Topic Sentences

The best way to understand the role of the topic sentence in paragraph development is to imagine that any given paragraph is a miniature essay that has its own thesis, support, and conclusion. The parts of a paragraph easily correspond to the parts of an essay:

Essay Level

Paragraph Level

Thesis statement

Topic sentence

Body paragraphs

Supporting details, explanation, analysis

Conclusion

Wrap-up sentence(s)

 

Just as an effective essay starts off with an introduction that presents the paper's thesis statement and indicates the specific claim or argument that the essay will develop, each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that indicates the focus of that paragraph, alerting the reader to the particular subtopic that the paragraph will provide evidence to support.

A strong topic sentence should be placed at or near the beginning of a paragraph. In addition, this sentence should focus on a specific issue, avoid the use of direct quotations, and leave room for support and analysis within the body of the paragraph. Read on to learn more about creating an effective topic sentence.

Placement

The topic sentence does not have to be the first sentence in the paragraph; however, it should come early in the paragraph in order to orient the reader to the paragraph's focus right away. Occasionally a writer may place a transition sentence before the topic sentence, to create continuity between topics. 

Topic Sentence to begin paragraph: In the novel Sula, Morrison uses the physical bonds of female friendship to propel her characters into self-awareness.
Transition Sentence + Topic Sentence to begin paragraph: However, Morrison does not only use the emotional and spiritual bonds between her female characters to initiate their coming-of-age. In addition, the author uses the physical bonds of female friendship to propel her adolescent protagonists into self-awareness.

 

Specificity

Your topic sentence should be more narrowly focused than your thesis sentence, and you will want to make sure the claim you are making can be supported, argued, and analyzed within the body of your paragraph.

Example: In the novel Sula, Morrison uses the physical bonds of female friendship to propel her characters into self-awareness.

In this topic sentence, the essayist is arguing that physical bonds of friendship, specifically, make the female characters more self-aware. Because this idea can be refuted or supported by readers (based on how successfully the essayist persuades his or her readers with examples and analysis from the novel), and because the claim is narrow enough to address within a single paragraph, the above sentence is a successful topic sentence.

Direct Quotations (Are Best Avoided)

Although it might be tempting to begin a paragraph with a compelling quotation, as a general rule, topic sentences should state the main idea of the paragraph in your own words. Direct quotations have a place later in the paragraph, where they may be incorporated to support the topic sentence.

Needs Improvement: As Morrison (1982) conveyed, the girls’ friendship "let them use each other to grow on…they found in each other's eyes the intimacy they were looking for" (p. 52).
Better: In the novel Sula, Morrison uses the physical bonds of female friendship to propel her characters into self-awareness. Pointing to the connection of eyes meeting and bodies growing together, Morrison makes coming-of-age an interactive physical process between the adolescent protagonists. Specifically, Morrison describes how Sula and Nel have used "each other to grow on…they found in each other's eyes the intimacy they were looking for" (p. 52).

In this second paragraph, the topic sentence appears first, immediately orienting readers to the main focus (or topic) of the paragraph. The quotation is used later in the paragraph as a form of evidence or support for the topic sentence.

Extra Tips

If you are finding it challenging to create effective topic sentences, you might consider outlining before beginning to write a paper. The points and subpoints of an outline can then become the topic sentences for the paper's paragraphs.

Additionally, because the topic sentence functions similarly at the paragraph level to the thesis at the essay level, you may also find it helpful to check out our thesis statement construction information.  Our resource on paragraphs has helpful information about the scope of a paragraph, as well.

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