The series Spotlight on Good Writing highlights techniques used in public-facing writing that are widely applicable to writing of all kinds, including research papers and expository essays written by students.
This post focuses on how writers can successfully craft effective topic sentences.
The topic sentence is an unavoidable element in essay writing. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a sentence that states the main thought of a paragraph or of a larger unit of discourse and [that] is usually placed at or near the beginning” (“Topic sentence”). As this definition suggests, crafting effective topic sentences forces writers to structure their work more rigorously. The better the structure of an argument, the more easily readers will be able to follow it. And like a bridge, which can span a greater distance the stronger it is, a well-structured essay can accommodate a wider-ranging discussion than a poorly structured essay can. Elif Batuman’s New York Times piece “The Age of ‘The Age of Innocence’” uses strong topic sentences to support its discussion.
Introducing a Broad Topic Clearly
A topic sentence that appears at the beginning of an essay introduces the topic of the entire piece. How such a sentence is written will shape the later directions that the essay can take, so it is essential that the topic be introduced clearly and in a manner that does not foreclose subsequent lines of argument. Let’s look at Batuman’s opening paragraph:
A literary “classic” is a recurring character in one’s life. One reads it, years go by, one reads it again, and it becomes the sum of those readings over time. One identifies with the character closest to one in age—and then one’s age changes. Eventually, each classic tells two stories: its own, and the story of all the times one has read it. In a way, in “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton wrote an allegory of this very process: of the way stories acquire new meanings over time.
The topic sentence, “A literary ‘classic’ is a recurring character in one’s life,” is exemplary. It makes clear that Batuman’s essay reflects on the experience of rereading a classic work of literature. But although the meaning is clear, it is implied rather than spelled out. The sentence proposes that a work of literature functions as a “character in one’s life,” suggesting that readers can interact with the work in ways reminiscent of how they might interact with other people. A “recurring character” is therefore a literary work that readers interact with repeatedly over time. To ensure that this implied meaning is understood, Batuman uses her second sentence to drive home the point that “[o]ne reads” a classic literary work and later “reads it again.” But why, when all Batuman has to do is introduce the subject of her essay, does she give us this oddball metaphor: that a piece of writing is a character in a larger story?
The metaphor in this topic sentence implies that one’s interactions with a piece of writing can be as complex and dependent on circumstance as one’s interactions with other people. This idea paves the way for the essay’s subsequent discussion of how Edith Wharton’s background influenced the writing of The Age of Innocence, how the period in which Wharton wrote shaped the novel’s reception, and how Batuman has responded to the work at different times in her own life. It also prepares the reader for a notion that the essay concludes with: that a piece of writing, as a “character” imbued with agency, can influence not only its readers but also the wider world in which they live.
Connecting What Came Before to What Follows
When a topic sentence appears in a paragraph in the middle of an essay, it can help the writer pivot from one subject to another. In the following passage, Batuman uses a topic sentence to shift the discussion away from an explanation of Wharton’s activities in Paris during World War I to speculation about the inner lives of readers after the war:
Many American expatriates left Paris at that time, but Wharton stayed behind, working on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flooded across the French border. She personally housed 600 Belgian orphans, organized workshops for unemployed seamstresses and opened a home for tubercular children.
Life and novel-writing were utterly transformed by the war. “Before the war, you could write fiction without indicating the period, the present being assumed. The war has put an end to that for a long time,” Wharton told her friend Bernard Berenson after the Armistice. . . . She wrote most of “The Age of Innocence” in 1919. . . . Readers in 1920 would have been thinking about all the developments . . . that made even the 1900s, let alone the 1870s, feel like ancient history. They would be recalling the past stages of their own lives, mapping them against the newly historicized decades of the recent past.
Remarkably, Batuman manages to bridge these two distinct subjects with one deftly crafted sentence: “Life and novel-writing were utterly transformed by the war.” The sentence succeeds at linking the two subjects because it combines elements of both of them: life in a time of war, on the one hand, and novel writing, on the other. The simplicity of this sentence is one of its strengths, and its epigrammatic sweep is another. By highlighting the changes in lived experience brought about by the war, the sentence carries this element of the essay forward, allowing Batuman in the remainder of the paragraph to discuss the perspective of readers after the war, and later on to discuss her own experience of reading The Age of Innocence. If this topic sentence were to highlight only the war’s effects on writing fiction, the mention of readers might seem out of place, as might the later discussion of Batuman’s personal life.
Connecting the End to the Beginning (with a Twist)
A topic sentence can also connect the end of an essay to its beginning. Batuman links the topic sentence of her concluding paragraph, an excerpt of which appears below, to the equivalent sentence in her first paragraph:
The novel is a constantly evolving technology, always finding ways to convey more reality, to articulate more truths, to identify new equivalences. Underlying this project is the optimistic belief that seeing the world more clearly can make individuals more free, and societies more just.
In her first paragraph, Batuman claims that a classic novel is a “recurring character” in a reader’s life, and the essay goes on to examine her changing perspective on the novel at different times in her own life. Her final paragraph echoes the earlier claim by suggesting that the novel, as a form, is “constantly evolving.” But her final topic sentence also puts a twist on the ideas contained in her first topic sentence. Whereas earlier she claims that a novel is a “character,” here the novel is a “technology,” and whereas earlier she refers to an unspecified “classic novel,” here she has shifted her discussion to the novel as a form. The two sentences are linked, but their differences make the link dynamic and reflective of the essay’s broad concerns.
Why didn’t Batuman simply repeat her first topic sentence and save herself the work of composing a new one? Remember that a topic sentence states the main thought of the paragraph it governs. Had Batuman merely repeated her first topic sentence in her final paragraph, then the first and last paragraphs would probably have identical main thoughts, which would suggest that the essay had failed to develop an argument. If such an essay were a bridge, it would be a bridge to nowhere. When composing an essay, make sure that your topic sentences point your work in the right direction.
Batuman, Elif. “The Age of ‘The Age of Innocence.’” The New York Times, 1 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/books/review/age-of-innocence-edith-wharton-elif-batuman.html.
“Topic sentence.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2020, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/topic%20sentence.
Published 19 February 2020