Published: January 29, 2019
Peter Mosley, PhD
I learned this trick back when I was pursuing my master’s degree in English.
The professor was disturbed. Most of us were fresh out of undergrad, and we wanted to impress her. The disappointment on our face created a lump in the pit of our stomachs as she handed back our first papers.
Our writing, she said, was too scattered. We needed to be more organized. The remedy for this malady, she continued, was for us to underline our topic sentences. In our next papers, she proclaimed, each of us had to underline the topic sentence of every single paragraph.
We were initially insulted. This was graduate school, not grade school. We were getting master’s degrees in English; most of us had already fulfilled four years of college-level training. We knew what a topic sentence was, and going through this elementary exercise seemed a bit humiliating.
You might not be an English major, or maybe your last English class is too far in your past for you to remember what a topic sentence is. So let me jog your memory: A topic sentence is the main sentence of a paragraph – the idea that this paragraph is attempting to support. In my experience, most people think it comes at the beginning of a paragraph…but a topic sentence can actually be anywhere within the paragraph. Sometimes it will be in the second sentence, after a transition. Sometimes it will be in the middle, after you argue up to it, and then make the rest of the paragraph discuss the implications of the topic sentence. Other times, you might spend most of the paragraph arguing towards your topic sentence and finally put it at the end.
The common denominator is that your topic sentence is the “hub” of entire paragraph’s discussion.
When the professor forced me to underline my topic sentences, my writing immediately improved. The focus of each paragraph became clear. Making my ideas “flow” became easier because each paragraph was clearly labeled. I could also double-check connections between individual paragraphs and my thesis statement rather easily.
If you want to improve your ability to organize your ideas in a paper and make your thoughts “flow,” you might want to consider trying this method out.
Start from the first paragraph and underline your thesis statement. Remember: your thesis statement is the sentence that briefly summarizes what you will discuss in the body of your paper and how you will discuss it. For most writing projects, you’ll put your thesis statement at or near the second-to-last sentence of the first paragraph, after you’ve spent your previous sentences drawing your audience in and introducing your argument.
Now, go through each body paragraph, carefully looking for the main sentence of each one. If there are multiple main sentences, underline each one; this will be handy for revision later. After underlining each body paragraph, underline the topic sentence of the conclusion. Usually, the conclusion will underline the fact that the thesis statement has been proven by the information in the body paragraphs as a foundation for a short discussion of the significance or relevance of what has been proven. This organization means that your conclusion’s topic sentence will probably contain a statement on this significance or relevance.
Once you’ve underlined your topic sentences, use those topic sentences to organize your paper. To do this, first match each of them to your thesis statement. If you find that one of your topic sentences does not seem to correlate with what you promised the reader in your thesis statement, you may have to revise that topic sentence or revise your thesis statement. Then, revise each paragraph so that it is squarely focused on proving, clarifying, emphasizing, or expanding on its topic sentence. This may require changing your topic sentence or moving a couple wayward points in one paragraph to another more suitable paragraph. Finally, use your topic sentences to check the progression of your paragraphs. If your points seem out of order, go ahead and reorganize them (don’t forget to ensure your paper “flows” by adjusting transitions you move around paragraphs).
You might find this a challenging exercise, especially if you tend to struggle with organizing your paragraphs. However, if you try this your organization should develop exponentially over time. Give it a shot, and let us know how it goes.
Do you have any other strategies for ensuring that your paper is well-organized? Please let us know in the comments below!