That Absurd Little Bird: The Topic Sentence
If you want to see my dyed gray hair stand on end, talk to me about the importance of the initial topic sentence.
“My left earlobe is very attractive for three reasons.”
“I like anchovy ice cream more than pizza.”
“Captain Diaperpants is an entertaining book and I highly recommend it.”
Need I go on? ::yawn::
Truth is: The topic sentence is to the paragraph what support hose are to varicose veins. We don’t really want to be aware of the work they’re doing. They offer support, yes, but why announce that fact to the world? The best ones are hidden in the compelling-to-read prose.
I was lurking on the Internet and read a whole bunch of sample paragraphs on a writing site for homeschooled students. The curriculum writer stressed the importance of both the topic sentence and structured, orderly writing as hallmarks of correct writing. She then conceded that this kind of writing would be “stiff and stilted and even boring in most cases,” but it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter? In what universe? The point was to learn to write these orderly, cardboard, stiff, spiritless, uninspired, i-n-s-i-p-i-d paragraphs (::grinding teeth::) with duty and diligence no matter how painful to the reader.
Oh break my writerly heart!
Reverse the curse of the initial topic sentence.
- Start in the middle.
Don’t tell me all I need to know in the first sentence. Once I find out that you are a black belt in karate, what interest do I have in reading how you earned the belt? Start with the struggle, facing the board as you prepare to sever it in half as with a cleaver. Leave me hanging out there, flapping in the breeze, worried and curious.
- Get me involved.
Use sensory detail to suck me into the scene without revealing your point until I’m hooked: “I sneezed when I leaned over the basket of cumin to examine it for bugs. The spicy fragrance reminded me of kasbahs and Moroccan stews. Unfortunately, I found myself in a modern Farmer’s Market in downtown Cincinnati instead. I miss North Africa.”
- Put the main idea at the end of the paragraph.
Most freewriting will start with a typical topic sentence that generalizes about the subject for writing. That’s fine when getting your thoughts together. To help hide the know-it-all sentence when you revise, move it to the end and see what happens. Like in the sample above—the topic sentence is last to appear. It’s so much happier modestly revealing itself at the end.
I know, I know. I didn’t even talk about the all important topic sentence in academic writing or in subsequent paragraphs. We’ll get to that another day.
For now, hook me, seduce me, scare me, move me, grab me by the collar, and don’t let me go. Lure me into your writing by concealing the point. That’s the point! (And that second-to-last sentence you just read, the one pretending not to be a topic sentence, is the topic sentence for this piece, artfully concealed until the end, incidentally…)