The magical writing trick that’s right under our noses

Writing is hard, and over the years I’ve developed a bunch of tricks that make it a bit easier for me.  Some are weird, some are complicated, and some are idiosyncratic enough that they probably work only for me.  But if I had to pick one trick that could work for just about anyone, I’d pick one that might seem too simple and too obvious to be worth mentioning.  It isn’t, though.  It’s this: pay attention to the topic sentence.

Wait!  Don’t click away just yet.  Yes, you learned about topic sentences in high school (so did I). Yes, you found them deathly boring in high school (so did I).  It took me years to realize just how powerful a device they are – and just how pervasive are the problems that topic sentences can fix. Topic sentences, no matter how boring I thought they were, are diamond-tipped writing multi-tools that can fix a million problems. I see those million problems all the time: in my own writing; in my students’ writing; and in manuscripts I review or edit.  Time after time, thinking about topic sentences is the fix.*

You know, of course, what a topic sentence is: it’s the opening sentence of a paragraph, and it announces to your reader what that paragraph is about.  A well-constructed paragraph is an organized unit of text that introduces and treats a single idea – and that’s unified around that idea, and distinct from other paragraphs that treat other (albeit possibly related) ideas. Yes, I know – you just yawned.  But harness that, and it’s amazing.

Have you ever found yourself a little lost, reading a draft? Have you ever read a paragraph a couple of times, and still not been quite sure what its point was?  Have you ever had a feeling of déjà vu, with the paragraph you’re reading seeming oddly reminiscent of the last one, or the one before that?  Have you ever suspected that the writer hit their “Enter” key to make a paragraph break simply because the paragraph they’d been writing had gotten pretty long?  Have you done any of those things when the writer was yourself?  I have – often.  In every case, the fix is a careful look at topic sentences.

If you have a draft, and you have any of the unsettling feelings in the last paragraph, try printing it out and highlighting the first sentence of each paragraph.  Now you can ask yourself two sets of questions:

  • Taking each paragraph at a time, does the highlighted (topic) sentence announce the topic you intend? Does every other sentence in the paragraph help develop that topic?  Whenever you’re tempted by ‘no’, adjust either the topic sentence, or the supporting ones, to match.
  • Taking the whole draft together, do the highlighted (topic) sentences together make up an outline of what you intend to discuss? Are they in a logical order?  (Sequencing problems are easy to spot with just the topic sentences, harder with full paragraphs.)  Are any two of them (ignoring variation in phrasing) the same?  If this approach suggests problems, either reorder or revise the topic sentences (and then later, the corresponding paragraphs).

That’s pretty simple, right?  And I swear, it’s magical.  When I started doing it deliberately and explicitly, it helped me fix all manner of writing sins.  (Although it wouldn’t have helped this atrocity.)

You’ve probably beaten me to this, but that second bullet point suggests another strategy.  Cutting out just your topic sentences to see if they make a good outline is such a handy trick, why wait until you’ve already written the accompanying text?  Writing all your topic sentences first, before you bother with the supporting paragraphs,  is a form of outlining. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing I talk about the “topic-sentence outline” as a good step to take after outlining sections and subsections.  A topic-sentence outline is a powerful way to find and tell your story, and it helps bridge the gap between vague-ish topics (“paragraph on future work”) and more concrete and therefore useful statements (“Our work suggests the value of future experiments testing the circular-tracking hypothesis for Woozles as well as Heffalumps”).

Maybe you know all this, and maybe you already do all this.  Or maybe you’re like me: you “knew” all this, because you’d “learned” it in high school, but you hadn’t really harnessed it.  Try it with your next draft – I bet the magic will work for you like it works for me.

© Stephen Heard  January 8, 2019

There’s more about the magic of topic sentences in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – especially in the “Finding and Telling Your Story” and “Paragraphs” chapters. The featured image shows topic sentences in a brief extract from the former chapter.


*^Did you click on the link?  Are you about to accuse me of irrelevant linkage?  Well, I might indeed do that sometimes, but not this time.  Check out this couplet:

Caught up in circles/
Confusion is nothing new

If that isn’t a rumination on what happens when you don’t pay attention to topic sentences, I don’t know what is.  (Plus, I love that song. Sorry.)

4 thoughts on “The magical writing trick that’s right under our noses

  1. Pingback: Friday links: love letters to trees, are invasive species bad, ASN Young Investigator Award applications due soon, Barbara Kingsolver vs. Mary Treat, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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