Topic Sentences vs. Thesis Statements

This short video discusses the difference between topic sentences and thesis statements.

When writing academic essays let’s start with a topic sentence as you know topic sentences are the topic of a paragraph each paragraph is a unit in which a single unified idea is discussed the topic sentence is the sentence within that paragraph that declares what the subject is now a topic sentence has certain characteristics.

First of all it has to declare the topic of a paragraph every other sentence must refer back to the topic sentence in some way a topic sentence must be narrow remember a paragraph is usually somewhere between five and ten sentences long usually a good paragraph is not going to take up more than about three-quarters of a page single-spaced that’s about how much information a reader can hold in their mind at the same time before they start to forget so your topic sentence has to be narrow enough to allow you to discuss the topic at hand but it can’t be so specific that you don’t have anywhere to go or anything to discuss once you stated a topic sentence maybe an argument but it doesn’t have to be an argument again a topic sentence is declarative and finally even though you can find topic sentences pretty much anywhere in a paragraph the most common and most useful place for them is often right at the beginning of the paragraph.

So let’s take a look at a couple examples of topic sentences look at these two sentences which of them would make a better topic sentence for a paragraph Eugene’s hot temper causes problems at work or this paragraph will discuss my two closest friends go ahead and think about it if you said the first one Eugene’s hot temper causes problems at work you’re right.

If you take a look at the second paragraph a second topic sentence this paragraph will discuss my two closest friends it’s true that it does declare a topic but there are some pretty big things wrong with it first of all when you’re writing an academic essay you don’t need to tell us this paragraph we’ll do X or this essay we’ll do y instead go ahead and just write and assume your reader is smart enough to see what’s happening the bigger issue though is that it’s really very broad this paragraph will discussed my two closest friends okay what will it discuss about them will it discuss their positive characteristics will it discuss the things that irritate you about them from this particular topic sentence we can’t really even get a tone for the paragraph that’s about to come in comparison Eugene’s hot temper causes problems at work is a much more narrow topic sentence we know that it’s going to be about someone named Eugene.

We know that it’s going to discuss specifically instances in which his hot temper was a problem and it’s specifically going to talk about problems at work it could be that Eugene has problems everywhere he goes but that’s not what this particular topic sentence is going to do okay let’s try another child abuse is something to think about or learning a foreign language has several benefits which would make the better topic sentence if you said learning a foreign language has several benefits you’re correct the second sentence gives us a much more specific understanding of what to expect in the paragraph to come child abuse is something to think about is rather vague and rather broad what exactly are we supposed to think about that it’s a horrible thing how to stop child abuse how to work to help children involved in child abuse the actual topic of what the paragraph is going to be is a bit unclear in that one in the second learning a foreign language has several benefits we can easily predict what the paragraph will do it will list benefits specifically of learning a foreign language we know right off the bat that it’s going to be a positively toned paragraph so topic sentences are one thing they control your paragraphs they give the idea that you are about to write in those little building blocks but what about thesis statements.

Students are often somewhat nervous when they have to write a thesis statement because honestly these statements are hard thesis statements are probably the hardest thing about writing an essay because they have to do so much in so little space so let’s review what a thesis statement is first of all a thesis statement is very similar to a topic sentence in that it declares the topic of your essay but there are some really specific differences between a thesis statement and a topic sentence first of all a thesis statement must declare the argument of your essay a thesis statement by definition has to be an argument a topic sentence does not thesis statement like a topic sentence is a single sentence a thesis statement is always found in the introduction of your essay unless you’re writing an essay that’s more than about 10 pages long your introduction should really happen on that first page and that’s where your thesis statement should be located your thesis statement like a topic sentence has to be specific to the essay.

It has to be very very specific for instance you could be writing about the subject of obesity your thesis statement is going to reveal the specific points and topics that your essay will cover most subjects are quite large and everybody will have their own idea about what’s important and what’s not important your thesis statement tells your reader what you is important so that the reader knows what to expect and finally your thesis statement should preview the organization of your essay if you list items a B and C in your thesis statement you should discuss those items or those topics in that particular order.

So let’s take a look at some examples evaluate the following thesis statement drug use is detrimental to society at first glance it doesn’t seem too bad it’s clearly an argument we know what the topic is it might be a good start but if we think about it a little bit more we start to see some weaknesses first of all what kind of drug use many of you when you hear that where drug use might think about hard street drugs cocaine or marijuana or any number of illegal medications.

But what if this author is really talking about prescription drug use and how they can be abused if you were a reader expecting an article or an essay about the dangers of cocaine you’d be pretty disappointed if the essay never touched on that particular drug use one way that you can make a stronger thesis is to specify the terms that you’re about to discuss so instead of the very general drug use is detrimental to society we can specifically talk about illegal drug use is detrimental because it encourages gang violence now the topic isn’t necessarily different but in that second thesis statement the reader knows exactly what’s coming we know that we’re talking about illegal drugs and we know that we’re talking specifically about the fact that they encourage gang violence not because they make students say drop out of school anytime you can preview your argument you make for a happier reader think of it this way if you’ve ever gone to the movies and you’ve seen a preview that looks amazing for a movie and then you go see the movie and it’s really nothing at all like the preview you’re really disappointed.

Usually your thesis statement is kind of like your preview you want to make sure that whatever you give in your thesis statement gives your reader a real taste of what you’re about to say in your essay okay let’s do another one pollution is bad for the environment on the surface again this looks great it’s an argument it’s a single sentence it seems to fit all the criteria the problem it’s way too big pollution people have written whole books on pollution what kind of pollution air pollution water pollution noise pollution light pollution each of those are very very different types of pollution and would take a great deal of research and documentation to really discuss in any kind of complexity so how could we fix it again it’s all about being specific to what you want to talk about so because a large portion of air pollution comes from automobiles America’s anti-pollution efforts should focus on privately owned cars it’s not really a different argument but in the second thesis statement your reader knows exactly what to expect I could predict from this thesis statement that the writer would first talk about what portion of air pollution comes from automobiles and then the writer would most likely turn to talking about America’s anti-pollution efforts in the present and what might happen in the future if they are focused on privately owned cars as a reader I know what’s coming and anytime your reader knows what’s coming and can predict your essay appears to be more clear and more effective okay let’s do another one barn owls should be protected okay not bad but always thing even in a decent thesis how can you make it more specific barn owls nests should not be eliminated from barns because the owls help farmers by eliminating insects and rodents it’s a little clunky but we know much more about what we’re talking about we’re not talking about hunting down barn owls we’re not talking about say the pollution effects on their habitats specifically we’re talking about their nests and what’s been happening to their nests that’s going to make for a more specific essay okay last one reducing sugar consumption by elementary students yeah there’s something wrong with that right this particular thesis statement isn’t a complete sentence that ing verb turns it into a fragment so the first thing we have to do is fix that we also want to make sure that we’re being a little bit more specific so more attention should be paid to the food and drug beverage choices available to elementary students but you know what we can get more specific still because elementary students consume nine times the daily recommended allowance for sugar school should replace soda machines with healthier alternatives that last one we know exactly what’s happening in the essay we can predict that the essay is going to talk about how much elementary students actually consumed in terms of sugar it’s going to talk about the soda machines that are already in the schools and then most likely if the essay is doing its job is going to talk about the healthier alternatives so I hope some of these examples have helped you understand how you can take a topic sentence and make it more focused and a thesis statement and make it more specific.

Remember you can never have a thesis statement that’s too specific the goal of the thesis is to give away the ending so that your reader knows exactly what’s coming up.