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66 THE FACTS ON FILE GUIDE TO GOOD WRITING sentence. It is couched in informal words, but it states the theme of the paragraph and contains key terms—fun, memories, concentrate, and quality time—most of which are woven back into the paragraph and directly hark back to the main theme. It is obviously possible to overdo this technique. Too much repetition, besides being a stylistic weakness, gives the impression of laboring a point. The reader usually requires only a gentle nudge to be kept on track, not a heavy hammering. The position of the topic sentence within the paragraph is not fixed. Theoretically, it can come anywhere, but it seldom comes at or near the end, for the simple reason that you do not usually want to keep your reader hanging on for too long before giving him or her an explicit pointer to what the paragraph is about. It is often the first sentence, as in the paragraph above that begins “A topic sentence ought, as a rule, to be fairly specific.” If your paragraph is, as it is often recommended that it should be, a miniaturized version of a longer structure, however, then it will often appear as the second or third sentence, depending on the length of the paragraph. (See also PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE below). There is one further advantage of basing your paragraphs on topic sentences: These topic sentences ideally should originate from the preparatory work you have done before you start writing. Clear and careful notes worked into complete sentences can become the foundation stones of paragraphs when you write out the full version of your text. A fully worked-out plan could consist of a series of topic sentences corresponding to the paragraph arrangement of your text. Nevertheless, not every paragraph has or needs a topic sentence. It is perfectly possible to produce a viable and well-written paragraph in which no single sentence is identifiable as the core and encapsulates the essential message. Such is the following example from Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times: In truth, Mrs. Gradgrind’s stock of facts in general was woefully defective; but Mr. Gradgrind in raising her to her high matrimonial position had been influenced by two reasons. Firstly, she was most satisfactory as a question of figures; and, secondly, she had “no nonsense” about her. By nonsense he meant fancy; and truly it is probable that she was as free from any alloy of that nature as any human being not arrived at the perfection of an absolute idiot, ever was (Dickens 1984, 62).

This is a perfectly acceptable paragraph, but you could not really choose any one of its three sentences as having primacy over the other two. It comes from a novel, and there is no reason why a paragraph from a piece of creative writing should not have an identifiable core sentence. Not surprisingly, however, it is in writing that discusses a topic or works out an argument that the topic sentence most comes into its own.

Paragraph Structure Whether or not it contains a topic sentence, a paragraph should be a unit. It should hang together. Dickens’s paragraph quoted above hangs together because it is all about the nature of Mrs. Gradgrind. And, though his inten-

Guide to good writing - Martin Manser  
Guide to good writing - Martin Manser