Jonathan is an academic and entrepreneur. As an Outstanding Scholarship in English winner in 2007, he is particularly interested in helping others write better essays. Jonathan also believes that businesses are a sustainable way help others experience lasting improvements in their lives. He is involved in helping many start-up businesses develop their products and business models before they go to market. He is also actively involved in running Virtuoso Tutoring, which bridges his academic and business interests. In his spare time, Jonathan enjoys reading, spending time with family and friends, watching movies, and participating in the life of his church.
Last week we looked at the two main types of topic sentence. They both have different functions, so in this post we’ll examine how and when to use each type of topic sentence to create a balanced essay.
Technique-based topic sentences summarise the evidence you will present (literary devices in English Literature essays; quotations, citations, statistics, theories and other types of evidence in essays for other disciplines). Thematic topic sentences are the distilled interpretations or implications of that evidence. Technique-based topic sentences are useful for linking paragraphs as they summarise the bulk of the essay and make smooth transitions for readers because they are generally easy to understand. Thematic-based topic sentences can also be used to link paragraphs. However, because they communicate deeper thoughts, they can take a little longer to absorb. This is often advantageous, because it further breaks up your essay, and it increases the likelihood of your sophisticated thoughts being understood.
It’s the thought that counts. The closing thematic topic sentence is there to sum up the argument and present the thematic implications in a compelling and thought-provoking manner. It could be as simple as “Time destroys.” I like that short sentence. (We’ll discuss sentence types and how to deploy them effectively in a future post). I’d already explained how the imagery in the poem “Ozymandias” conveyed this thematic message, so that sentence was fine on its own. Pauses can be powerful. Can you see how ending a paragraph with that punchy topic sentence will prompt the reader to reflect on the message?
Have another look at the post on how to order paragraphs, but this time read the examples with a different focus: to hone your understanding of topic sentences. Do you see how they hold each paragraph together, while linking the separate paragraphs in order; guiding the reader through both technical and thematic subtleties?
Notice that the thematic topic sentences often work well as closing topic sentences, because the final sentence will linger in the reader’s mind for a while, before they move on to the next paragraph. Thus, ending topic sentences are a great place to communicate important thematic ideas. They’re also a great place to answer the question explicitly, so the reader feels that reading the preceding evidence was relevant and worth their time.
However, engaging with thematic concepts is especially important if you want to get top marks, so thematic topic sentences can be used at the start of a paragraph too. Sometimes you might feel your thematic repetition won’t add value through new layers of meaning, though. In these situations – and also when it simply reads better if you relate evidence to previous paragraphs – technique-based topic sentences are great as the first topic sentence of a paragraph.
In general, technique-based topic sentences make your essay flow; while thematic topic sentences may cause the reader to pause while you go deeper (and also answer the essay question). Both effects can be useful; there’s a time and place for everything – balance the two types of topic sentence. Now you know which tool you can use to get the effect you want in each situation.
Photo Credit: Image by SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent) via Flickr
Since topic sentences function a bit like introductions and summaries to paragraphs, and because there are two main foundational concepts you can build paragraphs around, there are two main types of topic sentence: thematic and technique-based.
Technique-based topic sentences
Most students find technique-based topic sentences easier; you’re effectively introducing the paragraph by saying you’ll examine the imagery, or camera angles, or whatever. Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:
Conrad’s literary strategy involves using Marlow’s narrative to demonstrate the reader’s incomplete understanding, which parallels the main character’s developing discernment.
Thematic topic sentences are harder to grasp and are probably the more important of the two types, because their unique function demonstrates your ability to think and write well. Let’s look at thematic topic sentences in more detail.
Thematic topic sentences
Through explorations of themes, authors communicate messages, to a greater or lesser extent. However, these messages are often only implicit. On the other hand, thematic topic sentences should convey messages to the essay reader explicitly. Translate your interpretation of the author’s messages for your reader.
Sentences that discuss themes show higher-order thinking that will set your essay apart from those that merely re-tell the story. Themes, meanings, and messages are abstract and ethereal ideas that float above the surface of a text. So you don’t even need to refer to the poem, a character in a novel, or the plot in a short story in your thematic topic sentences; because the evidence in the preceding sentences should have already explained the important connection between your interpretation and the text itself. Thematic topic sentences communicate sophisticated ideas that draw conclusions, express insights, and generally do a little abstract philosophising.
Tip: abstract nouns feature frequently in thematic topic sentences.
Some of the theory about thematic and technique-based writing was covered (although from a slightly different angle) in a previous post linked above, so let’s look now at a few examples.
Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:
Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected.
Here’s an example of a thematic topic sentence:
Soon his life’s opportunities are left behind him: opportunities are left stranded by humans every day.
Can you see how the thematic topic sentence powerfully communicates a message that has been extracted from the text? It’s a lesson; not the story itself. The more clearly you understand this distinction, the better essays you will write. On the other hand, the technique-based topic sentence is still tied very closely to the text, so they’re often easier to write because the techniques described are easily identifiable in the text. Thematic sentences require you to think harder.
Remember that good topic sentences improve the quality of the whole paragraph to which they belong. Now you know a few types of topic sentences and have seen a few examples, you can start incorporating these into your own essays. Think critically about how you’re using the different types of topic sentences and how each sentence fits with its paragraph; used well, topic sentences can make a world of difference. All the best!
Photo Credit: Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri … Image via Wikipedia
We’ve talked about answering the question – perhaps narrowing the question, using nuanced arguments, and remembering to use the wording of the question as a motif throughout your essay. Answering the question ensures that your essay is eligible to get marks; the other techniques make hard questions easier, conceive higher quality essays, and speed up the process so you have more free time.
It’s important that each paragraph is well structured in its own right, though. This goes beyond knowing when to split or combine thoughts into paragraphs or ordering the paragraphs well. Each paragraph is a mini-argument. So each paragraph has elements which work together to guide your reader through so that they reach your conclusion – or at least appreciate it and give you lots of marks!
Mini-introductions and conclusions
One important ingredient that strengthens a paragraph is an opening and closing topic sentence. This pair of topic sentences holds the paragraph together; making it easier for the reader to ‘pick up’ and digest its contents (the evidence that supports your argument). Topic sentences do this by introducing the main argument of the paragraph, which improving clarity. Then the closing topic sentence summarises, evaluates, and re-emphasises an important “take-out” point at the end of the paragraph. This makes the paragraph more compelling.
Using a pair of topic sentences is sort of like having an introduction and conclusion, on a smaller scale, for each paragraph. Essay writing is often like putting together a babushka doll; each component resembles the one that it’s inside, but it’s smaller and simpler. Repetitive? Perhaps, but that makes it clearer and more compelling. Balance the downside of repetition by using varied expression – but that’s a topic for a future post.
First attempts at topic sentences
Opening topic sentences share a similar function to headings, like the ones in this post. When considering your essay plan, think of the main point of each paragraph as being a heading. Of course, in most academic essays, you won’t use headings (some course lecturers will allow this – check with them before you submit your work). Instead, you can write ‘full sentence’ headings as the first lines of each paragraph – this is a good first attempt at nefarious “topic sentences”, but the two types of topic sentences is a topic (eek) for another time. For an example of topic sentences which shows how well they summarise the main strands of the essay’s argument, see this bird’s-eye-view of an essay.
I encourage you to use topic sentences – while they can be a challenge to write initially, with practice writing them will become second nature. Effective topic sentences can lift the rest of a paragraph. Results are far better than expected, based their proportion of words – try it!
Photo credit: ** Maurice ** via Flickr
Posted in Essays Overall on February 24, 2011
If you lose your marker, you lose marks. Don’t lose your marker and don’t get lost yourself. Stop that happening by using this technique to show your reader how each part of your essay links to the whole.
Last week, we talked about how to tackle difficult and monstrously broad essay questions by focusing the question. This gave you more control, greater freedom to direct your essay answer towards the sub-topics and examples you prefer; making it easier to write a high quality essay and get more marks. Fantastic. But there was a risk: you might stray from the question. And that gets penalised very heavily.
So how can you make sure you’re always on the right track? Like anything in life – be continually reminded! Importantly, since answering the question largely determines your marks, reminding the marker you’re on the right track is powerful too.
In “Write That Essay!”, Ian Hunter wisely suggests that you write indicator phrases throughout your essay to remind the marker that you’re still answering the question. Tie the evidence and arguments in each paragraph back to the question explicitly. Remember, there’s a lot of text in an essay compared to the question. Help the marker move from your thorough, detailed analysis to the compelling big-picture arguments that answer the question.
Tip: the best way to do this is to use the words of the question as a motif.
This goes beyond referring back to the concepts of the question; you use the exact words of the question throughout your essay. As Ian Hunter puts it, “if the question asked you to: ‘Identify the causes of the Great Depression’, use the word ‘cause’ throughout your essay. Every time you introduce a new ‘cause’ call it that. Don’t call it something else. Use the word that the marker has used: call it a ‘cause’.”
Now, normally, I’d suggest you go for some variety. Mix up your vocab; use synonyms – and try different syntactical structures too. But in this case, you want to make the link to the question absolutely clear, more than you want to make those sentences sound fluent and elegant.
Using the words of the question reminds both you and the marker what the question is and how the essay answers it. So this is the antidote to unintentionally changing the question to something that you want it to be when you read it (quickly). Remember – you focus (usually narrow) the question; you don’t change its substance. In practice, this means you don’t change the wording of the question. That stays the same. Always. However, you state in your introduction how you will answer the question: what sub-topics or angle you will take to address the broader issue. The wording of the question should sit well with your ‘focusing’ sentence. If there’s a conflict, scrap your sentence; keep the marker’s one and brainstorm to find a new focusing sentence that still satisfies the criteria of the question. (You’ve got to jump through that hoop, for sure).
So, stay on topic and continually remind the marker that you’re answering the question and deserve more marks – use the words of the question as a motif. Go hard and get more marks!
Last week we looked at redefining the question to make it easier to answer. Now, there is a danger if you take this advice out of context: you will lose many of your marks – maybe even all of them – if you change the substance of the question. Remember, analysing the question correctly is the basis of a good essay answer. Dreaming up your own essay question is not completing the required task. So remember this: narrow the question, don’t try to twist it into encouraging wild thoughts and tangents.
By the way, did you notice that the above clarification is a nuanced argument? Not only are they useful tactics to use when doing writing; they’re also useful when learning how to write!
To make the concept of ‘redefining the question’ clearer, below are some examples of what you should and shouldn’t do.
You should not do this:*
*Answers are not written in essay form. The tone is purposefully colloquial and facetious; this is not how you would write an actual academic essay.
1. Compare and contrast the two poems “Thistles” by Ted Hughes and “Tall Nettles” by Edward Thomas.
Thistles by Ted Hughes is about prickly thistles and the thistles grow in the wilderness and the thistles annoy people because they grow where they want to grow plants… [basically, only writing about one poem].
2. Discuss the theme of power and authority in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.
“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare is a play about betrayal, revenge, fate and justice… [never mentioning the given themes of power or authority, or only mentioning them briefly – probably at the end of the essay when you reread the question before writing your conclusion, when you suddenly realise you should say something about the given themes].
You should do this:
Here’s an example question that gets narrowed down in many ways. Let’s highlight then redefine parts of the question.
3. Discuss ethics in business organisations and how they can affect stakeholders.
Businesses today face a phenomenon of growing ethical concerns from groups on all sides: consumers, regulators, employees (Samson & Daft, 2005).
Some thinkers consider ethics to be a purely individual matter, and therefore focus on training responsible managers (MacLagan, 1998, cited in Knights & Willmott, 2007). However, this essay will focus on the ethical attributes of multi-national organisations themselves, as entities distinct from their constituent members, and the positive benefits with which multi-national businesses can endow society. Overall, this essay will argue that organisations have an ethical capacity in themselves and can pro-actively respond to the various ethical perspectives by being a source of positive transformation in modern society.
Notice how the coloured parts of the question are narrowed down to more specific sub-sets in the introduction of the essay? The concept of “multi-national organisations themselves” having “ethical attributes” is more specific than a general discussion of “ethics” which includes the idea that “ethics [is] a purely individual matter”. Similarly, “multi-national organisations” is a more specific focus than any size “business”, and so on. So the question hasn’t been changed, but the essay has been focused so that part of a broad topic can be covered in more depth.
So that’s what you can and can’t do when redefining the question. Use this technique correctly and it will make your essay-writing projects a lot easier. Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions or comments. See you again next week!
Success often involves jumping through hoops. However, if you use nuanced arguments wisely, as we discussed last week, you can be more flexible in what you do to get through those hoops. Another strategy that makes writing essays much easier is to cleverly redefine the question. You can mold the question to fit the essay you plan to produce.
Wait! Isn’t that cheating?
Or at least not answering the question? No, you have to stay within the broader confines of the question, but you can narrow the question.
As Ian Hunter explains in his book “Write That Essay!”, this technique is often used anyway, because it might be necessary to cut down the amount of content that you’d have to cover in your essay. For example, you can’t cover everything about Medieval European warfare in one essay. So, you could focus on, say, a few famous battles, or a few technologies, or the political aspect of warfare during that era.
The trick and a quick example
Here’s the trick: tell the marker what you’re doing. Tell them that you’re focusing on one aspect of the broad topic allocated by the question. This ‘qualifying sentence’, as Ian Hunter calls it, might say something like “while Medieval European warfare was affected by many factors such as the political environment, social paradigms, and prominent personalities, this essay will discuss the effect of technological advancement which ultimately brought the Medieval Age to an end.” That one extra sentence in the introduction (it often becomes sentence 2 or 3 in the formulaic introduction) shows a broader understanding of the topic. So even though you haven’t covered them, the marker will assume you understand the other sub-topics too. In fact, if you write really well on one sub-topic, they will assume you know the other topics to the same standard. So write in detail on the aspect that you understand best, and you’ll score an instant kudos upgrade for no extra effort (the halo effect – the awesomeness rubs off on surrounding sub-topics).
Remember essays need to go beyond description. You’re not there to recount what happened in the play. You’re there to interpret what happened – analyse, offer some insights – even synthesize with other relevant ideas. To do this in-depth analysis of the text, you need enough words to discuss your chosen sub-topics(s) comprehensively, so focus the question.
NB: One thing you can’t narrow down is the number of texts or examples you have to refer to.
In most cases, however, redefining the question is brilliant. It focuses your writing; allowing you to go more in-depth and produce a higher quality essay. And it makes it easier to write the essay too. Redefine the question to unleash the halo effect and get higher marks.
Getting something better with less effort sounds like a dream – but that’s what we covered last week. Recap it now to revise how to grab the freedom you are given when writing essays and using that freedom to its full advantage.
So how did you go in the challenge? Did you notice examples of nuanced arguments made in real life? Or nuanced discussion points that you could’ve raised, but didn’t? I promised an example of how to use the nuanced argument strategy, so here it is. It’s an essay question that you might find in an English assignment.*
“Q: The main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?.”
- You can argue ‘yes, the main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience’ by using examples of humour, suspense etc.
- You can also argue ‘no, the purpose of a film is not to entertain -it’s to educate’. Or you could go as far as saying ‘the purpose of a film is to indoctrinate – or solely to make money’. Those are extreme positions, though – good luck arguing them.
A nuanced argument: elegant and sophisticated.
- one nuanced argument would be to define “entertain[ing] an audience” to include feelings of horror and pity, as well as happiness.
Tip: I thought of this idea by looking at the key word “entertain” and asking what that implies – and doesn’t imply – and what it could imply with a slight stretch of the imagination.
Another nuanced argument would be that through the emotional film techniques (entertainment) a higher purpose is achieved: conveying a deeper message about society, humans as individuals etc. [launch into an amazing thematic topic sentence here!]
Tip: this was triggered by looking at the keyword “purpose”.
It’s all about analysing the question really. Just do it in an open-minded, even quirky way.
NB: Nuanced arguments don’t have to be full paragraphs – they can be smaller points within paragraphs too, but I find they are often important enough and big enough to justify a full paragraph length of explanation.
I’m sure there are other ways you could approach that question, but it’s important to answer it in a way that’s unique to you. As long as it’s reasonable and you can back it up with evidence and express it well, of course. So let your uniqueness peep through the academic façade of your writing. Write on!
*based on a true assignment question. Some of the words may have been changed to protect the identity of the film mentioned, to comply with all relevant legislation, and to completely alter the meaning of the original question.
The paragraphing techniques that we’ve covered have been the basics – the foundations, the bare essentials. Now let’s put some power into your paragraphs – soup them up – so they don’t just survive, but thrive.
There’s one powerful technique that I use to ‘pimp paragraphs’. I like this technique because it looks good, allows you to express more of what you personally think, and makes the essay-writing task easier. It also gets you more marks.
You can get all that by using what I call ‘nuanced arguments’. (In case you noticed it on the diagram, the “x” doesn’t mark a spot where treasure is buried – then again, metaphorically…) .
So what is a nuanced argument?
We looked at how paragraphs can be based around concepts that agree or differ with a stance framed by the question. But different interpretations don’t necessarily have to be opposites; they can sometimes be due to re-defining a concept. That right there was an example of a nuanced argument! It’s going into more detail and explaining how something similar or linked is actually different. So before you can synthesise this into your essay, you have to analyse some differences.
What are the benefits of using “nuanced arguments”?
- Get more kudos (and therefore marks)
Markers generally like this sort of unique insight in an essay – it shows higher level thinking and is more engaging. Just make sure that you can back it up with evidence and it’s not straying outside of the question’s scope
- Be more creative, not a stuffy academic
So many more options are open to you when you aren’t simply arguing “yes/no” or “for/against” – even the “how strongly” dimension is still limited compared to nuanced arguments…
- Be more opinionated.
… which also means you can be more opinionated! (Some of you will really like that, I’m sure).
Nuanced arguments also make your job easier for many essays because you don’t have to fit the teacher’s thoughts into your own words, or struggle to come up with the ‘right answer”; you can write your own opinion, which you’ll know better and sooner than any other opinion. Best of all, markers prefer to read a fresh take on something (as long as it’s still well written and you back up the argument with evidence).
Don’t you want to take advantage of this technique? Here’s an idea: stay alert this week; see how many nuanced concepts you notice in real life – how many levels of precise interpretation you can identify. Once you start noticing them, you can pick them up everywhere. It’s great practice for essay writing and critical thinking in general. Also think about examples that you could use in an English essay. I’ll give you an example next week and we can compare notes, OK? All the best.
In previous posts, we’ve looked at how to structure paragraphs to produce coherent, compelling, and persuasive essays.
To recap quickly:
- Use paragraphs to make your essay easy to read
- Your paragraphs are mini-arguments; use them strategically
- Be able to use both Thematic and Technique-based paragraphs
Once you’re comfortable with what each individual paragraph should do, you can master the art of arranging them effectively. We looked at both chronological ordering and ordering paragraphs by similarities and/or differences.
These topics are quite abstract. Enough to do your head in; after all, I’ve been writing lots of paragraphs about how to write paragraphs! So here’s an example of how I ordered paragraphs in one of my essays (we first saw part of this essay in the second “SEX” post). I’ll show you the ordering and the basis on which the paragraphs were constructed by reproducing the first and last sentences of each paragraph. (See how useful topic sentences are?). I’ll write comments in normal text underneath the italics of the example.
The poem opens with direct speech: “’I’m rising five’”, exclaims the character in the poem.
Nicholson shows us how when we are young we lack knowledge outside of our uncomplicated small-scale experiences; and don’t recognise how carefree our lives are – we place the utmost importance on growing up.
The start of my essay’s body discusses the start of the poem; the overall method of ordering is chronological as you will see. Note that in the first sentence I begin the paragraph by focusing on Techniques, then the evidence throughout the paragraph this leads to a Thematic closing topic sentence.
Our early years present us with so many opportunities, Nicholson believes.
Soon his life’s opportunities are left behind him: opportunities are left stranded by humans every day.
The paragraph both began and ended with a Thematic focus. Between the topic sentences there was still Technical content, though. It’s important to have good Technical content to back up your arguments and make them more convincing.
As we mature, our perspectives change.
The boy’s mentality is shown throughout the poem by using the same line-placement technique. It is like a chain of reasoning, but this results in a rather chilling conclusion….
Notice that even in the closing topic sentences of this thematic paragraph, I refer to a chain of techniques that reveal the evolving perspectives of the boy. This further reflects the chronological ordering that is the basis of my essay’s analysis. This poem lends itself to the chronological approach because it’s theme is about progression and growing up.
NB: I don’t think I’d be so creative now to end a paragraph in a formal essay with ellipsis, but I got away with it that time. 😉
Positive images are still used for a while, though.
The space that is left unused means that the stanza lacks the detail of the previous, more densely packed stanza. This could reflect how blank and empty our lives are when we incessantly worry about the future.
Here I used a different approach to link to this paragraph. A link is made based on a similarity. The previous paragraph set up expectation of a progression, but I choose to emphasise the similarity of the imagery (so it’s a Technique focused paragraph again). This gives the reader a clear overview of what to expect, while still making the current point clear; aim for clarity in your essay.
Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected.
It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.
Another new approach to mix things up: this time a contrast is used to link the paragraphs. “Although” is a great linking word to use to signal a difference in the next paragraph. “On the other hand”, “however”, “in contrast”, and “nevertheless” are a few others. Experiment with them to find ones that work for you – the ‘fit’ often depends on the specific situation.
By the last stanza, Nicholson’s motif of the fruit trees has developed into an extended metaphor for the human life cycle.
The future holds the same fate for all of us: death. Nicholson reminds us not to be excessively captivated by the future.
(There. So now you know why there’s a coffin as the image for this post.)
Back to chronological linking of paragraphs after a little variety to add interest for the reader.
Often, my closing topic sentences are more creative and expressive than my opening topic sentences. I also prefer to close with a theme – and the sentence I leave in the reader’s mind at the end of each paragraph can target emotional responses (without becoming a poem or novel itself; it’s still an essay).
So there it is – ah, I’m at my word limit. ‘Bye for now’.
In my last post, we looked at a simple method of ordering paragraphs: sequentially like the way content appears in the text. Along with the advantages, chronological ordering comes with a downside: it’s tempting to recount what happened in the text, rather than analysing the way the text was constructed and the deeper messages it conveys. The last thing markers want is yet another summary of the plot. They have sparknotes for that – and they’ve probably taught it so many times they can spout it off in their sleep – backwards – and with their hands tied behind their backs. Use chronological ordering to tie your technical and thematic analysis together in a logical manner. It’s not an invitation to stop thinking.
However, chronological ordering is just one method that you can use. The following ‘family’ of methods is modelled on the ‘Spectrum Diagram’ above.
Essentially, all these methods structure your essay around concepts – usually themes and techniques in a Literature Essay.
Similarities and Differences
The spectrum diagram depicts the flow of the essay through the paragraphs. The spectrum itself represents the grounds of the debate, as set by the question. Opinions, individual concepts, arguments – and the different schools of thought that you discover in your research – can be placed on this spectrum.
Tip: to have a more convincing argument, look at alternative interpretations and arguments, as well as your own.
Structure your argument by balancing the different opinions and pieces of evidence. So some paragraphs may re-enforce each other (move in the same direction), while others may differ and take the reader back along the spectrum of opinion in the opposite direction. These paragraphs can be more persuasive, because the arguments are clearer; they form the very backbone of how the essay’s ordered. However, you have to very clearly communicate where the evidence is found in the text, since it’s not in chronological order. Also, remember to order the paragraphs with the end goal of being persuasive. Your paragraphs should link together in a meaningful journey, not just meander through some interesting but irrelevant concepts.
Ordering paragraphs to lead readers through stages of an argument is a more adaptable method than chronological ordering; every essay question will invite you to discuss concepts. You can mold the content more freely. However, it can take a little more thought to write using this method – but that can be a good thing. Done well, this can impress the marker and give you more persuasive power.
Perhaps it’s time to try a slightly more sophisticated paragraphing and ordering technique?