Wendy Ward on the topic sentence and the thesis statement

Below is a terrifically succinct statement, written by a professor at Miami-Dade Community College, of the approach English 109 takes to topic sentences and thesis statements:

The Topic Sentence and the Thesis Statement

Both involve main ideas.

A topic sentence contains the main idea of a paragraph.

A thesis statement contains the main idea of an essay.

In this class, your thesis statement will be the last sentence in your introductory paragraph (your first paragraph). It will contain a plan of development, the two* points you want to advance in the body/supporting paragraphs. These points will be mentioned in the same order that you will mention them in the body paragraphs and will have a structure that follows parallelism.

Each body/supporting paragraph will contain a topic sentence, which will be the first sentence in each paragraph.

____________

*In your English classes at Mercy, you will need 3 points, not 2.

The Topic Sentence and the Thesis Statement
Wendy Ward

Speaking as a writer, I can tell you there is a reason so many beginning composition courses teach this form.

The reason: this very simple, highly structured form works for your reader.

When you place a 3-part thesis statement at the end of your first paragraph, and a topic sentence at the beginning of each “body paragraph,” you help your reader (me!) stay with you.

The 5-paragraph essay may be especially useful for beginners, who have yet to master the skill of writing clear essays on complex topics. However, I love the form myself, and I am no beginner. I  wish someone had taught me how to write a 5-paragraph essay when I was young.


Today, I think of a paper’s thesis and topic-sentence set as its X-1-2-3, after William J. Kerrigan’s terrific book Writing to the Point.

My friend Robyne and I used an X-1-2-3 structure in this article for the River Journal.

The 5-paragraph X-1-2-3 form is infinitely malleable. You can expand it, contract it, stand it on its head or make it do somersaults if you like. Master it, and it will not fail you.


By the way, Professor Ward makes excellent use of parallelism and word repetition to get her point across:

A topic sentence contains the main idea of a paragraph.

A thesis statement contains the main idea of an essay.

AND SEE:
One-to-one help with all reading and writing assignments in all classes
……..at the Writing Center
(914-674-7402)

More from William J. Kerrigan on Step 6

Part 1: “Step 6 stuns some people.”

William J. Kerrigan explains Step 6:

STEP 6. Make sure every sentence in your theme is connected with, and makes a clear reference to, the preceding sentence.

1.
Repeat in Sentence B (the second of any two sentences) a word used in sentence A (the first of those two sentences).
EXAMPLE: The fable is a short tale designed to teach a lesson. The purpose of the fable is to give advice.

2.
Use in sentence B a synonym of a word in sentence A.
EXAMPLE: Cats are social animals. Feline behavior is different from what most people believe.
EXAMPLE: Researchers presented four crows with a pile of stones and a narrow flask of water at the bottom of which was a worm. The birds all picked up the stones and placed them in the flask, raising the water level to the point where they could reach the worm.

3.
Use a pronoun in sentence B to refer to an antecedent in sentence A.
EXAMPLE: The characters in fables are flat. They personify virtues and vices.

4.
Use in sentence B an antonym [opposite] of a word in sentence A.
[Use this technique when you’re showing a contrast or difference.]
EXAMPLE: In the far south of Africa, the Dutch and British and other Europeans were already living and trading….But
 north of Karuman lay the rest of the huge continent of Africa

, hundreds and hundreds of miles that no European had ever seen.
["South" and "north" are opposites.]

5.
Use in sentence B a word commonly paired with a word in sentence A.
EXAMPLE: The Grimms, however, changed more than the style of the tales. They changed the content.
[“Style” and “content” are usually associated in discussions of fiction. Source: “The Lure of the Fairy Tale by Joan Acocella | The New Yorker | 7.23.2012

6.
Repeat a sentence structure.
EXAMPLE: I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. – Winston Churchill
DOGS LOOK UP TO US
CATS LOOK DOWN ON
Same structure, same rhythm.

7.
Use a connective in sentence B to refer to an idea in sentence A.
EXAMPLES: for, therefore, however, although, etc.

AND SEE:
William J. Kerrigan explains Step 6 and tells a story 
Anaphora: all posts
Cohesion and coherence: all posts

William J Kerrigan on Step 6

from Writing to the Point:

STEP 6. Make sure every sentence in your theme is connected with, and makes a clear reference to, the preceding sentence.

[Step 6] stuns some people. It seems to claim to be a truth—a big truth—about all writing; yet since they have never heard it before, how can it be true?

In fact, I had teaching with me once, as a practice teacher, an intelligent young woman who was doing graduate work in English at one of our state universities. She had previously been a technical editor in the aerospace industry. She enjoyed her work teaching Steps 1 through 5 and did it excellently, I am happy to say. I suspect Step 5 may have been something of an eye-opener for her; but when I proposed Step 6 to her, she looked at me as if I were out of my mind. “Why, that’s simply not so,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “don’t take my word for it. But go to any printed essay or article that you think is well written, and see whether every sentence in it doesn’t connect with, and make clear reference to, the preceding sentence.”

She went away shaking her head, her eyes clouded with doubt. But a couple of days later she returned, after having done some conscientious and extensive investigation, and said simply, “Now I see why I haven’t been getting A’s on my papers at the university.”

AND SEE:
William J. Kerrigan on Step 6:
..7 ways to connect sentences

X-1-2-3: all posts
Anaphora: all posts
Cohesion and coherence: all posts

X-1-2-3 sentences for a classification paper

Below are three sets of X-1-2-3 sentences for a classification paper answering the question:

What kinds of characters are found in fables?

X Three principal types of characters appear in fables: animals, humans, and supernatural beings.
1 Some fable characters || are animals.
2 Some fable characters || are humans.
3 Some fable characters || are supernatural beings.
X The characters in fables || are moral types.
1 Some of the characters in fables || are morally good.
2 Some of the characters in fables || are morally bad.
3 Some of the characters in fables || are morally mixed.

Notice that in each sentence stack* the subject remains the same while the predicate  changes.

The X-1-2-3 method helps novice writers keep their writing on track by instructing them to make the paper topic and the X-1-2-3 sentence subjects one and the same.

Remember: the X-1-2-3 sentences correspond to your Thesis Statement + three Topic Sentences:

X Thesis statement (usually the last sentence in the Introductory paragraph)
1 Topic Sentence #1 (1st sentence in 2nd paragraph)
2 Topic Sentence #2 (1st sentence in 3rd paragraph)
3 Topic Sentence #3 (1st sentence in 4th paragraph)

* The partial exception is the “list thesis” in the first set: There are three principal types of characters in fables: animals, humans, and supernatural beings. 

AND SEE:
William J. Kerrigan on learning to swim and learning to write
X-1-2-3: the 6 steps
X-1-2-3 at Cost of College
X-1-2-3 sets for a classification paper

NV’s perfect paragraph

When the Grimms revised their tales, they made the stories less controversial but more violent. To achieve this goal, they took out realistic violence and left in the violence that parents thought was acceptable. For example, they removed “The Starving Children,” a story in which a mother is willing to eat her own child due to hunger. Also, in “Cinderella,” the birds poke out her stepsisters’ eyes.

This is a wonderful paragraph – wonderful and also pretty rare in the work of novice writers, I think. A paragraph to aspire to!

Here’s a break-down:

  1. TOPIC SENTENCEWhen the Grimms revised their tales, they made the stories less controversial but more violent.
  2. ELABORATION and/or EXPLANATION of the topicTo achieve this goal, they took out realistic violence and left in the violence that parents thought was acceptable.
  3. EXAMPLES that illustrate and provide evidence NV’s claim is true: For example, they removed “The Starving Children,” a story in which a mother is willing to eat her own child due to hunger. Also, in “Cinderella,” the birds poke out her stepsisters’ eyes.

Number #2 – ELABORATION &/or EXPLANATION – makes this paragraph a stand-out. Most students open with a topic sentence and then proceed directly to their examples. That is a perfectly fine way to write a paragraph, and you’ll see many such paragraphs in newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as on websites.

However, in analytical writing, which is what most college writing entails, we often want something “more,” and that something more goes by various names, including “elaboration,” “development,” or “analysis,” among others.

Analysis is what NV has done here: she has analyzed what kind of violence the Grimm brothers included in the 2nd edition, and what kind they cut. Wonderful!

postscriptWilliam J. Kerrigan always told his students to “say a lot about a little, not a little about a lot.”

He was talking about paragraph development.

update 4/26/2012: I’ve posted a question for you to answer in the Comment.

X-1-2-3 at Cost of College

My friend Grace, who writes the Cost of College blog, has written several posts about William J. Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method:

The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’

Step 1 – SUBJECT & PREDICATE

Step 3 – Completing the ‘sentence stack’

Step 4 – Being SPECIFIC

Step 4 – FIRST DRAFT being CONCRETE

Step 4 – Going into DETAIL

Step 4 – Using EXAMPLES

Step 4 – ABSTRACT vs. CONCRETE

Step 4  Function of a Paragraph

AND SEE: Writing, writing, writing

A coherence test for papers

How to test your paper for coherence (Catherine’s summary):

  1. Write your rough draft.
  2. Pull out your thesis statement and write it on a separate piece of paper (or screen).
  3. Pull out ALL of the topic sentences in ALL of your paragraphs, and list them below your thesis statement.
  4. PARAGRAPH-LEVEL COHERENCE: Read each topic sentence, and make sure it is a strong introduction to the subject of the paragraph it appears in.
  5. PAPER-LEVEL COHERENCE: If asked, could you write a single coherent paragraph using your thesis statement and all of your topic sentences (rewording as necessary, of course)?

How to test your paper for coherence (“Legal Writing Tips” summary):

[Terri] LeClercq offers a very helpful technique to check for coherence in a multi-paragraph text: As you edit your rough draft, separate each topic sentence from your text and examine each one to make sure it is a strong introduction to the main idea of that paragraph. Then examine the coherence of the topic sentences as they relate to the overall thesis set-up by seeing whether the topic sentences form a coherent paragraph.
“Writing Good Paragraphs with Topic Sentences.” Legal Writing Tips 1.8 (2005). Web.

fyi: I’m looking at my copy of LeClercq’s Guide to Legal Writing Style, and I don’t see mention of this test. Strange. Perhaps I’ve missed it.

In any event, I like this approach, and I think it works well with William Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method.

Could you write a coherent paragraph using Kerrigan’s Power corrupts sentence stack? (Yes!)

X Power corrupts.
1 Power corrupts the weak.
2 Power corrupts the strong.
3 Power corrupts every relation between the two.

William J. Kerrigan on learning to swim and learning to write

I suspect that what lies behind this [X-1-2-3] method is my experience with swimming. Efforts to teach me to swim, beginning back in my grade school days, had time after time proved utter failures. In crowded municipal pools, in small private pools, and in swimming holes in rural creeks, my friends told me to do this and do that, gave me one piece of advice and then another, held me up as I waved my arms and legs, put water wings on me, demonstrated for me again and again. No use. I couldn’t learn to swim a stroke or to keep myself up in the water for one second.

But one day when I was in my twenties and was paddling my hands in the water in the shallow end of a pool—while other people swam—a friend of mine got out of the water and said, “Walk out there ten or fifteen feet, and turn and face me on the deck of the pool here. OK. Now raise your hands above your head, take a deep breath and hold it, close your eyes if you want to, and just lie face down in the water. You absolutely can’t sink. Then, when you’re out of breath, stand up again.”

I followed his directions and, to my surprise, I didn’t sink.

“Now,” he said, “when you lie down again in the water, just kick your feet up and down. You’ll come right to me at the edge of the pool.”

I did as he told me. When my hands met the side of the pool and I stood up again, I realized that after years of vain effort, I had—in less than five minutes—learned how to swim.

It was the simplest kind of swimming, to be sure; and I need not take you through the steps that followed, in which I moved my arms, lifted my head to breathe, and developed various strokes. Let me say only that today I have an acceptable swimming technique.

When it came to teaching theme writing, then, I wanted a method like that—a method that was going to work for all students, good, fair, and indifferent. What was needed was a set of simple instructions that any and every student could follow, that would lead—like “lie face down in the water”—to automatic success. Other writing textbooks contained plenty of good advice, but not a method of organizing the advice so that it would lead step by step to a successful theme. So I had to figure out the instructions myself. The foolproof method I developed is fully contained in this book.

Kerrigan, William J. and Metcalf, Allen. Writing to the Point. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987. Print. (1-2).

2/8/2012 – Class notes – X-1-2-3

In class today, we began work on the 1st paper: Define fable.

We created a set of “X-1-2-3″ sentences using the 1st two steps of William J. Kerrigan’s 6-step method for writing a 5-paragraph essay:

STEP 1. Write a short, simple declarative sentence that makes one statement.

STEP 2. Write three sentences about the sentence in Step 1—clearly and directly about the whole of that sentence, not just something in it.

An X-1-2-3 set from Kerrigan’s text:
X Power corrupts.
1 Power corrupts the weak.
2 Power corrupts the strong.
3 Power corrupts every relation between the two.

NOTE: In the X-1-2-3 set above, the subject remains the same; the predicate changes.

X Power] [corrupts.
1 Power] [corrupts the weak.
2 Power] [corrupts the strong.
3 Power] [corrupts every relation between the two.

Your X-1-2-3 stack becomes the "spine" of your essay:

X Power corrupts. THESIS STATEMENT
1 Power corrupts the weak. TOPIC SENTENCE #1
2 Power corrupts the strong. TOPIC SENTENCE #2
3 Power corrupts every relation between the two. TOPIC SENTENCE #3

Last but not least:

Thesis statements usually work best when placed at the end of the introduction.

Topic sentences generally work best placed at the beginning of a paragraph.

Writing to the Point Fourth Ed. by William J. Kerrigan and Allen Metcalf

The Six Steps

STEP 1. Write a short, simple declarative sentence that makes one statement.

STEP 2. Write three sentences about the sentence in Step 1—clearly and directly about the whole of that sentence [i.e. the subject and the predicate], not just something in it.

STEP 3. Write four or five sentences about each of the three sentences in Step 2—clearly and directly about the whole of the Step 2 sentence, not just something in it.

Step 4. Make the material in the four or five sentences of Step 3 as specific and concrete as possible. Go into detail. Use examples. Don’t ask, “What will I say next?” Instead, say some more about what you have just said. Your goal is to say a lot about a little, not a little about a lot.

STEP 5. In the first sentence of each new paragraph, starting with Paragraph 2, insert a clear reference to the idea of the preceding paragraph.

STEP 6. Make sure every sentence in your theme is connected with, and makes a clear reference to, the preceding sentence.

Source:
Kerrigan, William J. and Metcalf, Allen. Writing to the Point. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987. Print. (197.)
ISBN-10: 015598313X
ISBN-13: 978-0155983137