The value of topic sentences

Everyone has a friend who can’t tell a story. His/her thoughts seem to go everywhere. You can tell s/he has a point, but it takes a long time to get to it and then feels anticlimactic. These stories frustrate us because we generally like to have the general meaning or gist of an idea before we get detailed facts. If we get a bunch of facts without any idea how they fit together, we don’t know what to do with them and are likely to forget them.

The effect is magnified when it appears in analytical papers. When readers encounter evidence without being given the claim you are trying to prove, they feel as confused as you do when your friend tries and fails to tell a story. Even the best evidence in the world will mislead readers unless they know what claim your trying to prove with it first. Some readers may even read your facts and come to conclusions that conflict with those you’re trying to present.

On the other hand, when you present a clear topic sentence, which states your claim, your reader will do part of the work for you. They’ll see your facts and immediately try to connect it to that topic sentence.

Let’s look at an example of how this effect works. Listen to just the first verse (which runs from the start of the song to the 53 second mark) of the song “When I Decide” from the band My Terrible Friend:

For those without speakers, here are the lyrics:

Darlin’ there’s a river near the house where I grew up
And I think it might be moving fast enough
And there’s a silence there so thick that you could stick a knife in it
Or anything that you’ve been dreaming of

And you should know that my intentions are always true
And my heart’s got a tricky valve that beats for nobody but you

When we hear these lyrics, especially set to the uptempo tune, we assume we’re hearing love song. We get a nostalgic scene of a river, talk of dreams, true intentions, and a dedicated heart that beats for her darling. Were that all you heard of the song, you might stick this on a mixtape that you send to someone you admire. And that would be a big mistake.

When we get to the song’s chorus, we find that we’ve misunderstood what is going on in the first verse. That chorus, which runs from the :53 mark to the 1:19 mark, let’s us know that this is no love song. Here are its lyrics:

And when I decide to kill you
I’ll do it with my hands
And fine gloves worth the death of a gentleman
My words may seem mighty hollow
But don’t doubt that I can
‘Cos I’ve got long fingers for a woman

These lines declare the singer’s feelings, and the actions she intends to take on them, much more clearly. The metaphor and implication of the verse are replaced with direct threats. When I’ve played this song in class for students, they often start to laugh nervously when the first line of the chorus comes on. Some look confused. Some look unsure they heard what they think they heard. This effect is the desired one. The song is darkly comic. It withholds its punchline, delivering it in the chorus for maximum shock effect.

In analytical essays, shocking your audience is not a desirable effect. Many students, who have read fiction all their lives, may try to keep their main point as a big reveal at the end of the essay, but as noted above, that approach burdens the audience with trying to make sense of all the facts presented to them. In an analytical essay, we want a clear, concise topic sentences give us the overall meaning so that we can organize the following facts as we go through them.

If the speaker of “When I Decide” came in for a writing conference with me. The first thing I’d tell her to do would be to put her claim out in front of her evidence. A straight forward topic sentence like “I’m deliberating on killing the gentleman I love, and I think that I have found compelling evidence that I can get away with it” would do wonders for helping the reader understand the other facts within the song.

With such a thesis, the depth of the song reveals itself. Now when we go back to look at the first verse of “When I Decide”, we see new meaning in lines we glossed over. The idea that the river is “moving fast enough” no longer seems a nostalgic musing, but instead a pragmatic observation. The river is fast enough to move the body away from the murder scene. The silence of the spot implies that there will be no witnesses, and the idea that the silence is so “thick that you can stick a knife in it” isn’t just showing that the speaker is bad at making metaphors. It’s showing that the speaker is concerned with violence and the knife is one of the first things that comes to her mind. The true intentions line seems more like a warning to take her threat seriously than a romantic protestation, and that sticky valve beating for nobody but you implies all sorts of things about the speaker’s obsession with the loved one. In other words, simply getting the true intentions out in front of the facts of the situation, we find depth that we’d otherwise have missed.

Notice that I did not simply list the topic of the song, but instead made the claim as direct as possible. Crafting a topic sentence that names the topic of the paragraph rather than the claim is the most common mistake students make when writing topic sentences. And if you’re wondering why the folks who invented writing terms did not simply call it a “claim sentence” instead of a topic sentence, I’m right there with you. Still, it makes sense. If I had made a claim that said, “I’m reconsidering my relationship with the gentleman I love”, my reader would still miss much of the meaning of the first verse.

It’s worth mentioning as well that the claim sentences for most paragraphs will be much better if you write them after you’ve finished the paper. When we’re crafting our paper, we don’t think in claims. We instead think, “What do I need to say next?” and at that point the topic for the next paragraph comes into our mind and we set off writing. That’s fine to do in a draft, and I actually encouraged because putting down your evidence on the page will give you more of a sense of how it relates to your thesis and to the other evidence around it. Only after you see this will you be able to write a good claim for each paragraph.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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