Your argument should proceed in a logical progression from one thought to the next. This logic should be clear at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, and the paper:
- within the sentence, from one phrase to the next;
- within the paragraph, from one sentence to the next;
- and within the paper, from one paragraph to the next.
Remember, these may sound like "rules," and it's fine to think of them that way if you want, but really they are techniques that will help you discover what you have to say and help your reader follow and engage with your thoughts.
Here is what we mean by "logical progression": each paragraph should develop one coherent point that relates clearly back to the thesis within the logical progression of your argument, and everything in the paragraph should be relevant to that one coherent point.
In order to clarify this logical progression, every paragraph must have an effective topic sentence (although see below on that unfortunate phrase), which should do two things:
- clarify the one coherent point of that paragraph;
- provide a clear and explicit transition to that point from the point of the preceding paragraph.
Now obviously, you're not going to be able to see your real point until after you've written a first draft of a paragraph. So don't worry about the topic sentence until then! During revision, then, concentrate especially hard on rewriting the topic sentence of each paragraph.
I find the term "topic sentence" somewhat misleading because this sentence must give more than merely the topic of the paragraph; rather, it should communicate the point that you need to make within the logical progression of your paper. Just as the introduction must give both the topic and the thesis of the paper, the topic sentence must give both the topic and the point of the paragraph. In other words, the topic sentence should be a "mini-thesis." Everything your thesis does with respect to your paper, your topic sentence should do with respect to your paragraph.
The most important guideline, therefore, that I can offer concerning topic sentences is the same as the first guideline I have proposed regarding your thesis: like a thesis, a topic sentence cannot be a statement of fact. Rather, it must present the point or idea that your paragraph needs to make within the logical progression of your argument. Make sure you understand the difference between a fact and a point: a point needs to be demonstrated; a fact does not. (Often, if your first attempt at a topic sentence merely conveys a fact, you can figure out what your point is by asking yourself, "What is important for my argument about that fact?")
Hint #1. After you've written a first draft, go back, look at each paragraph you've written, and ask yourself the following two questions: "What is my point in this paragraph?" and "How exactly does that point support my thesis?" On a separate piece of paper or in a separate document, write out your answers. Next, take two equally essential steps: integrate your answers to those two questions into a new topic sentence, and then revise the whole paragraph in keeping with your newly articulated point.
In addition to presenting the point or idea of the paragraph, your topic sentence should provide a clear and specific transition from the preceding to the present paragraph.
As in an outline, paragraph A must lead clearly and logically into paragraph B, paragraph B into paragraph C, and so on. In order to clarify your logical progression from one paragraph to the next, therefore, every topic sentence should contain a transition that explicitly connects the point of the preceding paragraph to the point of the present paragraph.
Hint #2. In order to craft effective transitions, try the following, using the results from Hint #1:
- write out the point of the preceding paragraph;
- write out the point of the present paragraph;
- now write out the connection between the two.
That connection is your transition! Integrate it into the topic sentence that you've already begun to revise by following Hint #1.
As you revise, then, check every topic sentence against the following three guidelines:
- The topic sentence cannot be a statement of fact; rather, it must present a point or idea within the logical progression of your argument.
- The topic sentence must clearly and explicitly relate to your thesis, the larger argument of your paper. If it is unclear how a topic sentence relates to your thesis, either the topic sentence, the paragraph, or the thesis itself needs to be revised!
- The topic sentence must provide a clear and explicit transition from the point of the preceding paragraph to the point of the present paragraph.