Topic sentences and how to use them

During your studies, you will be probably be told at least once that you should pay attention to topic sentences. These sentences come at the beginnings of paragraphs and introduce the central ideas that are about to be developed. “Use topic sentences,” the advice-givers say, “and your writing will become clear”.

And yet many examples of fine writing do not use topic sentences. I’ve read many paragraphs where the first sentence does not point towards the incoming payload at all, and yet the authors of these paragraphs are praised for their style and clarity. Then why should we use them? Are topic sentences another example of a fictional device made up to turn writing into a paint-by-numbers exercise? Continue reading “Topic sentences and how to use them”

Model abstracts in linguistics

It’s important to be able to write a good abstract.  How else are you going to convince people to accept your journal articles or conference presentations?

Abstracts share a lot with introductions.  In both you’ll have to provide context, establish a problem or niche, and then fill in the knowledge gap with your own position.  And they both function to get the reader interested in finding out what you have to say.

But you’ll have to go a step further with abstracts.  Continue reading “Model abstracts in linguistics”

How to write conclusions

We often hear that the conclusion is where you “tell ’em what you told ’em”. That’s easy advice to follow, but does it really reflect how most essays and articles end? It would be a little odd if that was all there was to it; you can already find a brief summary of what the article says in the abstract, so why would there be another place for doing the exact same thing again? Just for convenience’s sake, so that the reader doesn’t have to flip back to the abstract? I think there’s more that can be done with a conclusion than simply repeating what was in the paper. To be sure, we do need to sum up the paper’s content, but that can be over in a sentence or two. What comes next?

Continue reading “How to write conclusions”

How to write an introduction

There are a few well-worn pieces of advice on introductions that get passed around. “Tell ’em what you’re going to say” is probably the most popular of these. Another one is “grab their attention”. I haven’t found either to be very helpful in my own writing. After all, most authors tell people what’s going to be said in the abstract, which covers the whole paper and its conclusions. The introduction is really for leading people into the essay, not reproducing it in compact form. And while you can grab people’s attention through short, shocking statements, surely that isn’t the only way to open things up. Look at the essays you admire. Some may aim to surprise, but probably not all.

Then there are the traps that students fall into over and over. Many undergraduates open by repeating the essay prompt or quoting from the dictionary. These are hackneyed approaches, and they call to mind an unsure student sitting in front of a blank computer screen. Others try to puff things up with grand statements of the cosmic importance of what’s to come in the essay (“Ladies and gentlemen! What you’re about to see will astonish you. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have wrestled with…”). That’s an exaggeration of what I’ve seen, but only just.

A better approach is to use your introduction to set the right environment for your argument. You can do this by (1) establishing the context, (2) identifying a problem, and then (3) providing a response. The context is where you introduce the topic that will be under discussion, usually in a fairly neutral way. The problem can be either a gap in existing knowledge or a point of academic contention. And the response is your contribution or judgment, the argument that you will be supporting over the rest of your paper. You might have found a different approach to the problem, or something new to consider. Or maybe new evidence has come along from a different field that should be taken into account. Continue reading “How to write an introduction”