Just as many of your essays will depend upon a thesis to assert and control its argument, so will many of your paragraphs require a topic sentence to assert and control their main ideas. Without a topic sentence, or claim, paragraphs can seem jumbled. Readers may find themselves confused.

Evaluating the Topic Sentence

Just as many of your essays will depend upon a thesis to assert and control its argument, so will many of your paragraphs require a topic sentence to assert and control their main ideas. Without a topic sentence, or claim, paragraphs can seem jumbled. Readers may find themselves confused.

Because the structure and sense of a paragraph often draws from the topic sentence or claim, the writer must craft them with care. Tutors and writing assistants will want to pay close attention to topic sentences: a weak or empty topic sentence is often followed by a paragraph that rambles aimlessly. Strong topic sentences, on the other hand, practically write the paragraphs that follow them.

When you come across a troubled paragraph, ask yourself:

  • Does the topic sentence declare a single point? If not, sort out the ideas. Ask the writer if both of these ideas should be developed in one paragraph, or if she'd like to develop a second (or a third).
  • Is the topic sentence relevant to the thesis? If not, ask the writer to reconsider how he might make it relevant. He might want to revise the sentence, to rewrite the thesis to accommodate this new direction, or to edit the paragraph from his final draft.
  • Is the topic sentence where you expect it to be? If it's not, can the writer explain why?
  • Is there a clear relationship between this topic sentence and the paragraph that came before? It's important to make sure that the writer hasn't left out any steps in the process of constructing his argument. If he makes a sudden turn in his reasoning, he needs to signify that turn to the reader by using the proper transitional phrase.
  • And perhaps most important: does the topic sentence organize and control the paragraph? If a paragraph seems to unravel, look at each sentence and see if it's relevant to the claim made in the topic sentence. If not, the paragraph (or the topic sentence) should perhaps be revised.

Considering the Argument

When writers compose paragraphs, they face two important questions: First, how can a writer know when a paragraph is fully developed? And second, how does a writer arrange his paragraph so that its logic is clear? As a tutor or writing assistant, you will want to ask the following questions of the paragraphs you are reading:

Are the paragraphs fully developed?

If the topic sentence is well-written, it will tell a writer how long her paragraph should be, and what it needs to do. But what do you do when you encounter a paragraph that seems to be under-developed (or over-developed)? Consider making the following kinds of observations:

  • "The evidence you offer doesn't entirely convince me. Can you offer more support?"
  • "The paragraph provides more evidence than you really need. The reader faces a list of details, but the point of those details gets lost, as does the argument as a whole."
  • "The evidence offered in this paragraph is interesting, but it doesn't seem relevant to the point you are trying to make. Can you make the relevance clearer?"
  • "You seem to be offering the same evidence over and over again, but from different sources. Why?"
  • "I've lost track of what this paragraph is about. Can you tell me in a nutshell what the purpose of this paragraph is? How does the evidence you provide fulfill that purpose?"

Is the logic of the argument clear?

The most common problem with paragraphs is that they often aren't developed logically. Writers have either failed to work out the logic of their argument, or they have problems expressing that argument clearly and coherently (more on coherence in a moment).

Often, however, the problem is that the writer doesn't understand that paragraph development benefits from analysis.Writers who have been taught to write using the five-paragraph-theme model often believe that paragraphs exist to give examples of the point they've declared in the topic sentence - when in fact, paragraphs exist to develop or to analyze that point.

For example: A student is writing a paper whose argument is that Fitzgerald's work is autobiographical. He sees this trend in three novels: The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon. He decides to make his first paragraph a list of all of the ways that Jay Gatsby is like Fitzgerald. The second paragraph does the same for the protagonist of Tender is the Night. And so on. What the writer of this paper fails to understand is 1) that each paragraph is saying essentially the same thing (the argument does not go anywhere), and 2) that evidence is not the same thing as argument.

If a writer doesn't understand that paragraphs are units of a larger argument, each with the task of developing, analytically, one of the argument's points, then the argument is likely to stall. Another reason to convince young writers to abandon the five-paragraph theme!

Creating Coherent Paragraphs

Imagine that a writer has come to you having gotten this far: she has her thesis, her topic sentence, and truckloads of evidence to support the whole lot. But even though she's followed her outline and everything is "there," the essay just doesn't seem to hold together. The writer has a problem with coherence.

A lack of coherence is easy to diagnose, but not so easy to cure. An incoherent essay doesn't seem to flow. Its arguments are hard to follow. The reader has to double back again and again in order to follow the gist of the argument. Something has gone wrong. What?

Look for these problems in the paper:

  • Make sure that the grammatical subjects of the sentences reflects the real subject of the paragraph. Sometimes a writer has written a good topic sentence, but the paragraph still falls apart. When this happens, it's a good idea to look at the sentence subjects to see whether or not they are consistent. Go through the paragraph and underline all the sentence subjects. Do the grammatical subjects have any connection with the paragraph's real subject? (See example, below.)
  • Make sure that the grammatical subjects are consistent. Again, look at the grammatical subjects of all the sentences. How many different subjects do you find? If a writer has too many different sentence subjects, her paragraph will be hard to follow. Consider the subject strings in the paragraph below:

    According to Maxwell, the correlation between equality and gender characterized the first regime of the women's movement that began in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the crafters of the constitution never intended women to be included in the governing of the United States, but at no point did they ever envision that women might be able to vote. The significance of the "all men are created equal" clause of the constitution becomes clear, as Maxwell states, when one acknowledges that women were not considered to be men, as they are now. At this point, Maxwell highlights a key component in the success of women's suffrage: women needed first to convince society that they were indeed people.

    When faced with a paragraph like this, you should ask the writer to think about which of the five grammatical subjects, if any, is actually the subject of the paragraph. She can then revise the paragraph accordingly.

  • Make sure that the sentences look backward as well as forward. In order for a paragraph to be coherent, each sentence should begin by linking itself firmly to the sentence that came before. If the link between sentences doesn't seem firm, advise the writer to use an introductory clause or phrase to connect one idea to the other.
  • Follow the principle of moving from old to new. If a writer puts the old information at the beginning of the sentence, and the new information at the end, he will accomplish two things. First, he ensures that his reader is on solid ground, moving from the familiar to the unknown. Second, he creates sentences that end emphatically. Advise the writer to shift less important ideas to the front of the sentence, and to shift more important ideas to the end.
  • Use repetition to create a sense of unity. Repeating key words and phrases at appropriate moments will give your reader a sense of coherence in your work. Don't overdo it, however. You'll risk sounding redundant.
  • Consider the transitions between sentences. Sometimes a writer neglects to indicate shifts in her line of argument by making an appropriate transition. Or she hasn't articulated for herself the connection between her ideas and so relies on transition phrases to bring sense to muddled prose. Work with writers to make sure that they don't overuse transitional phrases - and that when they do use them, they use them well.