A while ago I discussed essay writing. You can catch up here.
Now we’re going to look at paragraphs. Paragraphs are mini-essays, if you like. They tell about one subject, and the what and why of that subject.
The paragraph isn’t or should not be a random bunch of sentences about that subject. It should be logical, first of all. It should also have a point, a reason why the writer is writing this paragraph. The paragraph can be written to explain something, to argue something, to give examples of something, or to tell a story.
Like the thesis statement announces and organizes what the essay is going to be about, a paragraph has a main sentence too. It’s called Topic Sentence. The topic sentence announces what the subject is for that paragraph and also how and what it is going to say about that subject.
Now in this lesson, instead of trying to write ourselves, I first want you to understand how the topic sentence works. If you wish to be a good writer, the cliché is that you should be a good reader. That is undoubtedly true, but good reading means you should analyse what you read. Let’s do an exercise to practise your analytical skills.
Before we start, let’s repeat, just to make sure you’re clear on this: the topic sentence is the main sentence in the paragraph.
Tip: The topic sentence is often the first sentence of the paragraph, but in some cases it’s the second sentence or the last one. It’s rare to find the topic sentence in the middle, but it’s possible.
Here is one typical, well-written paragraph as an example (from the Daily Mail):
It may seem like common sense that how quickly our brains understand a word has more to do with spelling and complexity than its definition. But new research has suggested that how we process words actually has everything to do with what they mean – and that we’re quicker to understand words for big things, like ‘whale’, than ‘small’ words like ‘plum’. And even when the words for big things are longer – like ‘volcano’ or ‘elephant’ – we still clock them faster than easy words for small things, like ‘seed’ or ‘coin’.
What’s the topic sentence?
The second sentence: “But new research has suggested that how we process words actually has everything to do with what they mean – and that we’re quicker to understand words for big things, like ‘whale’, than ‘small’ words like ‘plum’.”
Well, this sentence is the most important one. It sums up what the rest of the paragraph is going to tell you. This is that bigger words are easier to understand than small words. The third sentence gives some more examples of that. The first sentence of the paragraph is not the main one, because it just tells you what we thought we knew about understanding words. We thought that it was to do with spelling and how complex the word is. But that was not the case. It’s about the meaning of the word. That’s why the main message of this paragraph is in the sentence where we read about big words.
The Topic Sentence Keeps the Paragraph Together
Ideally, all the issues in the paragraph should be summarized in the topic sentence, but not all writers keep to this rule. That’s okay, if the writer doesn’t stray (= go away) too far from his subject. You could say it’s a sign of bad writing if the paragraph goes off in another direction entirely, because this will confuse (and annoy) the reader.
Let’s study one more example.
Please read this paragraph. It’s from Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”:
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied “stegosaurus” houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, but I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. First of all, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, for example) is remarkably regular. As we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, but not so fast as body size. In other words, bodies grow faster than brains, and large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. In fact, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. Since we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. If we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
What’s the topic sentence?
The first sentence: “But new research has suggested that how we process words actually has everything to do with what they mean – and that we’re quicker to understand words for big things, like ‘whale’, than ‘small’ words like ‘plum’.”
Well, the first sentence tells you what to expect in the rest of the paragraph. The first sentence explains that a small brain may not look good to us, but it’s actually a healthy size for such a large animal. The rest of the paragraph then explains that the larger an animal is, the smaller its brain is, relatively.
In the following Exercise, you’re going to find the topic sentence of each paragraph.
Find the thesis statement in each of the following paragraphs that are taken from longer essays:
1) Much of the research into how people learn suggests that we improve fastest when we can focus on one skill at a time, like a violinist working on one piece of a solo over and over. Students learn quickest when they are offered challenges suitable for their skill level, receive feedback on their performance, and then repeat the task, incorporating the teacher’s advice. These challenges should be both very specific and easily repeatable, like having a golfing coach adjust your stance after every swing. It is harder to improve only by playing many rounds of golf, because the feedback is too varied, too enormous.
2) The real estate market in Buenos Aires is stable but sluggish, said Roberto Guichon, director of the Buenos Aires company Guichon Propiedades. The situation may be improving because the sales volume so far this year has not lagged as far behind as in the past, Mr. Guichon said. One drag on the market has been the fluctuation of the dollar — because Argentine property is often priced in dollars, said Valerio Valle, the administration adviser of Valle Real Estate, an Italian real estate company that sells property in Argentina. He said the global financial crisis had also taken a toll on foreign homeownership in Argentina.
3) I had a group interview in April in Orange County, and thought that I “nailed” it. I did receive a “Dear John” letter, but it was a generic letter with no information I could use in my job search, so I emailed Julie to ask a few questions…no response. I then got an email inviting me to an open house at one of the branches near my home, so I called the branch and the person answering the phone said, “hold on and I’ll let you speak with the recruiter.” So I wait, then there is a familiar voice, “Hello. This is Julie _____”. I said, “Hey, Julie, this is Doug…remember me from the group interview? I got an email inviting me to the open house up there today, and I’m not sure if that means that you’ve reconsidered after my email. Can you explain what I need to do next?”. You could have heard a pin drop, she finally had the presence of mind to ask a few questions, and then say that her notes were in her office and she would have to review them and get back to me. She never did. A couple weeks later I get more emails from Wells Fargo regarding upcoming recruiting events, so I email Julie once more and ask her to, kindly, remove me from their follow up data base permanently, as this is getting kind of embarrassing for them.
4) The symptomology of Nelly’s mental state, unconnected to any personality problems or childhood traumas and flowing directly from her country’s endemic schizophrenia, ultimately lacks specificity and color. Brief glimpses offered of Nelly’s ironic intelligence are soon buried in an impersonal pathology. One need only cite Nina Hoss’ vividly memorable performance in Christian Petzold’s East/West drama “Barbara” to appreciate how drearily one-note Schwochow’s German Everywoman seems by comparison. (from Variety)
5) George Clooney owes Sandra Bullock a dress! And an expensive one at that. Bullock recounted on Friday’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno a prank played on her by her longtime friend and Gravity costar that resulted in Bullock’s dress “disintegrating.” Bullock explained that she and Clooney were at a dinner party when he tricked her into jumping in the pool – alone. “I went to the bathroom and came out and there was George and someone else with just their pants on going, ‘We’re gonna go in the pool,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ ” she told Leno. “And so I held their hands and on the count of three, and in slow motion I seeNicole Kidman with a stack of towels … and I jump, and they let go, and I go in the pool.” (from People)
Solutions at the bottom of the page:
1) The first sentence: Much of the research into how people learn suggests that we improve fastest when we can focus on one skill at a time, like a violinist working on one piece of a solo over and over.
2) The first sentence: The real estate market in Buenos Aires is stable but sluggish, said Roberto Guichon, director of the Buenos Aires company Guichon Propiedades.
3) The first sentence: I had a group interview in April in Orange County, and thought that I “nailed” it.
4) The first sentence: The symptomology of Nelly’s mental state, unconnected to any personality problems or childhood traumas and flowing directly from her country’s endemic schizophrenia, ultimately lacks specificity and color.
5) The third sentence: Bullock recounted on Friday’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno a prank played on her by her longtime friend Gravity costar that resulted in Bullock’s dress “disintegrating.”