Topic Sentences

Topic Sentences

Hitting the ground running may be a cliché, but it makes good strategic sense. Students in my classes soon learn to avoid "there was," "it is," and all the other intransitives that go nowhere and do nothing. A gerund (a verb with an "ing" ending) or an infinitive ("to" plus a verb) makes a good opener because a verb is an action word. Putting the conflict that is the heart of the paper's argument up front shows the reader that in your paper, unlike in so many others, something will happen. This can also be done with a quote or with an anecdote. If you are arguing against abortion, begin with a battered fetus. If you are arguing for legal abortion, begin with the bleeding body of a girl who was the victim of a back-alley abortionist. You do not have to state your argument blatantly; you can show it. Journalists like their lead sentence or paragraph to contain the five W's: who, what, where, when, and why. Not all of these can be easily forced into every opening sentence, but having as many as possible does help orient the reader.

Not only must the topic sentence introduce the theme, but it also must anticipate the action of the paper. Don't give everything away, but do let the reader know something is coming. Start off a paper on your pit bull, Fluffy, by saying, "The day we brought him home from the pound, I didn't realize what those tiny little teeth would someday be able to do to a man's arm." Unlike an opening sentence that merely declares how cute the little puppy was, this sentence keeps the reader going, waiting for the blood. An autobiographical paper that begins "I was grounded for the first time at the age of five" lets the reader know that more times are to come. Think of the ways TV shows and movies construct suspense to keep you from changing the channel, and see if you can apply those lessons to your paper.

Some writers prefer to place their topic sentence at the end of the paragraph on the grounds that the ends of sentences and paragraphs leave the strongest impression. Joan Didion is a master of this style. But she has been working on her writing for many decades. Most college students would do better to get to the point ASAP. More often than not, the topic sentence will be rewritten after the first draft is done and you have a better idea of what you are saying. So don't be like my friend in graduate school who wasted thousands of sheets of paper struggling to create the perfect opening line only to give his doctoral thesis up in despair and quit. If he had begun with an inferior sentence and the resolve to go back and improve it later, he might not be selling Disney cable subscriptions door-to-door today.

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