, they’re academics after all, they’ve got a public image to maintain. These are the people the world relies on to understand what’s important about the science of the very very important and ever-confounding bouncy ball. The conference gathers. They’ve got a huge stack of papers to peer review. It’s gonna be a long day.

“Bouncy Balls are Often Made of Rubber,” the first paper is titled. Not off to a great start. The contents of the paper are not any better. As a matter of fact, it’s just that sentence repeated over and over: “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber.” We know this, the experts cry. For ten pages. A prank. For some reason, some punk has decided to make fun of the very serious field of Bouncy Ball Studies.

Time to peer review another paper. This one’s called “From Handheld Toy to Exercise Ball: How Highly Elastic Rubber Spheres Went from Mere Distraction to Lifestyle and Fitness Craze.” We know this! The experts protest once more. Of course they know that the handheld toy led to the exercise ball that brought abs of steel to office workers across America. But then they read the paper: it makes specific claims they haven’t seen before. The paper’s fundamental argument is that the exercise ball’s former life as a plaything led to success and predated the gamifying of fitness to make it more fun. Here’s an argument! The stakes of the conversation are about what we think about when we think about bouncy rubber spheres, but also the history of American fitness culture.

This is all made up — and wildly oversimplified. But in the second paper on the history of bouncy balls, the author is making an argument. Simply put, when you make an argument, you are contributing something new to the conversation. That’s why your instructors keep asking you to be argumentative at every turn: it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll contribute something to a broader academic conversation. How cool is that! This is the theoretical answer to the question, “Why argument?”

The practical answer to “why argument” is that a highly argumentative paper is an easier paper to structure and revise. Think back to those bouncy ball papers. If you had to write a paper whose thesis statement was, “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber,” how the heck would you structure that thing? What evidence would you put where–and why? What would you even analyze? On the other hand, if your thesis was that the exercise ball rose to prominence in American offices not only because of its fitness benefits but because of its origins in play, now you’re cooking with gas. You would probably start with a history of the bouncy ball: its invention, its absolutely unanimous popularity — frankly its dominance over the toy market and the imaginations and Christmas wish-lists of American youth. Then, you would probably do the same with the exercise ball, a markedly different product, even though it’s largely the same material. You’d look at the marketing of the exercise ball, partnerships with offices, the history of office labor in the U.S. You’d find primary sources about the exercise ball as a replacement for the chair and compare those to firsthand accounts of the joy of the bouncy ball. And then you would be able to prove your point: the exercise ball really did rise to popularity in American offices because it is inextricable from its roots as a fun toy. Then you’d do some cultural analysis to connect this idea to the current ubiquity of gamified fitness.

This is not that great of a paper. I admit it. It’s also totally made up. But it helps me prove my point: see how much easier it is to structure a more argumentative paper? With a highly argumentative thesis, your natural wheels of logic start to turn, and moments where you’d otherwise be pulling your hair out over the right place to make a sub-claim or offer a piece of evidence suddenly become much easier.

This logic of the argumentative thesis making your life easier applies on the micro level (topic sentence) just as much as the macro (thesis statement). A paragraph with a non-argumentative topic sentence could often contain just about anything, but a paragraph with a highly argumentative topic sentence must contain evidence and analysis to prove the point outlined in the topic sentence. The same is true with the thesis statement: often, with a non-argumentative thesis statement, just about anything could be in the paper. Let’s make that very weak bouncy ball thesis a little better: “The bouncy ball’s shift from leather to rubber shows the use of post-WWII use of military materials in the toy sector.” If this is true (I have no idea), chances are that bouncy ball experts already know this. But because this thesis is slightly more argumentative than the original, you know that the paper will have to contain a discussion of military materials being repurposed in the civilian sector. That’s more focused and more specific than a paper focused only on the fact that bouncy balls are made of rubber, which increases the likelihood that the paper will say something new.

Three Types of Science Writing Assignments: An Overview

by Ariel Vilidnitsky

Science writing. That term may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but I promise it’s not! An important part of being a scientist is not just understanding key theories in your field, but also being able to communicate these theories—and the ongoing research surrounding them—to an audience. Science professors, for instance, do this all the time when they publish their research in peer-reviewed journals.

At the undergraduate level, there tend to be three main categories of science writing: the grant proposal, the scientific debate paper, and the research report. The purpose of each of these writing assignments, as shown in the table below, is somewhat distinct. Just like with Expos papers, however, all three of these science writing assignments require you to analyze primary sources to make a claim of your own about some kind of knowledge gap in your field.

Grant ProposalA description of a series of experiments—ones you will actually perform or not—that will help you answer some question in your field that previous research has yet to fully address.Fictitious grant proposals—ones in which you don’t actually end up performing the experiments—are common final paper prompts for science classes, especially if the focus of the class is on reading research papers.   The HCRP funding application requires you to write a grant proposal for research you will actually carry out, as do many post-grad fellowships.  
Scientific DebateA paper in which you argue your opinion about an ongoing debate in the scientific literature. Writing this type of paper requires considering the strengths and weaknesses of the research carried out by scientists from both sides of the debate. You might also consider how two opposing theories could coexist.  Prion or virus: Which is the true causative agent of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies?  A recent paper suggests that the universe may not expand in an isotropic manner, as was previously believed. Do you agree with the conclusions presented in this paper? Is there a way to reconcile these new findings with the previous hypothesis?  
Research ReportA paper in which you present your original data, draw conclusions from your research, and convey the implications of your findings.   Many statistics classes have final projects that require writing a report, either about a survey you conducted yourself or on external data that you analyzed in a new way.   Research funding programs often require a final report about the research that the funding allowed you to conduct.   Senior theses are basically just long research reports.  

Does my paper flow? Tips for creating a well-structured essay.

by Jessica Diaz

A sure way to improve your paper is to strengthen the way you present your argument. Whether you only have a thesis statement or already have a fully-written essay, these tips can help your paper flow logically from start to finish.

Going from a thesis statement to a first outline

Break down your thesis statement

No matter what you are arguing, your thesis can be broken down into smaller points that need to be backed up with evidence. These claims can often be used to create a ready outline for the rest of your paper, and help you check that you are including all the evidence you should have.

Take the following thesis statement:

Despite the similarities between the documentaries Blackfish and The Cove, the use of excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish allowed it to achieve more tangible success for animal rights movements, illustrating the need for animal rights documentaries to appeal to human emotion.

We can break the thesis down into everything that needs to be supported:

[1] Despite the similarities between the documentaries Blackfish and The Cove, [2] the use of excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish [3] allowed it to achieve more tangible success for animal rights movements, [4] illustrating the need for animal rights documentaries to appeal to human emotion.

In the paper, we have to (1) explain and support the similarities between the two documentaries, (2) provide support for excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish, (3) show that Blackfish achieved more tangible success than The Cove, and (4) demonstrate the importance of human emotion in animal documentaries.

Already, we have four main points that can serve as the backbone for an essay outline, and they are already in an order that makes some intuitive sense for building up the argument.

It is likely that you will need to rearrange, expand, or further break down the outline. For example, in this case we would probably need to add a paragraph that explains anthropomorphism. We also might want to move the section on differences in animal rights success earlier so that it contrasts with the similarities between the films. However, having this starting structure and identifying the main sections of the paper can allow you to go ahead and start writing!

Checking that your argument builds

Reverse outline

While writing, it is often hard to take a step back and assess whether your paper makes sense or reads well. Creating a reverse outline can help you get a zoomed-out picture of what you wrote and helps you see if any paragraphs or ideas need to be rearranged.

To create a reverse outline, go through your paper paragraph-by-paragraph. For each one, read it and summarize the main point of the paragraph in 3-5 words. In most cases, this should align closely with the topic sentence of that paragraph. Once you have gone through the entire paper, you should end up with a list of phrases that, when read in order, walk through your argument.

Does the order make sense? Are the ideas that should go together actually next to each other? Without the extra clutter, the reverse outline helps you answer these questions while looking at your entire structure at once.

Each line of your reverse outline should build on the last one, meaning none of them should make sense in isolation (except the first one). Try pretending you don’t know anything about this topic and read one of your paragraph phrases at random (or read it to someone else!). Does it make sense, or does it need more context? Do the paragraphs that go before it give the context it needs?

The reverse outline method and the line of thinking detailed above help put you in the mind of your reader. Your reader will only encounter your ideas in the order that you give offer them, so it is important to take this step back to make sure that order is the right one.