Topic sentences and signposts make an essay's claims clear to a reader. Good essays contain both. Topic sentences reveal the main point of a paragraph. They show the relationship of each paragraph to the essay's thesis, telegraph the point of a paragraph, and tell your reader what to expect in the paragraph that follows. Topic sentences also establish their relevance right away, making clear why the points they're making are important to the essay's main ideas. They argue rather than report. Signposts, as their name suggests, prepare the reader for a change in the argument's direction. They show how far the essay's argument has progressed vis-ˆ-vis the claims of the thesis.
Topic sentences and signposts occupy a middle ground in the writing process. They are neither the first thing a writer needs to address (thesis and the broad strokes of an essay's structure are); nor are they the last (that's when you attend to sentence-level editing and polishing). Topic sentences and signposts deliver an essay's structure and meaning to a reader, so they are useful diagnostic tools to the writer—they let you know if your thesis is arguable—and essential guides to the reader
Forms of Topic Sentences
Sometimes topic sentences are actually two or even three sentences long. If the first makes a claim, the second might reflect on that claim, explaining it further. Think of these sentences as asking and answering two critical questions: How does the phenomenon you're discussing operate? Why does it operate as it does?
There's no set formula for writing a topic sentence. Rather, you should work to vary the form your topic sentences take. Repeated too often, any method grows wearisome. Here are a few approaches.
Complex sentences. Topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph frequently combine with a transition from the previous paragraph. This might be done by writing a sentence that contains both subordinate and independent clauses, as in the example below.
Although Young Woman with a Water Pitcher depicts an unknown, middle-class woman at an ordinary task, the image is more than "realistic"; the painter [Vermeer] has imposed his own order upon it to strengthen it.
This sentence employs a useful principle of transitions: always move from old to new information. The subordinate clause (from "although" to "task") recaps information from previous paragraphs; the independent clauses (starting with "the image" and "the painter") introduce the new information—a claim about how the image works ("more than Ôrealistic'") and why it works as it does (Vermeer "strengthens" the image by "imposing order").
Questions. Questions, sometimes in pairs, also make good topic sentences (and signposts). Consider the following: "Does the promise of stability justify this unchanging hierarchy?" We may fairly assume that the paragraph or section that follows will answer the question. Questions are by definition a form of inquiry, and thus demand an answer. Good essays strive for this forward momentum.
Bridge sentences. Like questions, "bridge sentences" (the term is John Trimble's) make an excellent substitute for more formal topic sentences. Bridge sentences indicate both what came before and what comes next (they "bridge" paragraphs) without the formal trappings of multiple clauses: "But there is a clue to this puzzle."
Pivots. Topic sentences don't always appear at the beginning of a paragraph. When they come in the middle, they indicate that the paragraph will change direction, or "pivot." This strategy is particularly useful for dealing with counter-evidence: a paragraph starts out conceding a point or stating a fact ("Psychologist Sharon Hymer uses the term Ônarcissistic friendship' to describe the early stage of a friendship like the one between Celie and Shug"); after following up on this initial statement with evidence, it then reverses direction and establishes a claim ("Yet ... this narcissistic stage of Celie and Shug's relationship is merely a transitory one. Hymer herself concedes . . . "). The pivot always needs a signal, a word like "but," "yet," or "however," or a longer phrase or sentence that indicates an about-face. It often needs more than one sentence to make its point.
Signposts operate as topic sentences for whole sections in an essay. (In longer essays, sections often contain more than a single paragraph.) They inform a reader that the essay is taking a turn in its argument: delving into a related topic such as a counter-argument, stepping up its claims with a complication, or pausing to give essential historical or scholarly background. Because they reveal the architecture of the essay itself, signposts remind readers of what the essay's stakes are: what it's about, and why it's being written.
Signposting can be accomplished in a sentence or two at the beginning of a paragraph or in whole paragraphs that serve as transitions between one part of the argument and the next. The following example comes from an essay examining how a painting by Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, challenges Zola's declarations about Impressionist art. The student writer wonders whether Monet's Impressionism is really as devoted to avoiding "ideas" in favor of direct sense impressions as Zola's claims would seem to suggest. This is the start of the essay's third section:
It is evident in this painting that Monet found his Gare Saint-Lazare motif fascinating at the most fundamental level of the play of light as well as the loftiest level of social relevance. Arrival of a Train explores both extremes of expression. At the fundamental extreme, Monet satisfies the Impressionist objective of capturing the full-spectrum effects of light on a scene.
The writer signposts this section in the first sentence, reminding readers of the stakes of the essay itself with the simultaneous references to sense impression ("play of light") and intellectual content ("social relevance"). The second sentence follows up on this idea, while the third serves as a topic sentence for the paragraph. The paragraph after that starts off with a topic sentence about the "cultural message" of the painting, something that the signposting sentence predicts by not only reminding readers of the essay's stakes but also, and quite clearly, indicating what the section itself will contain.
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Topic sentences and signposts are the writer’s way to clear up the argument of the essay to the readers. The first showcase the idea that lies in the paragraphs, with the purpose of establishing links between them. The latter assists the writer in justifying the ideas and the reasons why those ideas are inserted in the essay.
Combining the two in essay writing assures the writer that readers are aware of what they read.
Every good essay consists of these two parts. Topic sentences are commonly used to clear up how the points are interconnected to the main idea presented in the essay, while the signposts prepare the reader for what is about to come. And even though these are not the first thing a writer needs to take care of when crafting an essay, they carry great importance because of these contributions.
There is no specific rule as to how long a topic sentence should be. In the majority of essays, these sentences are two or three sentences long, which of course depends on the sentence construction.
Topic sentences can vary in form depending on the construction of the sentence. Generally, there are four most commonly used topic sentences approaches among writers:
When the topic sentence starts at the beginning of one paragraph, but actually transitions from the one before, this is considered the complex sentences approach. The most common way of writing such sentence is by using independent and subordinate clauses. To be more specific, this means that the topic sentence uses subordinate clause to connect to the previous sentence from the other paragraph; and independent clauses with the purpose of introducing new information and claims.
Another term for this approach is John Trimble’s approach. These sentences are somewhat of a substitute for the formal type of topic sentences, mostly because they indicate the prior and the following information. The way of introducing what came before and what follows is done without the usage of different clauses. Simply, the principle of doing this approach is like crossing a bridge from one information to another.
Questions are often some of the best topic sentences. This topic sentence approach comes as single question or a pair of questions. In the first case, the first topic sentence asks a question, while the second paragraph or section answers it. In the second, there are several questions asked one after the next one.
Questions come in a form of inquiry, which has to be followed by an answer. If you wish to craft a good essay, you should try being forward when answering the question you ask in your topic sentence.
Most of the sentences we described appear at the beginning of the paragraph, but this does not necessarily need to be the case. Sometimes, topic sentences appear in the middle. They do so with the purpose of introducing change of direction in the paragraph, also referred to as ‘pivot’.
This last strategy is most commonly used when the paragraph introduces evidence that is opposing to an introduced information. The beginning of the paragraph states a fact or introduces a particular point, while the second part reverses this fact and establishes a different claim from the one introduced in the beginning. So, generally, pivots are used to make a transition from one claim to another.
You can easily notice a pivot approach in topic sentences because they always require a signal of transition. Such signals come in the form of longer sentence or phrase; or words like ‘yet’, ‘however’ and ‘but’.
Additionally, pivots come in form of more sentences if you want to state the change in claim.
Signposts are topic sentences that change the argument’s direction, which is presented by the topic sentences. In this way, the readers are able to justify the claims and information presented in the essay and see the arguments that are being made.
Signposts have several characteristics and purposes, including:
- Clarifying the background of the argument
- Giving additional information about the writing plot
- Reminding the readers of the essay’s purpose
- Defining the purpose so that the readers can better understand it
- Functioning as whole section topic sentences in the essay
- Comprising of a stretch of single sentence or two sentences
- Comprising of sentences that point to a transition in the particular section
- Informing the reader of a change in arguments
- Explaining the differences
- Introducing the transition of claims and arguments
Signposting is something that is often accomplished in a single sentence or two.
Signposting, in most cases, is done at the beginning of a paragraph, but can also be seen as a transition piece in a whole paragraph. When it is seen as a transition piece, the purpose of signposting is to transfer the reader from one argument part to another.
In a signpost, the writer’s job is to remind the readers of what happened, what is the aim of the essay and what is about to be introduced in the topic sentence of the particular paragraph or section.
Prescriptive essay grammar finds topic sentences and signposts to be crucial part of the essay writing process. These are somewhat minor intricacies that do not need special attention at the beginning or the ending of the essay writing process, but can assist the writer to define and structure the essay. By doing so, the essay writer can make sure that the readers understand what is being said.
Topic sentences and signposts allow the writers to be aware of the strenght of their essay’s arguments. Additionally, it points the right direction to the reader. This in result leads to amazing connection between the two sides of the writing process – the writer of the essay and its reader.