WRITTING IN ENGLISH

Posted: April 29, 2008 in Education

Start with an Outline

A brief outline will make it easier to develop topic sentences and to arrange your paragraphs in the most effective order.

You should begin your outline by stating the thesis of your paper:

The English Civil War was caused by a combination of factors, including the empowerment and organization of Puritan forces, the absolutist tendencies of James I and the personal ineptitude of his son Charles I.

Next, list the topic sentences for each of the paragraphs (or sections) of the paper:

  1. The war and its aftereffects lasted twenty years.
  2. Historically, the Protestants had believed themselves persecuted.
  3. In the 1620s Protestants dominated Parliament and attempted to enact legislation which would provide guidelines for both religious worship and political representation.
  4. During his reign in the early 1600s, James I had attempted to silence Puritan protests and to solidify the role of the monarchy as unquestioned head of state.
  5. Charles I’s lack of personal diplomacy and his advisers’ desire for personal power gave the Puritans the excuses they needed to declare war on the monarchy.

 

You might notice that the topic sentences derive directly from the thesis, and explain, prove, or expand on each of the thesis’ claims.

Once you have an outline at hand, you can follow three steps to help you write your paragraphs effectively:

  1. Use your thesis to help you organise the rest of your paper.
  2. Write a list of topic sentences, and make sure that they show how the material in each paragraph is related to your thesis.
  3. Eliminate material that is not related to your thesis and topic sentences.

 

Writing Topic Sentences

A topic sentence (also known as a focus sentence) encapsulates or organises an entire paragraph, and you should be careful to include one in most of your major paragraphs. Although topic sentences may appear anywhere in a paragraph, in academic essays they often appear at the beginning.

It might be helpful to think of a topic sentence as working in two directions simultaneously. It relates the paragraph to the essay’s thesis, and thereby acts as a signpost for the argument of the paper as a whole, but it also defines the scope of the paragraph itself. For example, consider the following topic sentence:

Many fast-food chains make their profits from adding a special ingredient called “forget sauce” to their foods.

If this sentence controls the paragraph that follows, then all sentences in the paragraph must relate in some way to fast food, profit, and “forget sauce”:

Made largely from edible oil products, this condiment is never listed on the menu.

This sentence fits in with the topic sentence because it is a description of the composition of “forget sauce.”

In addition, this well-kept industry secret is the reason why ingredients are never listed on the packaging of victuals sold by these restaurants.

The transitional phrase “In addition” relates the composition of “forget sauce” to secret fast-food industry practices.

“Forget sauce” has a chemical property which causes temporary amnesia in consumers.

Now the paragraph moves on to the short-term effect on consumers:

After spending too much money on barely edible food bereft of any nutritional value, most consumers swear they will never repeat such a disagreeable experience.

This sentence describes its longer-term effects:

Within a short period, however, the chemical in “forget sauce” takes effect, and they can be depended upon to return and spend, older but no wiser.

Finally, I finish the paragraph by “proving” the claim contained in the topic sentence, that many fast-food chains make their profits from adding a special ingredient called “forget sauce” to their foods.

Analysing a Topic Sentence

Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements. Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence makes a claim of some sort. As the thesis statement is the unifying force in the essay, so the topic sentence must be the unifying force in the paragraph. Further, as is the case with the thesis statement, when the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way. Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.

Consider the last paragraph about topic sentences, beginning with the topic sentence itself:

Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements.

This is my claim, or the point I will prove in the following paragraph. All the sentences that follow this topic sentence must relate to it in some way.

Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence makes a claim of some sort. As the thesis statement is the unifying force in the essay, so the topic sentence must be the unifying force in the paragraph.

These two sentences show how the reader can compare thesis statements and topic sentences: they both make a claim and they both provide a focus for the writing which follows.

Further, as is the case with the thesis statement, when the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way.

Using the transitional word “further” to relate this sentence to those preceding it, I expand on my topic sentence by suggesting ways a topic sentence is related to the sentences that follow it.

Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.

Finally, I wrap up the paragraph by stating exactly how topic sentences act rather like tiny thesis statements.

Review: Topic Sentences

Choose the best among the several topic sentences for each paragraph below.


  1. I saw around Velva a release from what was like slavery to the tyrannical soil, release from the ignorance that darkens the soul and from the loneliness that corrodes it. In this generation my Velva friends have rejoined the general American society that their pioneering fathers left behind when they first made the barren trek in the days of the wheat rush. As I sit here in Washington writing this, I can feel their nearness. (from Eric Sevareid, “Velva, North Dakota”)
    1. Family-sized farms are not productive.
    2. I grew up on a family-sized farm, near a town called Velva.
    3. Many politicians deplore the passing of the old family-sized farm, but I’m not so sure.
    4. People moved away from the cities in the late nineteenth century, in search of fertile land for farming.

  2. The first is the wear-and-tear hypothesis that suggests the body eventually succumbs to the environmental insults of life. The second is the notion that we have an internal clock which is genetically programmed to run down. Supporters of the wear-and-tear theory maintain that the very practice of breathing causes us to age because inhaled oxygen produces toxic by-products. Advocates of the internal clock theory believe that individual cells are told to stop dividing and thus eventually to die by, for example, hormones produced by the brain or by their own genes. (from Debra Blank, “The Eternal Quest” [edited]).
    1. There are two broad theories concerning what triggers a human’s inevitable decline to death.
    2. Some scientists believe that humans contain an “internal time clock” which forces them eventually to die.
    3. We all must die some day.
    4. My biology professor gave an interesting lecture Thursday.

  3. The strictest military discipline imaginable is still looser than that prevailing in the average assembly-line. The soldier, at worst, is still able to exercise the highest conceivable functions of freedom — that is, he or she is permitted to steal and to kill. No discipline prevailing in peace gives him or her anything remotely resembling this. The soldier is, in war, in the position of a free adult; in peace he or she is almost always in the position of a child. In war all things are excused by success, even violations of discipline. In peace, speaking generally, success is inconceivable except as a function of discipline. (from H.L. Mencken, “Reflections on War” [edited]).
    1. Soldiers need discipline.
    2. We commonly look on the discipline of war as vastly more rigid than any discipline necessary in time of peace, but this is an error.
    3. Although soldiers are not always disciplined, they serve an important social function in wartime.
    4. In times of peace, soldiers often convert easily from wartime pursuits to the discipline necessary successfully to compete in even the most competitive marketplace.

  4. In Montreal, a flashing red traffic light instructs drivers to careen even more wildly through intersections heavily populated with pedestrians and oncoming vehicles. In startling contrast, an amber light in Calgary warns drivers to scream to a halt on the off chance that there might be a pedestrian within 500 meters who might consider crossing at some unspecified time within the current day. In my home town in New Brunswick, finally, traffic lights (along with painted lines and posted speed limits) do not apply to tractors, all terrain vehicles, or pickup trucks, which together account for most vehicles on the road. In fact, were any observant Canadian dropped from an alien space vessel at an unspecified intersection anywhere in this vast land, he or she could almost certainly orient him-or-herself according to the surrounding traffic patterns.
    1. People in Calgary are careful of pedestrians.
    2. Although the interpretation of traffic signals may seem highly standardized, close observation reveals regional variations across this country, distinguishing the East Coast from Central Canada and the West as surely as dominant dialects or political inclinations.
    3. People in Montreal drive faster than people in Alberta, and Maritimers generally don’t pay any attention to traffic signals at all.
    4. Canadians do not follow traffic signals properly.

 

Dividing your Argument

Starting a new paragraph is a signal to your reader that you are beginning a new thought or taking up a new point. Since your outline will help you divide the essay into sections, the resulting paragraphs must correspond to the logical divisions in the essay. If your paragraphs are too long, divide your material into smaller, more manageable units; if they’re too short, find broader topic sentences that will allow you to combine some of your ideas.

Look at the list of sentences below:

In preparation for study some students apportion a negligible period of time to clearing off a desk, a table, a floor; others must scrub all surfaces and clean all toilet bowls within 50 meters before the distraction of dirt disappears.
Some eat or pace while they work.
Some work with deep concentration, others more fitfully.
Students might smoke, or chew their nails, or stare blankly at walls or at computer screens.
If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library.
The kitchen, and the bedroom function as study spaces.
Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully.
Being sedentary seems to inspire others.
Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets.
Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed.
Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

Were these sentences simply combined they would yield nothing but a long list of facts, not obviously related to one another, except that they all refer to students and the way we study. There is too much information here to include in one paragraph. The solution is to develop two topic sentences under which all (or most) of the above information will fit.

For most students the process of studying involves establishing a complex set of rituals which come to be repeated, with little variation, every time a task is assigned by a professor.

If we add the first five sentences to this topic sentence we have a unified but general description of the types of “rituals” or study patterns which are such an important part of academic life.

For most students the process of studying involves establishing a complex set of rituals which come to be repeated, with little variation, every time a task is assigned by a professor. In preparation for study some students apportion a negligible period of time to clearing off a desk, a table, a floor; others must scrub all surfaces and clean all toilet bowls within 50 meters before the distraction of dirt disappears. Some eat or pace while they work. Some work with deep concentration, others more fitfully. Students might smoke, or chew their nails, or stare blankly at walls or at computer screens.

The rest of the sentences are more specific. They concern the distribution of individual time, space and effort, and relate the rituals involved in study to those less commonly associated with school. A topic sentence might look something like this:

Work tends, therefore, to be associated with non-work-specific environments, activities, and schedules. If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library. What about the kitchen? The bedroom? In fact, any room in which a student habitually studies becomes a learning space, or a place associated with thinking. Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully. Being sedentary seems to inspire others. Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets. Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed. Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

Some organisation and a couple of topic sentences have transformed a long and undifferentiated listing of student activities into two unified paragraphs with a logical division between them.

Review: Dividing your Argument

Choose the place in the following passages where a shift in emphasis or topic suggests that a new paragraph should have been started.


  1. [1] The separation of “play” from “work” is a problem only in the human world. [2] So is the difference between art and nature, or an intellectual accomplishment and a physical one. [3] As a result, we celebrate play, art, and invention as leaps into the unknown; but any imbalance can send us back to nostalgia for our primate past and the conviction that the basics of work, nature, and physical labour are somehow more worthwhile or even moral. [4] In the same way, we have explored our sexuality as separable from conception: a pleasurable, empathetic bridge to strangers of the same species. [5] We have even invented contraception — a skill that has probably existed in some form since our ancestors figured out the process of birth — in order to extend this uniquely human difference. [6] Yet we also have times of atavistic suspicion that sex is not complete — or even legal or intended-by-god — if it cannot end in conception. (from Gloria Steinem, “Erotica vs. Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference” [edited])
  2. [1] The broad range of positive characteristics used to define males could be used to define females too, but they are not. [2] At its entry for woman Webster’s Third provides a list of “qualities considered distinctive of womanhood”: “Gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly.” [3] Among the “qualities considered distinctive of manhood” listed in the entry for man, no negative attributes detract from the “courage, strength, and vigor” the definers associate with males. [4] Lexicographers do not make up definitions out of thin air. [5] Their task is to record how words are used, it is not to say how they should be used. [6] The examples they choose to illustrate meanings can therefore be especially revealing of cultural expectations. [7] The American Heritage Dictionary (1969), which provides “manly courage” and “masculine charm” also gives us “Woman is fickle,” “brought out the woman in him,” “womanly virtue,” “feminine allure,” “feminine wiles,” and “womanish tears.” (from Casey Miller & Kate Swift, “”Manly” and “Womanly”” [edited])
  3. [1] Neo-conservatives such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lament the collapse of traditional social values: family, work, patriotism, restraint. [2] They are right, of course. [3] There has been a deep erosion of traditional values, but the process began several hundred years ago. [4] What we a rewitnessing today is, perhaps, the culmination of a long historical process, a process accelerated by the policies of Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher. [5] Ironically, it is the very marketplace morality at whose shrine the neo-conservatives worship that produces the social disintegration they lament. [6] The pursuit of individual self-aggrandizement, individual gratification, individual pleasure has led more and more of us into the scramble for wealth and power. [7] Ambition and hedonism prevail. [8] Can any society survive when its citizens are all engaged in a furious competition to carve up the spoils? (from Arthur Schafer, “Morals in the Rat Race”)
  4. [1] A subterranean lavatory is not, in itself, a mysterious place. If cleanliness is next to godliness, it may seem perverse to go underground in search of it; but that is a minor paradox. [2] Busy streets simply demand a small collection of toilets and handbasins at this corner or that — so it was in Toronto in the early years of this century, and so it remains in such cities as London and Paris, which continue to acknowledge the merits of the gentle, periodic descent. [3] It is not a mystery that they appeared. [4] It is rather a mystery that they disappeared. [5] Toronto’s first one seems to have been built just as Queen Victoria was exhaling for the last time. [6] No one is quite sure — records were not kept until five years later. [7] Like many more or less obscure painters from the hazier centuries, the birth of the downstairs lav in Toronto must be noted as “circa 1901.” [8] But while the demise of such painters was quite often recorded, that of the underground lavatory remains troublesome. (from John Ferguson, “The Ivory Cellar”)

 

Developing Unified and Coherent Paragraphs

A paragraph is unified when every sentence develops the point made in the topic sentence. It must have a single focus and it must contain no irrelevant facts. Every sentence must contribute to the paragraph by explaining, exemplifying, or expanding the topic sentence. In order to determine whether a paragraph is well developed or not, ask yourself: “What main point am I trying to convey here?” (topic sentence) and then “Does every sentence clearly relate to this idea?”

There are several ways in which you can build good, clear paragraphs. This section will discuss three of the most common types of paragraph structure: development by detail, comparison and contrast, and process. Finally, it will suggest that most paragraphs are built of a combination of development strategies.

Paragraph Development by Detail

This is the most common and easiest form of paragraph development: you simply expand on a general topic sentence using specific examples or illustrations. Look at the following paragraph (you may have encountered it before):

Work tends to be associated with non-work-specific environments, activities, and schedules. If asked what space is reserved for learning, many students would suggest the classroom, the lab or the library. What about the kitchen? The bedroom? In fact, any room in which a student habitually studies becomes a learning space, or a place associated with thinking. Some people need to engage in sports or other physical activity before they can work successfully. Being sedentary seems to inspire others. Although most classes are scheduled between 8:30 and 22:00, some students do their best work before the sun rises, some after it sets. Some need a less flexible schedule than others, while a very few can sit and not rise until their task is completed. Some students work quickly and efficiently, while others cannot produce anything without much dust and heat.

The topic sentence makes a general claim: that school work tends not to be associated only with school. The rest of the sentences provide various illustrations of this argument. They are organised around the three categories, “environment, activities, and schedules,” enumerated in the topic sentence. The details provide the concrete examples which your reader will use to evaluate the credibility of your topic sentence.

Paragraph Development by Comparison and Contrast

You should consider developing your paragraph by comparison and contrast when you are describing two or more things which have something, but not everything, in common. You may choose to compare either point by point (X is big, Y is little; X and Y are both purple.) or subject by subject (X is big and purple; Y is small and purple.). Consider, for example, the following paragraph:

Although the interpretation of traffic signals may seem highly standardized, close observation reveals regional variations across this country, distinguishing the East Coast from Central Canada and the West as surely as dominant dialects or political inclinations. In Montreal, a flashing red traffic light instructs drivers to careen even more wildly through intersections heavily populated with pedestrians and oncoming vehicles. In startling contrast, an amber light in Calgary warns drivers to scream to a halt on the off chance that there might be a pedestrian within 500 meters who might consider crossing at some unspecified time within the current day. In my home town in New Brunswick, finally, traffic lights (along with painted lines and posted speed limits) do not apply to tractors, all terrain vehicles, or pickup trucks, which together account for most vehicles on the road. In fact, were any observant Canadian dropped from an alien space vessel at an unspecified intersection anywhere in this vast land, he or she could almost certainly orient him-or-herself according to the surrounding traffic patterns.

This paragraph compares traffic patterns in three areas of Canada. It contrasts the behaviour of drivers in the Maritimes, in Montreal, and in Calgary, in order to make a point about how attitudes in various places inform behaviour. People in these areas have in common the fact that they all drive; in contrast, they drive differently according to the area in which they live.

It is important to note that the paragraph above considers only one aspect of driving (behaviour at traffic lights). If you wanted to consider two or more aspects, you would probably need more than one paragraph.

Paragraph Development by Process

Paragraph development by process involves a straightforward step-by-step description. Those of you in the sciences will recognise it as the formula followed in the “method” section of a lab experiment. Process description often follows a chronological sequence:

The first point to establish is the grip of the hand on the rod. This should be about half-way up the cork handle, absolutely firm and solid, but not tense or rigid. All four fingers are curved around the handle, the little finger, third finger and middle finger contributing most of the firmness by pressing the cork solidly into the fleshy part of the palm, near the heel of the hand. The forefinger supports and steadies the grip but supplies its own firmness against the thumb, which should be along the upper side of the handle and somewhere near the top of the grip. (from Roderick Haig-Brown, “Fly Casting”)

The topic sentence establishes that the author will use this paragraph to describe the process of establishing the “grip of the hand on the rod,” and this is exactly what he does, point by point, with little abstraction.

Paragraph Development by Combination

Very often, a single paragraph will contain development by a combination of methods. It may begin with a brief comparison, for example, and move on to provide detailed descriptions of the subjects being compared. A process analysis might include a brief history of the process in question. Many paragraphs include lists of examples:

The broad range of positive characteristics used to define males could be used to define females too, but they are not. At its entry for woman Webster’s Third provides a list of “qualities considered distinctive of womanhood”: “Gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly.” Among the “qualities considered distinctive of manhood” listed in the entry for man, no negative attributes detract from the “courage, strength, and vigor” the definers associate with males. According to this dictionary, womanish means “unsuitable to a man or to a strong character of either sex.”

This paragraph is a good example of one which combines a comparison and contrast of contemporary notions of “manliness” and “womanliness” with an extended list of examples.

 

Review: Paragraph Development

Although most paragraphs contain a combination of development techniques, which type of development best describes the following paragraphs: detail; comparison and contrast; process; or combination?


  1. My secretary, incorrigibly English, says a true gentleman “knows instinctively when I prefer to light my own cigarette, never serves aces at me on the tennis court, and always removes his wristwatch.” Among the few true gentlemen extant, she says, “Captain Horatio Hornblower, Bob Dylan and Pierre Elliott Trudeau come to mind. Richard Burton, Joe Namath and Front Page Tom don’t.” (from Allan Fotheringham, “What is a Gentleman”)
    1. Development by Detail
    2. Development by Comparison and Contrast
    3. Development by Process
    4. Combination of Development Methods

  2. When I tell young softball players I played the game bare-handed, they regard me warily. Am I one of those geezers who’s forever jawing about the fact that, in his day, you had to walk through six miles of snowdrifts just to get to school? Will I tediously lament the passing of the standing broad jump, and the glorious old days when the only football in the Maritimes was English rugger, when hockey was an outdoor art rather than indoor mayhem and at decent yacht clubs, men were gentlemen and women were persona non grata? No, but I will tell today’s softball players that — with their fancy uniforms, batters’ helmets, dugouts, manicured diamonds, guys to announce who’s at bat over public address systems and, above all, gloves for every fielder — the game they play is more tarted-up and sissy than the one I knew. (from Harry Bruce, “The Softball was Always Hard”)
    1. Development by Detail
    2. Development by Comparison and Contrast
    3. Development by Process
    4. Combination of Development Methods

  3. To identify the species the wasp apparently must explore the spider with her antennae. The tarantula shows an amazing tolerance to this exploration. The wasp crawls under it and walks over it without evoking any hostile response. The molestation is so great and so persistent that the tarantula often rises on all eight legs, as if it were on stilts. It may stand this way for several minutes. (from Alexander Petrunkevitch, “The Wasp and the Spider”)
    1. Development by Detail
    2. Development by Comparison and Contrast
    3. Development by Process
    4. Combination of Development Methods

  4. When I was young I often heard people say, “Canada is the Scotland of North America.” Only recently did it occur to me that it might be worthwhile considering the extent to which this is true. As Scotland is the hard northern cap to the British island, with the rich farmlands and cities of England just below her, so is Canada to the United States. Both countries were gouged by the retreating glaciers, which left them on the subsistence level as far as good farmland was considered. It also gave them both a heritage of spectacular beauty uncrowded by cities and towns, and of this they were both inclined to boast. (from Hugh MacLennan, “Scotland’s Fate, Canada’s Lesson” [edited])
    1. Development by Detail
    2. Development by Comparison and Contrast
    3. Development by Process
    4. Combination of Development Methods

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