Pick up any newspaper or magazine and read the first sentence of an article. Are you fairly confident that you know what the rest of the article is about? If so, you have likely read the topic sentence. An effective topic sentence combines a subject with the writer’s position on that subject or claim about it. It serves to orient the reader and provides an indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. Example:
This topic sentence declares a position in favor of standardizing math and English education. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to provide supporting details and facts as to why standardizing math and English education might improve student learning in many states. If the purpose of the essay is actually to evaluate education in only one particular state, or to discuss math or English education specifically, then the topic sentence is misleading and should be revised to say so.
Subject Versus Claim
Good topic sentences contain both a subject (the overall matter, issue, or field of inquiry) and a claim (the writer’s specific point about the subject, or position on it). Different writers may use the same subject but can steer their paragraph in a number of different directions according to their claim, or stance on the subject. Examples:
- Marijuana is a destructive influence on teens and causes long-term brain damage.
- The anti-nausea properties in marijuana are a lifeline for many cancer patients.
- Legalizing marijuana would create a higher demand for Class A and Class B drugs.
Although the subject—marijuana—is the same in all three topic sentences, the claim differs depending on the writer’s viewpoint. For instance, in the first sentence, the claim about marijuana is that it “is a destructive influence on teens and causes long-term brain damage.”
Separately identify the subject and the claim about it in each of the following topic sentences:
1. Exercising three times a week is the only way to maintain good physical health.
2. Sexism and racism are still rampant in today’s workplace.
3. Raising the legal driving age to twenty-one would decrease road traffic accidents.
4. Owning a business is the only way to achieve financial success.
5. Dog owners should be prohibited from taking their pets on public beaches.
Characteristics of a Good Topic Sentence
The following are characteristics good topic sentences:
- A good topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
Weak example. People rarely give firefighters the credit they deserve for such a physically and emotionally demanding job. (The paragraph is about a specific incident that involved firefighters; therefore, this topic sentence is too general.)
Stronger example. During the October riots, Unit 3B went beyond the call of duty. (This topic sentence is more specific and indicates that the paragraph will contain information about a particular incident involving Unit 3B.)
- A good topic sentence contains both a subject and claim.
Weak example. In this paper, I am going to discuss the rising suicide rate among young professionals. (This topic sentence provides a subject, but it does not present a claim.)
Stronger example. The rising suicide rate among young professionals should become a higher priority among the concerns of human resource departments. (This topic sentence presents the writer’s claim on the subject of rising suicide rates among young professionals.)
- A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.
Weak example. In general, writing an essay, thesis, or other academic or nonacademic document is considerably easier and of much higher quality if you first construct an outline, of which there are many different types. (This topic sentence includes a subject and claim, but both are buried beneath the confusing sentence structure and unnecessary vocabulary. These obstacles make it difficult for the reader to follow.)
Stronger example. Most forms of writing can be improved by first creating an outline. (This topic sentence cuts out unnecessary words and simplifies the previous statement, making it easier for the reader to follow.)
- A good topic sentence does not include supporting details.
Weak example. Salaries should be capped in baseball for many reasons, most importantly so we don’t allow the teams with budgets that exceed their competitors by four or five times to have such an extreme advantage year after year. (This topic sentence includes a supporting detail that should be included later in the paragraph to support the main point.)
Stronger example. Introducing a salary cap would improve the game of baseball for many reasons. (This topic sentence omits the additional supporting detail so that it can be expanded upon later in the paragraph.)
Choose the most effective topic sentence from the following sentence pairs.
1. Which is the more effective topic sentence?
a. This paper will discuss the likelihood of the Democrats winning the next election.
b. To boost their chances of winning the next election, the Democrats need to listen to public opinion.
2. Which is the more effective topic sentence?
a. The unrealistic demands of union workers are crippling the economy for the following three reasons.
b. Union workers are crippling the economy because companies are unable to remain competitive as a result of added financial pressure, which in turn forces companies trying to survive to relocate overseas where non-union wages can be half or in some cases less than half of union wages.
3. Which is the more effective topic sentence?
a. Major companies are stealing back digital content that customers purchased, which is destroying the very concept of ownership.
b. Technology is having drastic effects on how companies deal with digital sales nowadays.
4. Which is the more effective topic sentence?
a. Pop music has lost the genuine heart and superb artistry that it displayed in the past.
b. This essay will consider the quality of pop music.
Using the tips on developing effective topic sentences in this section, create a topic sentence on each of the following subjects. Remember to include the subject as well as the claim.
An endangered species
The cost of fuel
The legal drinking age
A controversial film or novel