I have lasagna noodles, cornflakes, black beans, peanuts, and apple cider vinegar in my pantry right now. If I threw these ingredients into a pot and cooked them, my guests would most certainly ask, “What possessed you to do this?” The only answer I’d be able to give is, “I took what I had on hand and I put it all together. It’s food, right?” Though the common “theme” in my meal is “food,” the ingredients won’t blend very well.
In a similar manner, report writing sometimes starts with “ingredients” given to us in the form of questions to answer and shape into paragraphs. However, if we throw all of the answers together in one place, we’ll end up with “pantry paragraphs” that include items from the pantry that might not necessarily go together. Simply answering the questions provided might not be enough to supply a cohesive answer that showcases our best efforts.
Effective paragraph writing then, not only answers the questions at hand, but also includes a meaningful topic sentence that previews the material that readers can expect to find. Additionally, it explains why the information they are about to read is important. For these reasons, topic sentences are powerful tools to help pull paragraphs in a report together and highlight important relationships between evidence provided and claims made.
Without topic sentences, the paragraphs in a report could appear to be a jumbled accumulation of ideas related to a topic, but the relationship between those ideas may not be evident to outside readers. For instance, here’s a sample pantry paragraph that answers a list of questions required for a hypothetical report for an organization. Without the questions on hand, it is difficult to understand why the details in this paragraph have been selected:
Yes, our organization does serve the community. It serves the community in many different ways. Volunteers will donate time, talent, and treasure at local soup kitchens and help out on community cleanup days. Some challenges in serving the community include getting the employees and administration to see the value in giving up work time in order to serve the community. However, we can gain valuable partnerships by donating time and talent that may pay off for us in the future, while helping meet community needs. Plans going forward include incentives to promote excitement about pitching in, and forming committees to combine community needs with professional development opportunities that could help employees advance, while also serving the local area.
After examining this paragraph, readers will notice that topics seem to shift. The ways in which this organization serves the community suddenly morph into the challenges and plans for the future. Some interesting ideas emerge, but they’re not developed enough. Finally, the opening sentence appears to be an abrupt, unnatural, and obvious attempt to answer a “yes” or “no” question. How then, could this paragraph be saved?
One way the writer can fix this paragraph is to read through each sentence again and ask, “How do these topics fit together? What is the main idea that readers need to know and why?” It seems important to tell readers of this report that this organization does engage the local community in meaningful ways that also present challenges and opportunities, for which there are solid plans in place. Writing a topic sentence that summarizes these ideas offers at least two structural techniques for readers to follow:
1) The presence of a claim that can be supported with evidence and details: This entity supports its community in meaningful ways and concrete plans are in place to address challenges and opportunities. After a sentence that expresses these ideas, readers can then expect to see examples and evidence, which will directly support the claim that’s made.
2) A preview of topics to be covered: The opening sentence also previews the topics that readers can expect to find, in the order in which they are mentioned. In this way, readers can prepare for the information that comes next.
Answering questions in a report then, is an important starting point. However, paragraphs that result from these questions and answers may require an extra step or two. Careful reflection can help us develop topic sentences that pull the ideas together, give them a purpose and shape, and allow examples or evidence to stand out. They make the difference between throwing mismatched ingredients into a pot and blending just the right details to win favor with an audience.
Cecilia Kennedy, PhD
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