Writing for Yourself vs. Writing for Others
Writing for publication can be challenging for a number of reasons. One difficultly you might face when writing for publication can be transitioning from writing for yourself to writing for readers. While it might be a surprise, writing for yourself and writing for others are very different categories. You need to understand the differences between the two before you can write great publishable papers. But to understand the difference between writing for yourself and writing for others, you’ll need to know a little bit about the stages of high-level writing process.
Writing as Discovery
Writing is NOT a linear process; it is a recursive process that requires you to double back to actually discover what you think about a topic. Again this might be quite a surprise. A common metaphor that less inexperienced writers use to think about writing is that writing is merely recording the ideas in your head. This is not true. Beginning graduate-level writers often incorrectly imagine that there is a platonic idea of a paper floating in their heads, and that writing is merely the act of transferring this platonic idea to the page. Again, this is not accurate.
Composition research tells us that as we write, we actually discover what we think. By putting our ideas on paper and reflecting on them, we are able to determine whether we actually hold one stance or another. Responding to counterarguments, contemplating the implications of our findings, and amassing evidence for our claims are activities that can best be reflected on through writing. For example, sometimes making the case of a counterargument that goes against your own claim will convince you and cause you to change your own position, just as the evidence you actually find may lead you to modify your conclusion. Thus, experienced writers know that each draft brings them closer to discovering what they really understand about a topic—something they couldn’t have known before starting.
Uncovering your stance on a topic can be a frustrating and humbling process, but it also allows us as writers to discover larger conclusions and ideas that we couldn’t have realized without the aid of writing. In a sense it allows us to become more expansive versions of ourselves.
Writing to Communicate an Argument
Now that we know that writing actually enables us to figure out our thoughts, we can start to think about how to best approach communicating those thoughts to others. Whereas early drafts of an essay are written in a way that helps the author understand what he/she/they think about the topic, later drafts need to be written in a way that helps readers understand and follow each step of a carefully constructed argument. Put differently, while the early drafts are exploratory in nature, later stages of revision have to consider the information a reader needs to have at hand in order to understand how you achieved your important insights.
One of the key ways to transform an early exploratory draft into a draft tailored to the needs of your readers is by working on your topic sentences. A good topic sentence begins a paragraph in a way that clearly indicates the main analytical purpose of the paragraph.
To understand their importance of a strong topic sentence, we’ll need to think about the purpose of a genre of academic writing like the journal article. At the graduate level, most journal articles are going to be fundamentally argumentative: they are designed to pose a question that has vexed scholars and remained unsolved. Scholars then conduct research that reveals a possible answer to the question. Your manuscripts will inherently argue for the hypothesis that you test through your research.
Once you understand the inherently argumentative nature of manuscripts, you will see that in order to persuade someone of the soundness of your argument, they must know what the argument is.
The function of your topic sentences is to make clear to readers, at the outset, what purpose or idea guides a given paragraph. It is only when readers understand what the paragraph is trying to argue that they are put in a position to judge for themselves whether or not the evidence and/or logical reasoning in that paragraph is convincing to them.
A clear topic sentences will make it easy for your readers to follow the train of thinking that led you to your good idea and, ultimately, to be persuaded by it.
Example of Topic Sentences Working Well
Take a look at the following paragraph:
In the early 1940s, the house band at Minton’s Playhouse played tunes at breakneck speeds to weed out unprepared musicians. The band frequently reharmonized jazz standards, by replacing the original chords with similar chords that shared notes. Often the band would change the key after every chorus and even increase the tempo after each key change. All but the most skilled musicians who sat in with the house band would be left behind by the radical deviations from standard jazz tempo, harmonies, and keys. The result of the house band’s unique style was that the musicians who played at Minton’s developed a new musical vocabulary for jazz: one that moved away from danceability to showcase the speed, rhythmic complexity, harmonic inventiveness, and soloing ability of the performers. The new style was called bebop.
While the individual sentences are intelligible, as readers, we can’t determine why the author is giving us all this information about jazz musicians in the 1940s. It’s only at the end of the paragraph that we start to see that the changes the author describes resulted in the birth of a new musical style.
Now with a topic sentence, we’ll see that the same paragraph starts to snap into place more easily:
The birth of bebop is another example of competitions between musicians leading to the birth of new musical style. In the early 1940s, the house band at Minton’s Playhouse played tunes at breakneck speeds to weed out unprepared musicians. The band frequently reharmonized jazz standards, by replacing the original chords with similar chords that shared notes. Often the band would change the key after every chorus and even increase the tempo after each key change. All but the most skilled musicians who sat in with the house band would be left behind by the radical deviations from standard jazz tempo, harmonies, and keys. The result of the house band’s unique style was that the musicians who played at Minton’s developed a new musical vocabulary for jazz: one that moved away from danceability to showcase the speed, rhythmic complexity, harmonic inventiveness, and soloing ability of the performers. The new style was called bebop.
We can now clearly see what the author wants us to understand about the topic. Now we can make sense of why the author gives us the facts about the musicians: to show how a new style grew into being.
The Four Major Types of Topic Sentences
While the examples might make it look easy to write excellent topic sentences, it can be tricky. Sometimes it can be very hard to consider the one clear idea that each paragraph has. However, there are some guideposts you can follow. GC Writing Center Director Dave Hershinow groups topic sentences into four major categories:
- Topic sentences that provide evidence to back up your central claim
- Topic sentences that respond to potential counterarguments
- Topic sentences that acknowledge complications or limitations in your central claim
- Topic sentences that point out further implications of your research
If we look again at the sample paragraph above, you’ll see that it is an instance of the first category. More specifically, it is a topic sentence that lets readers know that the paragraph is going to offer a second example in support of a claim (“The birth of bebop is another example of…”). This paragraph would only make sense when preceded by a paragraph or two that had been dealing with a first, presumably more primary example in support of the same claim. This kind of topic sentence helps readers understand the specific analytical purpose of each paragraph right at the outset, thereby putting readers in the best possible position to follow your analysis with intellectual rigor.
You can use the idea of these four major categories to help you as you write topic sentences. If you realize that you’re trying to accomplish one of these four major goals, it can help you narrow down the idea you’re trying to express and thus make it easier to write a great topic sentence. For example, if you understand that you’re trying to respond to a counterargument, it will be much easier to frame the topic sentence to show clearly what potential counterargument you are rejecting.
Of course, topic sentence writing is still hard! So is revising a draft to suit the needs of your readers. To get all the help you can with these important steps, visit your friends at The Writing Center to get free, one-on-one help with your writing.
Purdue OWL has a lesson on topic sentences here.
Indiana University’s writing center has a strong lesson on topic sentences that in particular gives good ideas about how to transition from one paragraph to the next while staying mindful of clearly spelling out the function and