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Topic Sentences: or “Flow” and How You Know

“Does my essay flow?”

This, probably, is the most common question students ask consultants at the writing center.

But what does “flow” mean? And what, exactly, is “flowing?”

Usually, when people refer to “flow,” they’re referring to the writer’s ideas. A paper that “flows” is characterized by the controlled development of and clear connections between the writer’s ideas.

Use the following steps as a quick way to determine whether a paper is flowing:

First, pull out the first sentences of each of your paragraphs – the “topic sentences” – and align them with each other.

Here’s an example, from James Gurtowski’s excellent paper on the cultural interplay of American social classes, of how this might look:

Perhaps the most explicit example of vertical pressure comes from John Berger’s “The Suit and the Photograph,” in which he clearly describes the effects of a hegemonic power on culture.

To say the elite hold all the power, however, would be to claim that vertical pressure is a unidirectional force.

The aristocracy at the turn of the eighteenth century was far too powerful for any direct attack.

The ability of the lower classes to resist upper-class rule is a clear demonstration of the fact that vertical pressure is a bi-directional force.

(We’ve arranged these four topic sentences in the order in which they appear in the paper.)

Next, ask yourself three questions about each topic sentence:

1) Does this sentence clearly articulate an idea?

2) Does the paragraph that follows this sentence develop the idea it introduces?

3) Does this sentence refer back to the paragraph that precedes it? In other words, does this sentence help the reader transition from the previous paragraph to this one?

When you examine Gurtowski’s sentences in relation to the paragraphs the writing that surrounds them, you notice that they pass each of these tests.

  1. Each sentence clearly articulates an idea.
  2. The paragraphs that follow these sentences further develop the ideas they introduce.
    AND
  3. Each sentence refers back to the paragraph that precedes it. For example, the beginning of the final sentence, “The ability of the lower classes to resist upper class rule” refers back to the previous sentence, in which Gurtowski had discussed one way that the lower classes had challenged “upper-class rule” in 19th century France.

Next steps

What happens if you take out the first sentence of each paragraph and notice that it doesn’t clearly articulate an idea?

Or that the paragraph that follows the sentence doesn’t develop the idea the sentence introduces?

Or that the sentence doesn’t refer back to the paragraph that precedes it?

Don’t despair!

You’ve found an area of your paper to focus on when you write a revision.

Often, one small revision will lead to another. The process of revising a topic sentence that doesn’t clearly articulate an idea may naturally lead to revising the paragraph that follows it.

And you may find that the reason a topic sentence doesn’t refer back to the paragraph that precedes it is that the previous paragraph isn’t well-focused – and that it, as well as the topic sentence that should transition from it – also requires some revision.

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