University of Wisconsin–Madison

Revising Paragraphs

Professor David Zimmerman, English

Topic sentences are the most important sentences of your essay. They provide the scaffolding or frame for your argument. The function of a body paragraph in an analytical essay is to develop a single idea or claim that advances the essay’s argument. This idea or claim should anchor the paragraph’s topic sentence. The topic sentence should be the first (or occasionally, second) sentence of the paragraph. It gives the reader a preview and summary of the paragraph. It clearly guides the reader from the previous paragraph’s discussion to this new one. It often signals where the reader is within the overall argument.

  1. Make a list of your topic sentences.

Read in a row, the topic sentences should present a clear picture of your argument and how it develops. Use the author’s name to ensure that you keep our focus on what the author (as opposed to a character) is doing.

A list of topic sentences from an essay:

  • Dreiser overtly invokes the formulas of biography and biographical fiction in order to mark how he moves beyond them.
  • Dreiser shows how conventional biography and fiction, because of the artificiality of their closure, turn their protagonists’ lives into moral fables, narrative molds too rigid, formally and ethically, to contain “life as it is, the facts as they exist” (121).
  • The ending of The Financier illustrates this. Dreiser abandons the obligation felt by most fiction writers to construct an ending that frames the protagonist’s life as a moral drama. Instead, Dreiser . . .
  • The Financier rejects the formal—that is, moral—expectations not only of biographical fiction but also of biography.
  • Dreiser calls attention to the limitations of conventional biographical and fictional accounting not only in the way he ends (or fails to end) the novel but also in the way he forestalls this ending by encumbering the narrative with “the sheer mass of detail” (65) that reviewers found exasperatingly redundant and wearisome.
  • Dreiser thus enables us to see the limits of conventional financial, legal, and ethical accountability.

Another list of topic sentences from a different essay:

  • Through the narrator’s constant attention to Ligeia’s eyes—which ignite and continually fuel his imagination—Poe establishes the image of the inherently beautiful, mysterious, and powerful eyes not only as an apparent encapsulation of feminine beauty but also as a source of narrative energy that impels the narrator to press forward with his fevered account. In order to discover the source of her beauty, the narrator begins with . . .
  • Poe uses the narrator’s detailed and descriptive obsession with Ligeia’s eyes—which shifts the reader’s focus away from the physical aspects of her eyes and towards the internal thinking of the “I” of the narrator—in order to reveal the motivations of the male ego.
  • In the moments when the narrator openly submits to Ligeia’s authority and superiority over him, Poe demonstrates man at one extreme side of his internal struggle in his tendency and willingness to emasculate himself.
  • Poe further emphasizes the tumultuous and bitter struggle of man’s desire by displaying the narrator’s response to his own passiveness, which materializes as an alternative need to control a docile and permissive female.
  • Poe complicates the narrator’s pure testaments towards absolute domination or submission when the narrator experiences the two separate feelings at the same time.
  • Through the resurrection of Ligeia at the end of the story, Poe indicates the triumph of feminine beauty over the masculine ego, as the narrator submits his ambition and imagination to the intrinsic power of Ligeia’s eyes.
  1. Outline each paragraph: make every sentence count.

Every sentence in a paragraph has a function. Each sentence advances the idea or aim of the previous sentence in a specific way: it extends, clarifies, nuances, exemplifies, specifies, or qualifies it. For each paragraph, I recommend outlining the points you want to make and the textual moments you want to discuss. This allows you to avoid needlessly repeating yourself. It also allows you to see which points require the most discussion and clarification, and which points are subordinate to other points.

  1. Use transition phrases to signal how one sentence follows from or develops the point of the one before it.

Use transition phrases to convey addition (e.g., “moreover”), comparison (e.g., “similarly”), concession (e.g., “of course”), contrast (e.g., “at the same time”), emphasis (e.g., “indeed”), example or illustration (e.g., “for instance”), summary (e.g.,     “in short”), and time sequence (e.g., “afterwards”). For a full list of transition phrases and some excellent counsel about how to produce coherent, flowing paragraphs, go to grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/transitions.htm.

  1. Cap off your paragraphs: make sure we see the payoff or point of each paragraph.

At the end of each body paragraph, if it’s not already obvious, clarify how the point you’ve just discussed advances your argument (about what the author is saying or showing about a particular problem, question, or topic).

Example:

By allowing Wieland to believe he has knowledge of God’s will, Brocken Brown further suggests that Wieland can never know the future because he cannot account for forces outside of his limited control, including his own predisposition to madness and Carwin’s trickery. Accordingly, Brocken Brown uses Wieland’s example to illustrate how yielding one’s future to divine authority is reckless and stems from dissatisfaction with the present state of things.