Do Your Topic Sentences and Paragraphs Align? Thinking Through the Vacuum

As we write, our ideas often grow and sometimes finish in places wildly disparate from where we expected them to end. Indeed, the work of writing changes our way of thinking. During the drafting process, it’s not uncommon for the purpose we establish in a given topic sentence to end up having little to do with how the ensuing paragraph turns out. This dissonance can be very confusing to your reader. It’s a bait-and-switch that sets up an idea only to unpack a different but ostensibly related premise. Paragraphs that do not maintain fidelity to their topic sentences fracture the logic of your argument, disrupt the structure and narrative arc of your text, and alienate your reader. In this entry, we focus on the work of making sure our topic sentences reflect the work we do in our paragraphs.

Like many of the revision strategies presented in this guide, “Thinking Through the Vacuum” is a labor of love. It takes time. But we believe that this is time well-spent. Ultimately, this entry encourages you to practice a kind of mindfulness in maintaining your topic-sentence–paragraph alignment that will, eventually, render the advice below superfluous. What follows is essentially a discretely focused form of reverse outlining that specifically targets the topic-sentence-paragraph-alignment.

Step 1: Identify, mark, and number each paragraph’s topic sentences(s). Hint: also number your paragraphs. You will later match your topic sentence numbers with their corresponding paragraphs.

Step 2: Cut and paste your numbered topic sentences into a document separate from your text. This is the Vacuum; it is the space apart from the work done after following your topic sentences.

Step 3: Cut and paste your numbered paragraphs without their topic sentences into a document separate from your text and your topic sentences identified in Step One.

Step 4: In the vacuum, identify the purpose you establish in each of your topic sentences. Try to do this in a brief word-phrase or single sentence or so (in whatever form works best for you)—tip: brevity is best. If you can’t find a purpose in your topic sentences, hit pause and check out this entry on ________________.

Step 5: In the vacuum, identify the content of each of your paragraphs—again try to distill your work into a brief word-phrase or single sentence. The content (and hopefully its purpose) should be clear.

Step 6: Compare the purpose or aim of your paragraph noted in Step Four’s vacuum with the content or execution of your paragraph distilled in Step Five.

Ask yourself, does the purpose of my paragraph align with its content? In other words, do I maintain consistency in my topic-sentence-paragraph-alignment?

    • If yes, great! You’re all set. Move on to the topic sentence and paragraph pair.
    • If not, reshape your topic sentence so that it better reflects the work you actually did in your paragraph! Often, we’re better off tweaking the topic sentence(s) rather than building an entirely new paragraph.

Step Seven: Once you’ve recalibrated each paragraph’s topic-sentence-paragraph-alignment you may find your paragraphs no longer flow in a readily appreciable narrative—your argument’s hierarchy may be out of line or perhaps your timeline breaks down. Your paragraphs might need to move around a bit so that each paragraph logically relates to its neighbor.

If you can’t seem to figure out how you should reorder your paragraphs, no worries! We have a number of useful revision strategies that target this very problem. Check out: “Is Your Essay’s Structure Clear? Try this First and Last Sentence Exercise,” “Sentences and Paragraphs Out of Order? Rearranging/Reconfiguring as a Tool to Restructure,” “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure,” “Is Your First Draft Disorganized? Reverse Outlining as a Method to Discover Structure,” and “Where are My Section Breaks? Reverse Outlining as a Tool to Find Them.”

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