20 May 2006
In academic and business writing you will frequently find yourself in the position of being handed a really general topic that you are supposed to write about. Or worse, you may hand yourself a really general topic that you then have to write about.
Working with a topic that you didn't choose:
The problem with general topics is that they are, well, general. Suppose you find yourself with a topic such as hunting. [By the way, I didn't myself choose this topic -- it was chosen for me by one of my classes (circa 1996) as a challenge to my self-proclaimed ability to write clearly about any subject. My general disinterest in the topic hunting did not disoblige me from writing a paragraph about it.]
Narrowing the topic:
Pretty obviously, the topic hunting is too broad for a paragraph. I didn't want to write a book or even an encyclopedia article on the subject. I knew that my first goal was to narrow that enormous topic down to a narrower one that I could discuss in a single paragraph. So, working with the class, we narrowed the broad topic hunting down to the more specific topic deer hunting. Neither I nor most of the students had ever hunted deer, but we still recognized deer hunting as too broad a topic. So we narrowed it down still further, to a type of deer hunting, deer hunting with a bow.
Creating an assertion:
Now we had a subject, but still we hadn't said anything about deer hunting with a bow. By itself the phrase deer hunting with a bow is little more than a caption. You do see that it is a fragment, don't you? So, knowing relatively little about the subject, we made the not unreasonable assumption that deer hunting with a bow is difficult. "Et voila'," as the French say; we had a topic sentence that asserted an opinion about the topic.
Drawing upon the experience of the few hunters in the classroom, we created the following sentences to support our topic sentence:
- A bow hunter must cover his or her human scent. [One of our hunters came up with this suggestion. Covering our human scent is difficult. The cosmetics industry still hasn't figured out how to do this permanently and unobtrusively.]
- A bow hunter must be an accurate shot. [It isn't easy being accurate, is it? If everyone were accurate, no one would make a big deal over accuracy.]
- A bow hunter must be patient. [Everyone knows that patience is difficult.]
So now we've got the following topic sentence [TS] and three subtopic sentence paragraph:
[TS] Deer hunting with a bow is difficult . A bow hunter must cover his or her natural human scent. A bow hunter must be an accurate shot. A bow hunter must be patient.
"Wait a minute," I hear you saying. "Where are all the details and facts that you tell us we must include as support for our topic sentences?"
Ouch, you got me. We do need to add some support to this paragraph, don't we? Before we do, take a look at the three sentences that follow and support the topic sentence. Go on, look. They do support the topic sentence, don't they? They give the reader three reasons why the reader should believe the topic sentence's opinion-statement. But, as you no doubt see, those three sentences are also opinion-statements, only they are less general and more specific opinion-statements than the topic sentence. They are called sub-topic sentences.
Also, notice the order of the supporting sentences. Are they in chronological (time) order? Nope. Are they in spatial order? Nope. They must be in emphatic order (order of importance) then. And they are: The class decided that patience was the most important challenge facing a deer hunter, so they put it first. In essays, the most important point is almost always put in the third and final position.
But they still do need specific support, don't they? So here follows the specific support that one of my classes came up with in the fall of 1998, with only a little help from me:
Deer hunting with a bow is difficult. First, a bow hunter must cover his or her natural human scent. According to Dr. Bambi O'Deere, a nationally famous deer researcher, deer can smell human odors up to 1000 yards away. Thus, bow hunters who want to get close enough to a deer to shoot at it have learned to cover their own odor with commercially-prepared scents that mimic those found in nature, such as an imitation-deer urine spray, which has an odor that deer love but that most humans, other than bow hunters, find completely repellant. Next, a bow hunter must be an accurate shot. Joe DeBow, the present world's champion bow hunter, can hit a running deer at fifty yards, but he admits that it took years of practice to become so skilled. DeBow asserts that novice bow hunters should practice with their weapons for at least six months before they even think of entering the woods on a deer hunt. Finally, a bow hunter must be patient. For example, last weekend, I stood in a deer stand for two days in freezing rain before a deer finally wandered past, at a range of sixty yards. I shot at it and missed. My experience is typical of that of most bow hunters that I know. In conclusion, hunting for deer with a bow can be incredibly frustrating, but the rewards of doing so despite the difficulties seem to explain the dedication of bow hunters to their sport.
[ *Note the italicized transitions.]
The class added these kinds of support:
Facts (such as the number references)
Examples (such as the personal experience of the deer hunter)
References to authorities (such as the references to expert deer hunters)
I came up with the last, concluding sentence. Note how it restates the main idea (the topic) of the paragraph and how it also adds a final, related thought (why some deer hunters use bows) to that idea.
I think that we created a pretty good paragraph, working together, on a subject that most of us knew little or nothing about. Notice how the concluding sentence summarizes the main idea of the paragraph and adds an explanation for the seemingly illogical behavior of bow hunters.
Creating a short five-paragraph essay:
Before I let you go, I want to point out one more really interesting feature of this paragraph's sub-topic sentences: they can be used to create a three-part thesis statement and topic sentences for a five-body paragraph essay. Look:
[Note the grammatical parallelism of the three parts of the thesis statement: must be patient (verb phrase - adjective), must be accurate (verb phrase - adjective), and must be relatively odorless (verb phrase - adverb - adjective).]
The three sub-topic sentences can become topic sentences in their own right, introducing their own body paragraphs. Here's how a very short five-paragraph essay based on what we have so far created would look like:
Deer hunting with a bow is difficult because the hunter must be patient, must be accurate, and must be relatively odorless. [This is the three-part thesis statement. It really needs introductory sentences before it to guide the reader to this sentence that contains the essay's main point, its thesis. We'll get to introductions in Lesson 13.]
First Body Paragraph
First, a bow hunter must cover his or her natural human scent. According to Dr. Bambi O'Deere, a nationally famous deer researcher, deer can smell human odors up to 1000 yards away. Thus, bow hunters who want to get close enough to a deer to shoot at it have learned to cover their own odor with scents that mimic those found in nature, such as an imitation-deer urine spray, which has an odor that deer love but that most humans, other than bow hunters, find completely repellant.
Second Body Paragraph
Next, a bow hunter must be an accurate shot. Joe DeBow, the present world's champion bow hunter, can hit a running deer at fifty yards, but he admits that it took years of practice to become so skilled. DeBow asserts that novice bow hunters should practice with their weapons for at least six months before they even think of entering the woods on a deer hunt.
Third Body Paragraph
Finally, the bow hunter who hopes to take a deer must be patient. For example, last weekend, I stood in a deer stand for two days in freezing rain before a deer finally wandered past, at a range of sixty yards. I shot at it and missed. My experience is typical of that of most of the bow hunters that I know.
In conclusion, bow hunting for deer can be a frustrating experience requiring great skill because the hunter must have the qualities of patience and great accuracy with a difficult-to-master weapon if he or she is to have any chance to make a kill. Successful bow hunters must also be able to disguise their own human scent if they want to even get close enough to their prey to take a shot. [restatement of thesis in other words]
Copyright © 2006 Stephen Black