Topic Sentences

May 2007. Minor revisions, December 2011.

A topic sentence—usually the first sentence of a paragraph—should fit evidence or analysis into a broader argument. To do so, it does three things.

  1. A topic sentence holds facts together. When you have a series of facts on the same general subject, group them together and summarize them with a topic sentence.
  2. A topic sentence relates facts to argument. In addition to summarizing the facts within a paragraph, it must show their relevance to your overall thesis. To do so, a topic sentence cannot merely state facts, but must make a claim about those facts, serving as the thesis statement of a one-paragraph essay.
  3. A topic sentence relates the paragraph to what came before. It often will contain transition words showing continuity (next, another, more) or a turning point in the argument (despite, nevertheless, but).

For an example of topic sentences at work, see Robert Self’s article, “’To Plan Our Liberation’: Black Power and the Politics of Place in Oakland, California, 1965-1977,” Journal of Urban History 26 (September 2000): 759-792, doi:10.1177/009614420002600603. (Since this is a page about topic sentences, not citation, I have deleted the footnote references.) Self’s overall thesis is that “black power as a political phenomenon was not primarily a response to the civil rights movement but a parallel development that sought to redistribute economic and political power within the increasingly divided metropolis without emphasizing integration.” In the following passage, Self offers evidence in the form of examples of actions by the Black Panther Party:

The Panthers’ critique began with the physical destruction of West Oakland and moved, in an ever widening arc, to encompass the principal contradictions of the East Bay economy as a whole. Using the publications of the Oakland Project, the University of California’s multiyear study of Oakland, the results of the federal government’s 701 housing survey, and various reports and research papers produced by the Survey Research Center (affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley), the Black Panther documented for its readers the systematic demolition and redevelopment of West Oakland. Here were the familiar culprits: BART, the new freeways and federal post office, the closing of public housing projects, massive delays on West Oakland’s biggest new housing project, Acorn, and residential displacement. “BART has spent over 20 million dollars,” the newspaper cited as an example, “has literally dislocated thousands of people in West Oakland, offered few of the promised jobs to Blacks, and has the nerve to make one stop in West Oakland.” The Black Pantherpublished special editions on the cost of living, public housing (exposing problems in the Oakland Housing Authority), imbalances in urban and suburban public school budgets, urban renewal, and unemployment. It was a remarkably coherent body of critical journalistic work, concluded after its first year, 1972, with a special issue titled “Our Challenge for 1973.” The latter became the political platform on which Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown ran for local office.

More than anything else, the party seized upon the Port of Oakland as a symbol of the city’s failed priorities and the deep contradictions within local economic development. “While the Port thrives, Oakland stagnates,” read the headline in a special edition of The Black Panther in 1972. “Its spiraling growth, which began a few years ago, has not brought about the same kind of increase in employment for Black and poor people in Oakland.” Indeed, the Port of Oakland had become the West Coast’s busiest and largest, doubling its annual income between 1968 and 1972. According to the Panthers, though, “the city gets little in return: no jobs and no access to Port income at a time when Oakland city government flirts with bankruptcy.” In fact, the party contended, “tenants get special tax privileges to lower their property tax bills, and in some instances the Port actually pays their property taxes.“ The Panthers highlighted the odd independence of the Port. Its Board of Commissioners was appointed by the mayor, but city hall had little other official control over Port activities and revenue. The Port remained a public entity, technically owned by the city, but its operations and revenue were virtually untouchable. As the Black Panther observed, this arrangement meant that when public tax dollars were invested in the port—as had happened during its phenomenal growth— the proceeds redounded primarily to the benefit of private shipping companies, not the residents of Oakland. In all, the party argued, the Port’s operation was another example of the city’s “behind the scenes deals for millions of dollars, money that is never used to benefit us [Oakland citizens].”

The party’s two-year campaign mixed its older anticolonial discourse with this new attention to local political and economic arrangements in Oakland. The Panthers linked the Port’s growth, for instance, to the “imperialist war” in Vietnam, even likening Oakland to “other colonial cities of Asia or Africa: Shanghai, Singapore, Alexandria, and Hong Kong” because of the nearby army base and U.S. Naval Supply Center from which soldiers and materiel were shipped to Southeast Asia. Although the party’s characterization of Oakland as a colonial outpost bordered on the fanciful and defined the outer limits of Panther discursive excesses, other “Base of Operation” critiques had more substantial merit. The party consistently emphasized the enormous percentage of the city’s white workforce that lived outside of Oakland (more than 50 percent by some estimations), particularly the municipal police force and members of the fire department. Party journalists wrote countless articles on the failure of federal redevelopment and urban renewal projects to provide opportunity for local residents while nearby industrial suburbs boomed with new factory and construction jobs. In 1973, the Panthers urged a full reassessment of the city’s tax structure and advocated raising taxes on the long-sheltered downtown properties and reducing the property tax burden on small businesses and residents in the neighborhoods. And, in preparation for the 1973 municipal elections, the party prepared a detailed spatial analysis of past Oakland voting patterns, exploring divisions between white and black neighborhoods on such issues as public housing and district versus at-large elections for city council, as well as about congressional and California Assembly candidates.

The topic sentences are as follows:

The Panthers’ critique began with the physical destruction of West Oakland and moved, in an ever widening arc, to encompass the principal contradictions of the East Bay economy as a whole. More than anything else, the party seized upon the Port of Oakland as a symbol of the city’s failed priorities and the deep contradictions within local economic development. The party’s two-year campaign mixed its older anticolonial discourse with this new attention to local political and economic arrangements in Oakland.

The first thing to notice is that strung together, the topic sentences summarize the passage as a whole. If the whole article is written in this way, then a reader can zip through the piece by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, choosing to read full paragraphs only when she wants to know more about the claim made in the topic sentence. Few if any books an articles are written entirely in this manner, but in most cases, one can get the gist of a paragraph by reading the first two sentences, or the first and last sentence. Aim for the same kind of summary.

The second point is that the topic sentences support the overall thesis about the importance of metropolitan debates to black power ideology. The first two paragraphs connect the Panthers’ overall program to specific concerns about Oakland, while the last connects these to the anticolonial strand of black power thinking. Thus, each topic sentence serves as a more specific version of the thesis.

The passage presents a great deal of detail in the form of names, dates, and statistics, all of them important to Self’s argument, but the topic sentences themselves make arguments rather than stating facts. You can think of topic sentences as the labels on drawers of a filing cabinet, while the facts are the files kept neatly inside.

Note in particular that Self’s topic sentences do not include direct quotations; he saves those for the bodies of the paragraphs. Historians only rarely use quotations in their topic sentences, since the topic sentences should present the scholar’s voice, not the sources’.

Self presents each topic sentence in the active voice, with active verbs: began, moved, encompass, seized, and mixed—not a was or were in the lot. And while two of the three sentences have abstract nouns (critique and campaign) as their subjects, they are connected closely enough to a group of people—the Black Panthers—that the reader has no doubt about whose story this is.

Self is also careful about his use of transitions. The first sentence uses the verb “began,” signaling that he is moving to a new topic, or a new chapter in his story. The next one uses “more” to hint that it is an elaboration on what just came before. That is, while the first paragraph discusses several places in the East Bay, the second one focuses on just one: the Port of Oakland. The third topic sentence’s transitional word is “mixed.” Self tells us to keep in mind what we have just read, because he is about to mix in a new element.

Without these topic sentences, Self’s careful research would be but a jumble of names and dates. With them, it becomes a powerful argument.