The Topic Sentence Paragraph
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge


(1)The Topic Sentence Paragraph presents and develops a point or thought within the paragraph, defines or limits the reader's thoughts, and provides the reader with a feeling of completeness;
(2) A group of related sentences that are connected one to the other to cause the reader to know some particular point the writer is making;
(3) the smallest unit of writing that a writer can use to get a developed message over to the reader.


In studying the etymology of the word paragraph , we find that it origin- ated in Greece. The term paragraphos meant a mark in the margin of a manuscript to set off part of a text. (Para = "beside"; graph = "mark"). As scholars have pointed out, since these early writers didn't indent the way we do today, or actually write in paragraphs as we know them, they used these marks in the margins to draw the reader's eyes to certain points. The contemporary use of paragraphs is very closely related to this practice.

There are two (2) kinds of paragraphs: the Topic Sentence Paragraph and the Function Paragraph. As pointed out by Neeld (1980), the "Topic Sentence Paragraph takes one main idea and develops it. The topic sentence (sometimes stated, sometimes implied) tells the readers what you are about to discuss, focuses the reader's mind on that particular thing, and then provides enough information to prove or explain or illustrate or otherwise develop that main idea." The author of Writing/2nd Edition, Dr. Neeld adds that "thus it is possible to break a Topic Sentence Paragraph down into two parts: the topic sentence itself (the main idea, either stated or implied) and the additional sentences (directly related to the topic sentence and developing it)."

The Topic Sentence Paragraph

Any essay must have several good Topic Sentence Paragraphs; it is these paragraphs that allow you, the writer, to focus and define the reader's attention to the particular message or unit of information that you want the reader to think about. In addition, the Topic Sentence Paragraph provides your reader with that all important sense of value . This comes from the substance of that particular message you are communicating. To do this effectively, it is important that one be aware of certain guiding principles with respect to exactly where the Topic Sentence can or should be placed in a Topic Sentence Paragraph.

The Topic Sentence can go in any one of three (3) places in a paragraph:

  1. At the beginning (a form of Deductive Order , that is, going from the General or Main Idea to the Specific Support Sentences of that Main Idea in your organizing the paragraph);

  2. At the end (a form of Inductive Order , that is, going from Specific Supporting Sentences that provides examples, details, illurations, statistics, and other forms of information to the General or Main Idea); or

  3. Nowhere -- it's just "understood" (this is only done when you believe that the reader will know the main idea in the paragraph without being told and doing so renders your paragraph artificial and stiff. But please understand the difference between a paragraph with an implied or understood topic sentence and a paragraph that is simply a collection of unconnected, unrelated sentences!).

In writing Topic Sentence Paragraphs, you want to always make certain that (1) you tell the reader clearly what the paragraph is about; (2) you make certain that every sentence in the Topic Sentence Paragraph is related to the Topic Sentence, even if it is "implied;" and (3) that you always give your reader enough information to cognate your message. This final admonition is especially important given that the Topic Sentence Paragraph is the smallest unit of writing in which one can disseminate a complete message.

Methods for Adding Information to Topic Sentence Paragraphs

There are several ways by which one can insure that your Topic Sentence Paragraphs are, in fact, giving the reader enough information to understand your message.

  1. Illustrations, Examples, and Details. Your textbooks are excellent references for this type of writing. You may choose virtually any section of a textbook to find where the author, following an overview or Introduction to the subject matter, then follows with illustrations and examples for the readers to follow.
  2. Description. This particular method for adding information is certain to get the reader directly involved as it appeals to the five senses. When one uses description, it is usually to answer questions for the reader such as "What did it sound like?" "What did it smell like?" In describing, the writer works to develop word pictures, to image the scene for the reader whether it be an object, person, or event.

Discussion Questions

  1. Develop a Topic Sentence Paragraph based upon the issue of AIDS by using a combination of illustrations, examples, and details.
  2. Develop a Topic Sentence Paragraph that uses description as the primary method of development. Choose one of the following subjects on which to do so: (a) A Special Gift; (b) Your First Day of School; or (c) A Funny Television Commerical.
  3. Definition. There will be occasion when you wish to define a term or process so as to add information in a Topic Sentence Paragraph. This can prove to be an especially effective way of giving the reader enough information.
  4. Explanation and Analysis. The following is a paragraph taken from Effective Writing: Choices and Conventions by Karen Greenberg where she explains what can take place when the student writer fails to understand what the writing process is about.

    "Students who have misunderstandings about the process of writing often become overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to produce a 'perfect' piece of writing in one draft. They become convinced that they cannot write well and may develop negative attitudes toward writing -- fear, anxiety, contempt. These negative attitudes make it even more difficult for them to produce and to shape ideas. Regardless of whther you think that you write well or poorly, you may have some attitudes about writing that are interfering with your ability to express or to revise these ideas. In order to change these attitudes, first you need to understand them. This chapter is designed to help you examine your feelings and beliefs about writing and explore your writing habits."

  5. Facts and Figures. Crucial with writing of any type is the effort to convince or persuade your reader with respect to your main idea. This is one good reason for you to use facts and figures , statistical data where necessary and appropriate. What statistics and factual data do is lend credibility to your assertion(s), many times the type of weight that will bring the reader around to agreeing with you. Here is an example of that type of writing taken from Dr. Bruce Hare's article "Black Youth at Risk" as published in The State of Black America 1988:

    "The March 1986 issue of Crisis presents a series of dire statistics on black youth. For example, it was reported that '86% of Black youth live in poverty..., 1 out of every 22 Black American males will be killed by violent crime...,51% of violent crime in the U.S. is committed by Black youth..., 40% of Black children are being raised in fatherless homes.' The magazine also puts the current high school drop-out rate at 72 percent. Given the structural issues presented, and the already known precarious state of the adults, one might wonder specifically how a people of equal innate childhood potential arrive a such a disadvantaged youth status."

  6. Repetition. One factor to keep in mind is that the reader does not have a long memory for the message you are attempting to get across. With this in mind, what you must do is employ one of the clarifying devices used to achieve coherence -- repetition of key terms -- at consistent intervals. That is to say, the writer in a conscious act deliberately repeats the key points or themes of the work. This is very different from redundancy , wherein one simply repeats oneself for lack of anything better to offer (a direct outgrowth of not doing the necessary background preparation so as to deliver a well-developed message!). In addition, repetion of those key themes enables one to avoid the error of excessive pronoun usage which brings on the quality of incoherence.

  7. Comparison and Contrast. One of the very best ways to help your reading audience to "see" what you mean is to compare it to something else. In doing this, you are showing how the two things are similar. Or, you can contrast it to something else showing how the two are dissimilar. By putting two items together, you can really bring out the point that you want to get across. Journalist and author Nat Hentoff does this exceptionally well in his article "When Nice People Burn Books." Hentoff's subject is the First Amendment and how its basic provisions should be recognized by liberals and conservatives alike. He uses the award of $1,000 by an all-white jury to a black high school student after the student had charged the Battle Ground School District (including Prairie High School) with discrimination. One of the claims was that the school had discriminated against the youth by permitting white students to wear Ku Klux Klan costumes to a Halloween assembly. Using a comparison and contrast mode, Hentoff writes "School administrators might say the best approach is to have no costumes at all. That way, there'll be no danger of disruption. But if there were real danger of physical confrontation in the school when a student wears a Klan costume, is the school so powerless that it can't prevent a fight? And indeed, what a compelling opportunity the costumes present to teach about the Klan, to ask those white kids who wore the Klan costumes what they know of the history of the Klan. To get black kids and white kids talking about what the Klan represents, in history -- and right now.

    Such teaching is too late for Prairie High School. After that $1,000 award to the black student, the white kids who have been infected by Klan demonology will circulate their poison only among themselves, intensifying their sickness of the spirit. There will be no more Klan costumes in that school, and so no more Klan costumes to stimulate class discussion.

    ...That's the thing about censorship, whether good liberals or bad companions engage in it. Censorship is like a greased pig. Hard to confine. You start trying to deal with offensive costumes and you wind up with a blank space in the yearbook. Isn't that just like the Klan? Causing people to do dumb things."

    Can you see how Hentoff, a noted liberal writer, is able to get the reader actively involved by using examples which one can immediately identify? The First Amendment gauranteeing freedom of expression is one of those "inalienable rights" that every American believes in. Costumes and costume parties is another event the great majority are familiar with. Most certainly this is true for that one night in the year that America goes into costume, Halloween. And against this he holds up the opportunity to teach, but much more than the 3 R's, Hentoff posits the lost opportunity to teach about a dark page in our history, and in a way that all races can benefit. Of course, to do this kind of writing one has to do some critical thinking of one's own with regard to the issue but this is part-and-parcel of the good writer's makeup, that willingness to probe for creative ideas rather than repeat the commonplace and cliche.

  8. Narrative. Everyone likes a good story , and when you tell one more than likely you are going to draw attention right away. But equally important for the writer who chooses the narrative as a form of adding information to the Topic Sentence Paragraph, one can do so with confid- ence because it allows you a wonderful opportunity to explain or illustrate the point you want to make in that paragraph. In the paragraph below taken from his classic "I Have a Dream" sermon delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 200,000 people who came to Washington, D.C., in 1963 to show their support of civil rights as an issue, one finds an oustanding example of the narrative voice (done in the first person but extended to include the audience as a participant)

    "But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to staisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into bitter violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."


The basis of every composition is the Topic Sentence Paragraph. It is the smallest unit of writing that allows the writer to present a complete message or thought. In writing the Topic Sentence Paragraph, you want to do three things: (1) Tell the Reader Clearly What the Paragraph Is About; (2) Make Sure That Every Sentence in the Topic Sentence Paragraph Is Related to the Topic Sentence; and (3) Always Give the Reader Enough Information. With respect to the topic sentence, it can go in one of three places: (1) at the beginning of the paragraph as a form of deductive order going from your main idea to the supporting sentences; (2) at the ending of the paragraph as a form of inductive order where you begin with your support sentences that lead to the main idea; or (3) have it "nowhere," with the understanding that the reader will understand what your main idea is so that the topic sentence is implicit in the writing.

There are eight ways by which you as the writer can make certain that the reader will get enough information in developing the Topic Sentence Paragraph: (1) Illustrations, Examples, and Details; (2) Description; (3) Definition; (4) Explanation and Analysis; (5) Facts and Figures; (6) Repetition; (7) Comparison and Contrast; and (8) Narrative. In concluding, one might make special note that these eight ways hold true for the entire composition as, once mastered, the student writer gains confidence and competence.

Discussion Question

    The following paragraph violates all three principles about writing good Topic Sentence Paragraphs. Explain how it does so and then explain how each error might be corrected.
     Minorities are going to have to wake up and smell the coffee. We have all been brainwashed into thinking we are inferior. Motion pictures and television stand out as the biggest contributor of the propaganda, followed by the government, the schools, the belief that "Money Is Everything and Those Without Money Don't Count," your friends and neighbors, private industry and the labor unions, and maybe even your own family.

Key Concepts and Terms

Define the following:

  1. Admonition
  2. Competence
  3. Credibility
  4. Deductive Order
  5. Disseminate
  6. Etymology
  7. Excessive Pronoun Usage
  8. Inductive Order
  9. Paragraph
  10. Paragraphos
  11. Redundancy
  12. Topic Sentence Paragraph

Special Acknowledgments

For assistance in developing this presentation, special credit must be given to the following: Elizabeth Cowan-Neeld (Writing/2nd Edition), Karen L. Greenberg (Effective Writing), National Urban League (The State of Black America 1988), Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan (Popular Writing In America). Dr. Cowan-Neeld is the pioneer insofar as developing work centered around the Topic Sentence Paragraph while Professor Greenberg's comments on attitude and its relationship to effective writing provide seminal insights on the process. The timely work by the National Urban League has indirectly made it possible to feature this presentation which attempts in a small way to present an alternative, multicultural and multiethnic approach to the subject matter. It is to Professors McQuade and Atwan that I was able to obtain the article by Nat Hentoff entitled "When Nice People Burn Books."

Special thanks are in order to the Pan African Studies Department at California State University, Northridge for providing the material support and technical assistance without which it would have been impossible to develop this presentation. Finally, I wish to given special due to my students at CSUN over the years without whose input and hard work, the inspiration would not have come to develop this particular work. All errors in this document are my own for which I accept the responsibility.

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