Tag Archives: Topic sentences

Topic Sentence Paragraphs

In a recent writing class, I talked about reverse outlines and topic sentence paragraphs as techniques for identifying structural issues in a piece of writing. While I’ve talked about reverse outlines in this space a great deal (both potential applications and potential pitfalls), I realize that I’ve never mentioned the topic sentence paragraph. It’s actually helpful to think of the two techniques as complementary: just as the reverse outline tells us what is wrong with an early draft, a topic sentence paragraph can help us see what is right with a late draft. Or, if it’s not quite right yet, can help us to see what needs tweaking. Our deep familiarity with our own intentions and our own writing patterns means that we often fail to see glaring cohesion problems, even late in the game. A topic sentence paragraph can help us to ensure that all is well.

The technique itself is quite simple: copy and paste the topic sentence from each paragraph into a new pseudo-paragraph. This new creation won’t be a true paragraph because it’ll be weirdly choppy and overly long, but it should be a functional microcosm of the text. As such, it should be able to carry a coherent narrative. A topic sentence paragraph isn’t as dramatically informative as a reverse outline; it’s more likely to offer confirmation than revelation. Once you’ve got a draft that you think is structurally coherent, you can use the topic sentence paragraph as a way to confirm that intuition.

The moment to use this technique must, of course, be chosen carefully. You can’t do it too early−because all it will show you is that the text isn’t ready yet−but you also can’t do it too late. To me, the topic sentence paragraph marks the end of my willingness to do large-scale edits. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that extensive revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania will set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working. A hard deadline can sometimes stop us from obsessive editing; whether or not we’ve crafted the best possible document at the point of submission, at least we’re saved from endless tinkering. But when there isn’t a firm deadline−as with, for instance, an early dissertation chapter−editing can become a thing that we do long past the point at which we ought to have moved on. If we are to manage our workflow effectively, every text needs to move through our hands and out into the world. The fact that we could always make it different doesn’t mean that we would be making it better or even that making it better is always the best use of our time.

Another reason to establish a point after which structural edits are verboten is that we can’t edit for all types of issues at once. A text must have a point after which big questions are off the table in order to allow smaller points to engage our attention. Not only is it difficult to proofread a document that is still in flux, such a document is vulnerable to a range of new errors that are the direct result of our own editorial intervention. Being strict about the type of editing that is suitable for each stage of the process can help us to create a document that is well-edited at both a macro and micro level.

Drawing the structural editing phase to a close with a final check is a way of making sure that we haven’t missed any ongoing gaps in cohesion and a way of setting the stage for the final edits. This final editing phase can then lead us to a cleaner text and, perhaps even more importantly, lead us that much closer to a finished text.

Academic Writing Month  2014 (#AcWriMo on Twitter) is coming up in November. Read an explanation on PhD2Published and start thinking if this might work for you! Here are some of my thoughts on AcWriMo 2012 and AcWriMo 2013.

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Breaking Points

When I teach paragraphs, I always talk about how paragraph breaks should be dictated by textual demands rather than length. Sometimes that approach works out perfectly for a writer: each particular topic fits comfortably within a paragraph, with obvious breaking points. Other times, however, creating a paragraph break can feel awkward. In other words, it’s all well and good to say that each paragraph needs a recognizable topic, but the reality is often more complicated. As I was writing the first draft of my last post, I realized that I was dealing with one of those awkward paragraphs: too long to be a single paragraph, but with enough unity that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to make it more than one paragraph. Since this problem is frequently raised by my students, I decided to use this post to show a few strategies for managing a balky paragraph.

Before we look at the example, a quick note about paragraph length: I generally write shorter paragraphs on the blog than I would in normal academic writing. I do so for two reasons. First, I think the quality of attention that we give to a blog post is often less than to an article, so I try to make the component parts more manageable. Second, I’m aware that people will read a post on all sort of devices, some of which will offer such a compressed reading space that paragraphs will feel longer than they are. I want to be clear that these considerations apply to blogging and need not concern an academic writer. Academic writing ought to presuppose a certain type of attention (whether it gets it or not is another matter) and ought to presuppose that, regardless of where it might be read, its main objective is to provide the kind of sustained argumentation that generally requires longer paragraphs. All of which is to say that the example that I’m about to show is long only by the standards that I use on the blog. The shorter example works well for this space, and the editing strategies that I will suggest apply equally to the longer paragraphs that we need for academic writing.

Here is the example paragraph (still in very rough form):

We will think about the writing process differently depending on whether we think of the task broadly or narrowly [BROAD TOPIC]. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally creating a separate space for planning and for revising. And for some people, this is surely exactly what they need to do. For some writers, however, allowing writing to be the appropriate name for a broader range of activities is invaluable [SPECIFIC TOPIC]. If we think of planning as a species of writing [FIRST ASPECT OF THE SPECIFIC TOPIC], we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common; I sometimes see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ready to write. I’m not saying writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it may also generate the text that you need or lead you to the questions that you need examine. Similarly [MY ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT WE ARE MOVING TO THE SECOND ASPECT], we can use writing as way of manifesting our commitment to extensive revision [SECOND ASPECT]. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we are much less likely to enact the degree of alteration necessary to move from first to final draft. When writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to lapse into a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using (re)writing as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall [AN ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT I’M PULLING THE TWO ASPECTS TOGETHER], if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we give ourselves access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

As I was writing this, I was aware that it might need to be broken up, but I wanted to let it play out as a single paragraph until I knew what I wanted to say. Even in its rough form, you can see that this paragraph splits into two different supporting points. Once I understand the nature of my awkward paragraph, what are my editorial options?

1. Obviously, I could leave this paragraph as is: one topic, two aspects, one paragraph. In that case, I would be making the estimation that I don’t want it to run into a second paragraph, either because I don’t want to devote that much space to the topic or because I don’t want to draw that much attention to it. If I choose this option, it would stay roughly as it is, except for any necessary editing. Making the commitment to a single paragraph may mean lessening the detail so that it feels to the reader like a single idea.

2. I could try turning it into two paragraphs. This option—which frequently makes the most sense—is the one that often puzzles writers. If the first paragraph sets up the topic, can we break up the exploration of that topic into two or more paragraphs? We can, as long as we manage the opening of the subsequent paragraphs properly. In this case, the beginning of the second paragraph would need to be sharpened in order to announce the second element. Rather that simply signalling the shift—as I tried to do above with the word ‘similarly’—I would need some repetition or parallelism to orient the reader; for instance, we could say, as I did in the final version, ‘Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can …’. By echoing the language used in the first point, I alert the reader to the fact that we are turning to the second point. If we were to divide this paragraph into two, it would be fine for any concluding material to appear at the end of the second paragraph; again, just make sure that there is sufficient indication of the scope of the conclusion. This approach also works when using ordinals, as we so often do. We can say that a topic will have two aspects and then announce the first one with a ‘first’. When it comes time to address the second aspect, if we need to do so in a separate paragraph, we will do so with more than just a ‘second’; for instance, we could say, ‘The second aspect of [this topic] concerns …’.

3. Lastly, I could, if I had enough to say, turn this into three paragraphs, with the first one acting like a topic paragraph and the next two each having their own topic sentence. Needless to say, we wouldn’t choose this option unless we want to expand the content and unless we want the reader to pay a lot of attention to these ideas.

Overall, the key is to let the drafting stage be a time when ideas are allowed to develop as they wish, without worrying about the optimal placement of paragraph breaks for our eventual reader. We often won’t know how much space a topic warrants until we try it out. And even when the topic won’t be given much room in a final draft, our ability to create that more compressed version can be enhanced by having previously created a less compressed version. Once we’ve decided on the appropriate amount of detail and development, we can decide about paragraphing. Knowing that we’ve got the proportion right can then make us confident in our ability to divide up the text into workable paragraphs. We have the freedom to divide our text as we wish, as long as we are constantly mindful of the needs of the reader. Think about what you are asking your reader to carry from one paragraph to the next, and give them the necessary cues to make that transition seamlessly.

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.

Paragraphs

A crucial strategy for improving academic writing is to pay attention to the importance of the paragraph as a unit of discourse. Novice writers tend to think of both full texts and sentences as areas for improvement, but they give less thought to the role of the paragraph. They recognize, of course, that a full text must possess a certain communicative goal, and they understand that sentences are the building blocks of the whole. But paragraphs? In my experience, these intermediate units are consistently neglected. This neglect greatly underestimates the important role that paragraphs play for the reader. A paragraph break means something to a reader; when we move from one paragraph to another, we imagine that we are leaving one thought (or issue or topic or argument or point or perspective or piece of evidence) and moving on to another. We attempt, in other words, to find some unity within a paragraph and to discern some diversity between paragraphs. When the writer has not managed paragraphs well, those attempts will lead us—consciously or not—to be disappointed. Most of us benefit from adding paragraphs to our list of things that must be effective if our writing is to succeed. To that end, here is my list of four things I wish every academic writer knew about paragraphs:

1. That they are very important. Simply stated, effort should be devoted to working on paragraphs, as well as on sentences and full papers.

2. That they usually need a topic sentence. The ‘usually’ is there to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, but I do in fact advise writers to start with the assumption that every paragraph will require a topic sentence. The main exceptions are introductory paragraphs (which often, in effect, act as a kind of topic paragraph for the whole text), transitional paragraphs (which exist to signal a significant shift in topic), and serial paragraphs (all of which refer back to a single topic).

3. That they should be thematically linked. The rest of the sentences should be recognizably about the theme announced in the topic sentence. These thematic linkages should also involve noticeable linguistic linkages, accomplished through strategic repetition and the use of key terms.

4. That their length is meaningful. The length of a paragraph should be determined by the demands of content, not by the number of sentences or space taken up on the page. When I ask students for the rationale behind a paragraph break, they frequently say something to the effect of ‘I thought it had gone long enough’. (The phrase ‘my high school English teacher always said …’ also comes up a lot in this regard, but the ongoing trauma of a high school English education lies well outside the scope of this post!)

Paying more attention to paragraphs can, needless to say, improve their internal cohesion. But this attention to paragraphs is also a key way to improve the overall coherence of a complete text. Our ability to engage in thorough structural revision can often be undermined by the difficulty of finding our way into our own text. Once that text is thought of as a series of paragraphs—each of which has an explicit role to play—we are better able to grasp the overall demands of structure.

This post describes the second of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines; transitions; verbs; and subjects.

For more on paragraphs, you can consult these other posts: