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Critical Essays: Topic sentences

Watch this to learn the skill of writing topic sentences in Higher English (are we nearly there yet?)

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When I was a child, we used to drive all the way from the South coast of England to the North West highlands for the summer holidays, nearly 700 miles. My dad didn’t need a map as he had completed this journey dozens of times. When I asked him how he knew if he was going the right way, he said that the road signs helped him.

But all I knew was I had never seen a sign to Achiltibuie in my hometown of Portsmouth. He told me that he looked at the journey in chunks and If the road signs said Oxford, he was heading in the right direction, beyond Oxford, he looked for signs that said “the North”, then “Carlisle”, then “Scotland” and so on.

When you are writing your critical essay, you need to give your examiner signposts too.

The best way to do this is with topic sentences. Topic sentences help you and your examiner know you are on the right path.

So get your seat belts on and let’s get going.

This is thinkfour.

A topic sentence states clearly and concisely, what will be discussed in the subsequent paragraph or section of your essay.

Like I said, topic sentences are like signposts. They tell the reader and the examiner where the essay is going, what direction you are headed in and they are crucial for developing your line of argument. You should be able to clearly pick out the topic sentences of any essay and know exactly what that essay is arguing, without reading anything else.

I suggest to my classes that each of the four sections of the main body of their essay should begin with a topic sentence.

So what should a topic sentence include? I suggest:
Reference to where you are in the text
Reference to the question
Summary of your argument
As an example, I am going to use this essay question and talk about “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller:

Choose a play which portrays conflict within an individual or family or community.

I am going to focus on family.

By referring to appropriate techniques, explain the nature of this conflict and discuss how it contributes to your appreciation of the play as a whole.

To begin with, this essay does not direct me to start in a particular part of the play, so I will work through the play in chronological order. Not only is that easier for you, the writer, but it also helps the examiner, who may not have ever read your chosen text.

I suggest that your topic sentences all include a reference to where you are in the text. For example my first topic sentence may start with :

In the opening scene of the play…

And later topic sentences might start:

As the play progresses…
At the turning point of the play…
During the climax of the play…
In the climactic scene…

You don’t have to use these as sentence starters, you can include your reference to where you are anywhere in your topic sentence. Just make sure you include it!
You also need to make reference to the question in every topic sentence.
In this case, the key word of the question that needs to appear in every topic sentence is “conflict”.

This shows the examiner that you are focusing on the question throughout, so make sure you tell them!
Finally, you need to include a brief summary of your argument. Each topic sentence needs to lead on from the next, guiding the examiner through your essay.

What I would do is break down my argument into four chunks, and these form each of the four sections of the main body.

Let’s have a look at an example topic sentence:

During the opening act of the play, the tension builds between Chris and Joe, and conflict erupts when they reveal their differing views on social responsibility.

We have a reference to where we are in the play, reference to the question and a brief summary of my argument.

Topic sentences don’t just help the examiner, they help you too. They help to clarify exactly what you want to say in your essay.

If you plan your topic sentences, and structure your essay around them, it will make writing your essay so much easier.

With these signposts, your examiner will be able to follow you all the way through your essay, effortlessly. As an essay is a journey – an intellectual one – and the reader needs confidence in you to guide them. The topic sentences will make sure they are never feeling lost and they always get to where you want them to go.

“are we in Achiltibuie yet?”...what do you mean you’ve never heard of it?

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching.