In order for the first paragraph of an essay to actually be a proper introduction (in other words, for it to fulfill the requirements of a proper introduction), it must do two things. These two things are:
1) Include a thesis statement.
2) Provide a preview or essay plan for the essay.
So what do these two things mean?
1) A thesis statement is the sentence (or sometimes sentences) that tells the reader what the position of the author is. When you are given an essay question, the thesis statement is your clear and concise answer to the question. For example, if an essay question was ‘What were the causes of the Holocaust in World War II?’ then your thesis statement would be something like ‘There were many complicated and inter-related causes for the Holocaust, including the economy of Germany, the ideology of the fascists, and Hitler’s personal racism.’
A ‘thesis’ is an ‘argument’, so the thesis statement indicates what the argument of the essay is, or what argument (or point of view) the author of the essay will be putting across to readers.
2) An introduction must introduce all the main points that the essay will discuss. Argumentative essays must provide evidence in order to back up or support the thesis statement. This means you have to provide proof to back up your answer to the essay question. So if your essay is on the causes of the Holocaust, and your essay is going to discuss six main causes (two paragraphs on each), then your introduction must list (or introduce) each of these six main causes. So an essay map or preview is just a list of topics that your essay will discuss. Usually this list is linked to your thesis statement, or comes straight after it.
When writing an essay, you must use ‘topic sentences’. These are sentences that go at the beginning of each paragraph in which you are about to discuss a new topic. So in the example we have been looking at of the Holocaust essay, I mentioned that the essay will discuss six reasons for the Holocaust and each reason will have two paragraphs. So that means that every second paragraph would use a ‘topic sentence’ since it would be moving on to discuss another reason for the Holocaust. Here are some examples of topic sentences for the example essay:
‘The most significant cause for the Holocaust is the economic state of Germany.’
‘Another reason why the Holocaust occurred is due to Hitler’s personal views.’
These sentences let the reader know what the paragraph will discuss (what the next point to be discussed in the essay is) and also relate the paragraph back to the introduction. This gives the essay a nice flow, and shows that it has been well organised.
So, you can tell what the topic of the first body paragraph is by reading the topic sentence, which is the first sentence in the paragraph.
A concluding sentence goes at the end of a paragraph or topic, and sums up for the readers what has just been discussed and relates it back to the question.
So if you had used the topic sentence ‘The most significant cause for the Holocaust is the economic state of Germany’ and then written a paragraph or several paragraphs discussing this topic, a concluding sentence could be: ‘Thus it can be seen that the economic state of Germany was the most important cause for the Holocaust.’
Topic sentences and concluding sentences go before and after your paragraphs like a sandwich, leading the reader through your essay.
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Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences
A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:
1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]
2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.
3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]
Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]
4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.
Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:
1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.
3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.
4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.
5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."
Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.
1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.
2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.
Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]
3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis.
Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.