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Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences
A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:
1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]
2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.
3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]
Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]
4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.
Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:
1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.
3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.
4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.
5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."
Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.
1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.
2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.
Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]
3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis.
Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.
In an academic essay, the first sentence of each new paragraph is called the topic sentence. Topic sentences are often considered “mini-thesis statements,” offering a subsection of the paper’s main argument. In fact, if you read the thesis statement and topic sentences alone, you should have an outline detailing exactly what the paper is about and the relationships between paragraphs and supporting evidence. To write good topic sentences in your next paper, remember these four tips:
1. Give the reader an idea of what the paragraph is about—and be specific.
Say you are writing an essay about Romeo & Juliet, and your argument is that the play is not the great romance people think it is. Your topic sentences should reinforce this idea but offer something a little more specific than just restating the main argument. For example, you might have a topic sentence that states, “Romeo is not romantic because at the beginning of the play, his love interest is Rosaline, not Juliet.” The rest of the paragraph would provide evidence showing how Romeo is in love with another woman until he quickly “falls in love” with Juliet and forgets his former flame. This topic sentence introduces an example and gives just the right amount of detail for the reader.
2. Avoid using lists.
Each paragraph in your essay should have one solid idea backed up with supporting evidence from the text or outside research. Therefore, a topic sentence should never have the format, “In this paragraph, I will discuss x, y, and z.” To use our Romeo & Juliet example, the topic sentence should not state, “Romeo & Juliet is a bad example of romance because the lovers have only known each other for three days, are too young for love, and are too immature.” A better tactic would be to break each of these three ideas (“known each other for three days,” “too young for love,” and “too immature”) into three paragraphs, with a topic sentence for each one.
3. Provide a transition between paragraphs.
While a topic sentence is meant to advance an argument and add new evidence, it should also reach back to the previous paragraph and ensure a smooth transition between ideas. There are four main types of transitions:
- Compare: Likewise, similar
Example: “Like Romeo’s constant praises of Juliet’s beauty, Juliet’s conversations with her Nurse suggest that physical attraction is the main motivation for Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.”
- Contrast: On the other hand, conversely, although, while, though, however, unlike
Example: “Unlike Romeo, who once courted Rosaline, Juliet has a lack of experience with men and is immature in matters of love.”
- Addition: Additionally, in addition, moreover, also, furthermore
Example: “Furthermore, Juliet’s lack of interest in Paris suggests that she is predisposed to ‘fall in love’ with a man who she thinks is a better alternative.”
- Passage of time: At the beginning, at the end, then, next, after, finally
Example: “At the end of the play, Romeo kills himself not only because of his love for Juliet, but because of his combined grief brought about by her supposed death, his exile, and the murders of Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris.”
4. Avoid overuse of rhetorical questions or quotes.
Student writers are tempted to start new paragraphs by posing a question, such as “Why is Romeo & Juliet considered a great romance?” However, in most academic essays, these questions tend to waste valuable space and do not add much to the paper. Using strong, declarative statements better supports an argument than asking a question for readers to interpret for themselves.
In addition, quotes should be used sparingly or not at all in topic sentences. For example, a poor topic sentence is, “In Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare writes, ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” This sentence does not add any analysis or any of the writer’s own thoughts; it only quotes from the text. For writers who like to use quotes often, a better method is to integrate a snippet of a quote into a topic sentence. For example, “Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ are neither star-crossed nor lovers: they are two immature teenagers whose poor decisions lead to too many deaths throughout the play.” This sentence borrows from one of the play’s most famous lines (“star-crossed lovers”), but the argument is entirely the writer’s own and is much more compelling.
What are some of your best topic sentences? Let us know in the comments below.