Need to write an essay but aren’t sure what a topic sentence is or how to go about writing one? Or maybe you are familiar with topic sentences and just need to build your confidence.
Whatever the case, we’ve got you! We’ll break down how to structure a topic sentence and all the things you need to consider when writing one.
Let’s get started!
What is a Topic Sentence?
You’ve probably heard of a topic sentence. And you’ve heard that you need to write them in your English essays, as well as other essays for Humanities subjects. But what is it?
A topic sentence is the first sentence of your body paragraph, which establishes your upcoming argument/thesis in your paragraph. This sentence also defends the thesis you would have already established in the introduction.
Why is it important?
Topic sentences are crucial to achieving a high mark in your English essays. Without a topic sentence, or even with a weak topic sentence, it’s quite difficult to achieve a high mark for essays in English (e.g. Band 5 or 6 in the HSC).
If you’ve ever been told by a teacher that your essay didn’t refer to the question closely enough or lacked a strong thesis, chances are your topic sentences are the area to improve to really bring your marks up.
Step #1: Highlight the Keywords of the Question
This first step is simple but crucial to English success. We need to know what the keywords of the question are to ensure our essay response is targeted specifically towards the question we are given.
Since the latest syllabus was introduced in 2019, the HSC English questions have become much more specific, so students are tested on their deep understanding of their texts — these questions can include obscure themes/quotes/scenes from their text and asking students to analyse the said theme/quote/scene in their essay.
Let’s consider this HSC 2020 English Advanced Module A question:
In textual conversations, the later text is often seen as a shadow, lacking the originality and power of the earlier.
To what extent is this statement true of the two prescribed texts you have studied in Module A?
The keywords from this question that we would highlight would be: textual conversations, later text, shadow, lacking, originality, power, extent and true.
Step #2: Consider Your Module
Now before we can jump right into writing our topic sentences, it is important to consider the Module.
For the previous question, it was Module A: Textual Conversations, and not say, the Common Module Human Experiences. What is it about Textual Conversations that we need to be aware of when writing our topic sentences?
Well, first we’re looking at a pair of texts and not a single text, so this fact would inform the structure of our essays. If you’re going for an integrated essay structure, where you discuss both the original text and newer text in the one paragraph, then you need to take that into consideration in your topic sentence.
Meanwhile if you’re going for body paragraphs that focus on one text at a time, then your thesis may only become more apparent in the topic sentences of the paragraph in which you talk about the later text. I’ll get to this down the track.
If we were writing an essay for the Common Module, then our topic sentence should start off with the human experience we’re going to explore in the paragraph e.g. guilt, not the prescribed or related texts themselves. We could then introduce our texts in the sentence following the first sentence.
Meanwhile with Module B, because it is a Critical Study of Literature, we could start off with the prescribed text in our topic sentence.
Step #3: Construct Your Argument
Let’s say we’re studying Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Hours’ for Module A.
Thinking about the question above, I would think about whether I really thought The Hours was seen as a shadow and lacked the originality and power of Mrs Dalloway. Remember that there’s no right or wrong angle — just be prepared to present your argument and defend it in the essay!
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is simply recounting the plot of their text or defining the topic in their essay, instead of presenting and constructing an argument. Be conscious of what your argument is while writing your topic sentence.
And because this is a “to what extent” question, it’s not enough to just agree or disagree with the question — we have to think about the extent to which we agree or disagree.
“To what extent” questions are a great opportunity to actually demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of your text/texts.
To do this, you can say the statement is true “to a certain extent” and explore why The Hours can be considered an original “shadow” of Mrs Dalloway, but also why The Hours is an insightful film in its own right.
Step #4: Formulate your Topic Sentence
So now you’ve chosen the angle at which you’re going to attack the question — let’s get to actually formulating the topic sentence.
You’ve got the keywords. You’ve got the argument. Now put it all together!
For the above question, a topic sentence for the Mrs Dalloway (original text) paragraph could be: Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a powerfully original and innovative text through which the 1920s notion of time is explored.
Meanwhile for the paragraph dedicated to The Hours, a topic sentence could be: Daldry meanwhile reshapes the notions of time that were presented by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway through The Hours, thereby creating an original and powerful text in his own right.
But for an integrated paragraph, a topic sentence could be: Whilst The Hours is a shadow of Mrs Dalloway, Daldry nevertheless succeeds in exploring notions of time presented by Woolf to create an original and powerful text in his own right.
Notice how in these topic sentences, time is discussed, which is the theme that has been chosen to explore in both of the paragraphs.
Also, some of the keywords that we highlighted before are in the topic sentence! We’re using those keywords to really make sure that we’re responding to the question.
Don’t overthink your topic sentences! It’s better to keep it short and sweet as opposed to trying to go for too much and possibly convoluting your sentence, making for a confusing argument.
Also even though it is referred to as a “topic sentence”, remember you can actually have up to two sentences which act as your “topic sentence”. Just be sure to not overwhelm the reader with too many ideas at once.
Good luck with achieving your #EnglishGoals!
Are you looking for some extra help with HSC English?
We have an incredible team of HSC tutors and mentors!
We can help you master your HSC subject and ace your upcoming HSC English assessments with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby or the Hills!
We’ve supported over 8,000 students over the last 11 years, and on average our students score mark improvements of over 20%!
To find out more and get started with an inspirational HSC tutor and mentor, get in touch today or give us a ring on 1300 267 888!
Marina Liu is currently completing her Honours in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Sydney, having finished her Bachelor of Arts (Languages). She has over 3 years of experience supporting senior English students at Art of Smart Education. In her spare time, she loves giving herself a manicure and listening to music from My Chemical Romance to Simon and Garfunkel.