Using Topic Sentences

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In the Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency writing exams, the quality of answers depends on very good organisation of ideas and topics. In this post we’ll look at one aspect of writing that can help you do that – topic sentences.

What is a Topic Sentence?

 A topic sentence is a sentence, quite often at the beginning of a paragraph, that states or suggests the main idea (or topic) of a paragraph.

A topic sentence can be very short as in our simple example below.

The snow was bad that winter. It had arrived in early October and by November there was a thick  pile of cleared snow along the side of the roads.

or it can be more detailed in formal writing exercises like essays or reports.

File-sharing websites are another great example that modern technology creates new types of crimes.

There are some features of a topic sentence to bear in mind.

Here’s a quick summary.

  • It is usually the first sentence which presents the topic and an idea you plan to discuss it in  your paragraph. In our example above the topic is file sharing and the idea to be discussed is crimes related to this topic.
  • It is often shorter than other sentences in a paragraph and to the point.
  • It is typically followed by explanations, reasons and examples which support the topic.

 

Qualities of a good topic sentence

As we’ve said above you should try to place a topic sentence first in a paragraph.  A good topic sentence  communicates a basic opinion or answer about the topic. This means it is likely to be quite short. What that topic is and how we want to discuss the idea in a paragraph decides how we want to write it. Look at this example

There are many reasons why public parks deserve council funding. 

Our topic here is public parks and the idea is reasons they deserve council funding.

A further aspect of a topic sentence is that it should try to show a link to what came previously. This makes it easier for a reader to follow the logic of the written text.  We can use our parks example once more to show how this works.

While it is not always possible to fund everything, it is essential that councils invest in public facilities including public parks.

There are many reasons why public parks deserve council funding

 

Good topic sentences

Topic sentences can be written in different ways depending on how the writer wants to consider a topic. Here are some ways we can use them.

There are many reasons why public parks deserve council funding.  – Statement

So, just what causes people to be so careless with their digital security?  – Question

While it is true that libraries serve a public need, not everyone likes them. – Introducing a contrast 

Studies have shown that schoolchildren read better from books than computers.  – Research

The aim of this report is to examine the use of technology in our school  – Overall purpose

There are advantages and disadvantages to taking computer exams   – Pros/Cons 

Texting while driving has increased the number of accidents substantially. – Proposing a solution

 

Things to avoid in topic sentences

Don’t make a topic sentence too long. In generally it should only consist of the topic and the idea you want to develop and discuss.

We also don’t use topic sentences to discuss ideas, they are the starting point of what we want to say.

Another point to remember is that a topic sentence should not be too general or too specific, it should relate to the ideas in the paragraph.

We can see some of these elements at work in these examples

Technology is dangerous.

Technology in the wrong hands is dangerous.

Technology in the classroom for 16 year olds in my school is dangerous.

The first example is too general for one single paragraph and is more like an overall subject. The second sentence is a good example with a topic and an idea, whereas the third one is far too specific.

 

Does it always have to be the first sentence?

There are no rules to state that it must be the first sentence but there are many reasons why it’s a good idea to to do this. However, we’ve seen that it is a clear starting point for a paragraph. As this helps the reader understand the organisation of your writing, it is the most natural place to write a topic sentence. 

That is not to say it cannot be placed in any other part of a paragraph but it is generally more difficult to do as you need to make sure the reader can still understand the organisation of your text. With a topic sentence in the main part of the paragraph or at the end of it , it can certainly affect the organisation of ideas.

Final thoughts

 When a topic sentence is the first sentence of paragraphs, by looking at each of them in turn a reader can get a good general sense of the content of a text. In particular, in an Advanced or Proficiency exam it allows you, the writer, to structure your writing exercises clearly and logically.

Even so, it is not the only aspect of an answer that can influence scores. Using  appropriate language to provide reasons, explanations and developing your ideas are also key factors. Together, this can make your planning easier and ultimately you should be able to achieve better scores in your writing.  

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