TRANSITION & TOPIC SENTENCES

P.E. ROWE

 

Transition and Topic Sentences—


You’re writing. And you’re writing to convey information to your reader. And you’ve probably heard before that you need to have different types of sentences in your paragraphs. Today, we’re going to cover two types of sentences that you’ll need to know how to use if you want to begin your paragraphs effectively—the topic and the transition sentence. But more importantly we’re going to show you just why they’re important.


Let’s get started.


Odds are good you’ve come across the concept of topic sentences before. So we won’t dwell long on what a topic sentence is, but what we’re looking to generate by the end of the video is a deeper understanding both of what topic sentences are and how you can use them well in your writing. 


A topic sentence comes at the beginning of the paragraph, usually either the first sentence or the second sentence if it follows a transition sentence.

And a functional topic sentence should contain two things: the topic itself (usually as the subject of the topic sentence) and a central point (that usually makes a claim about the topic).


Let’s take a look at an example of a topic sentence. 


The following paragraph is from an essay about the pros and cons of wind turbines, and the topic sentence is in bold text:


Wind turbines negatively impact bird populations. Responsible estimates place the number of bird deaths between 140,000 and 328,000 by collisions with wind turbines in the United States annually (Loss et al. 201). According to GayaadAl Zohbi, a professor of Building, Architecture, and Infrastructure at the Free University of Belgium, “Raptors are the most exposed species which have a risk of collision with wind turbines, because of their flight plan, which makes them dependent on air currents and thermals strongly related to the topography” (686). Some of the many technological interventions that have been applied to reducing the number of bird fatalities are: cameras, radar, GPS, bright blades, smart blades, bright lights, and turbines that look like trees (Bryce). Unfortunately, according to the Audubon Society, none of these methods have been consistently shown to reduce bird strikes. One low-tech method that has been shown to help reduce bird fatalities is the careful placement of wind farm sites to coincide with locations that don’t interfere with migratory routes and breeding grounds (Al Zohbi 687). Therefore, environmental impact, especially to local bird populations should be assessed when considering proposed turbine locations.


The topic sentence here is pretty basic:

Wind turbines negatively impact bird populations.

And you can see pretty clearly the two elements of a good topic sentence are present:

(Wind turbines) topic

(negatively impact bird populations) central point or claim.


All of the information in the paragraph that follows the topic sentence is the information that this writer wants to provide the reader regarding wind farms and their negative effects on birds.


  • Number of birds killed by turbines.

  • Species most affected.

  • Mitigating technologies that have been tried.

  • Their limited success.

  • One successful method to lowering impact.

  • Suggestions for further action regarding bird strikes and wind farms.


This paragraph is not very complex by academic standards. It’s a simple body paragraph. But even this relatively simple body paragraph from a research essay makes six distinct points in six sentences that contain 182 words. Nobody can remember all that information, and without the direction of the topic sentence, some readers may struggle to put all of that information into context. That’s where the topic sentence comes in.


The topic sentence here prepares the reader to process all of that information in a certain frame—that wind turbines have a negative impact on bird populations. The reader isn’t going to remember each individual piece of evidence that the writer provides, but they’re much more likely to remember the central point—that they have a negative impact on bird populations, because the writer has primed the reader to process the specific information from that initial viewpoint.


And the reader will be much better able to process the main point of the paragraph—that wind turbines have a negative impact on bird populations—into the larger context of the essay: the pros and cons of wind turbines as an energy source.


The topic sentence does two vital jobs that help the writer communicate their ideas:


  1. it primes the reader to process the specific information in the paragraph in relation to the central point of each paragraph, and

  2. it helps the reader to evaluate the main points of each paragraph within the larger context of the essay.


And speaking of the larger context of the essay. I mentioned earlier that the topic sentence isn’t always the first sentence in the paragraph. Sometimes paragraphs will begin with a transition sentence. If you take a look at how much information is conveyed in that one paragraph of the wind turbine essay, you can recognize that an essay with many more paragraphs like this will contain tons of information. A good writer gives their reader help in processing all this information, and another way writers can help their reader is with a transition sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. Here’s what the transition sentence in the final version of that paragraph about wind turbines looks like:


In addition to the concerns about wind farms’ impact on land use, environmentalists and ornithologists have raised the problem of bird fatalities following strikes by turbine blades. Wind turbines negatively impact bird populations. Responsible estimates place the number of bird deaths between 140,000 and 328,000 by collisions with wind turbines in the United States annually (Loss et al. 201). According to GayaadAl Zohbi, a professor of Building, Architecture, and Infrastructure at the Free University of Belgium, “Raptors are the most exposed species which have a risk of collision with wind turbines, because of their flight plan, which makes them dependent on air currents and thermals strongly related to the topography” (686). Some of the many technological interventions that have been applied to reducing the number of bird fatalities are: cameras, radar, GPS, bright blades, smart blades, bright lights, and turbines that look like trees (Bryce). Unfortunately, according to the Audubon Society, none of these methods have been consistently shown to reduce bird strikes. One low-tech method that has been shown to help reduce bird fatalities is the careful placement of wind farm sites to coincide with locations that don’t interfere with migratory routes and breeding grounds (Al Zohbi 687). Therefore, environmental impact, especially to local bird populations should be assessed when considering proposed turbine locations.


"In addition to the concerns about wind farms’ impact on land use, environmentalists and ornithologists have raised the problem of bird fatalities following strikes by turbine blades."

The transition here is performing a few different functions that help the reader process all the new information coming their way.


First, it gives the reader a little bit of a break from taking in more new facts. Sometimes when a lot of new information is being presented, a little bit of a breather between body paragraphs will be a welcome pause that gives the reader the opportunity to process the main ideas.


Second, similar to the topic sentence, a transition sentence helps to direct the reader’s attention in a specific way. Instead of making a point, though, the transition lets the reader know that the essay is shifting focus—in this case, we’re done with the topic of land use—that was the last paragraph. Now, in this paragraph, we’re going to talk about an additional problem wind power poses, the turbines striking and killing birds.


The transition sentence signals a shift in focus to the reader, which, at the paragraph level is usually to add to or to contrast the central point of the preceding paragraph. In this case, it adds to the preceding paragraph’s information about land usage problems with wind farms, adding an environmental concern to the negative impact side of the case against-wind-farms. You’ll see transition sentences that add using words like “in addition,” “furthermore,” or “another important consideration.”


Or, sometimes the transition sentence shifts the direction, indicating a counterpoint or limitation to the previous paragraph’s argument or information, usually using transition words with similar meanings to, “although,” “on the other hand,” or “in contrast to.” A contrasting transition sentence for the next paragraph in this essay might go something like.


“Despite the negative consequences of wind turbines, other environmental factors may make continued use of wind turbines a necessary part of our modern power infrastructure.”


Transition and topic sentences are key elements of strong writing and communication. Knowing how and why to use them will help you to convey your research to your audience more clearly and effectively. And this will help make you a more powerful communicator.