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One Topic Sentence to Rule Them All!

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Thinly veiled LOTR reference
One Topic Sentence to Rule Them All

On this blog and the Writing Center website, we have talked at length about the topic sentence. You know, that sentence that sits at the beginning of your paragraph to tell the reader the main idea? But what if you are writing a long document such as a capstone, literature review, thesis, or final project that includes sections of multiple paragraphs? Each paragraph in the section has its own topic sentence, but the section as a whole should also have a sentence that unifies and leads in to the section’s focus. We could call this sentence by any number of names:

  • The Super Topic Sentence (it “sits above” the other topic sentences within the section)
  • The Sign Post (it acts as a marker along the way to guide the reader into the next major topic)
  • The Topic Sentence to Rule Them All (for Lord of the Rings fans; it essentially “rules” the other topic sentences within that section. The others should connect with that overarching idea.)

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you are writing a long essay promoting animal therapy for patients with anxiety disorders. To advocate your position, you would have to discuss anxiety disorders, current therapies for these disorders (specifically, why they don’t work alone), and animal therapy as an alternative or addition. These could all be different sections. Here is a visual of the layout, with section headings:

Animal Therapy for People With Anxiety Disorders [title]

Anxiety Disorders

Current Treatments for Anxiety Disorders

Animal Therapy As an Additional Treatment Option


If we were to write an establishing sentence for the Current Treatments section, it might look like this: "With anxiety disorders so widespread in the population, many therapies have been introduced, including drug treatment, psychotherapy, and music and art therapy."

Not only does this establishing sentence transition from the previous section (with mention of anxiety’s prevalence), but it sets up the three main therapies that will be addressed in the section. Now the writer can devote one paragraph to drug treatment, one to psychotherapy, and one to music and art therapy. In these paragraphs, the writer would describe the treatments, their efficacy, and the gap that they leave (which naturally could be filled by an alternative therapy).

As you begin to practice this important writing skill in your own work, here are a few additional points to consider:

An establishing sentence does not replace a section heading. You might think, Well, I have an establishing sentence, so I don’t need a heading. (Or alternatively, I have a heading, so I don’t need an establishing sentence.) These points in your paper actually serve two different purposes and therefore should both exist. The heading is brief and bold and ultimately aids scannability. The reader can quickly scan the essay to see the major topics as highlighted in the headings. The establishing sentence is integrated with the paragraph and serves the deeper purposes of organization and flow.

An establishing sentence should not simply duplicate a section heading. Suppose you have a heading in your paper labeled Strengths and Limitations. Your establishing sentence is This study has several strengths and limitations. Well, that doesn’t tell the reader much more than the heading itself, right? You want to dig deeper and get specific so that your establishing sentence carries more weight. A better establishing sentence would be The strengths of this study center on the researchers’ ability to remain objective, whereas the limitations involve sample size and study site.    

Where there is an establishing sentence, there must also be a section closing sentence. If you start something, you want to finish it. If you say hello, you must also say goodbye. At the end of the section, then, you want to guide the reader out. A section closing offers a conclusion for the idea so that the reader is not left wondering or questioning. 

Establishing sentence, super topic sentence, sign post, topic sentence to rule them all? Whatever we call it, this sentence is powerful and necessary for directing the reader smoothly through a longer document of many sections. 

Hillary Wentworth has been mentoring student writers through the Walden Writing Center since 2010. In addition to tutoring and teaching, she edits an online literary journal, writes her own nonfiction, and enjoys solving (or attempting to solve) crossword puzzles.

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