Braddock, Richard. “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed.
Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 29-42.
Braddock’s essay on the placement and patterns of topic sentences exposes a problem of referring students to mythic truths–affirmed in popular textbooks old and new–about professional expository writing. His empirical research and methodical investigation (lots of data-counts, tables) of faulty advice about prevalent organizational patterns is an affront to the echo and reiteration of uncritical teaching. His essay calls for
conscientious attention to topical organization in paragraphs.
Terms of Import
t-unit (minimal terminal unit , Kellogg Hunt (1965)) — the “shortest grammatically allowable sentence into which…[writing can] be segmented” (31).
delayed-completion topic sentence (35)–undeclared predicate forces us to read beyond the seminal t-unit and into a subsequent sentence
assembled topic sentence (35)–infused with quoted bits from another source
inferred topic sentence (35)–implied topic that cannot be reconstructed by quoting phrases from the original text
major topic sentence (35)–reflection of the “larger stadia of discourses,” like Irmcher’s “paragraph bloc”
Simply put, teachers of writing should be cautious to make unfounded claims likening work done by students to work done by professionals. If we demand students organize paragraphs by locating topic sentences at the beginning and the end of their paragraphs, we must not justify the requirement by referring to foggy,
disproved characterizations of a larger writing institution. Braddock’s research establishes that only 45% of 761
paragraphs studied used simple topic sentences; only 16% located those topic sentences in the first or final sentence of the graf.
So, 1.) We should always be skeptical about common truths in textbooks; 2.) We should not attest to gross generalizations about expository prose or, heck, even refer to “most” expository prose working in a particularly systematic way unless we are able to attach illustrative examples; 3.) We should watch for topical variations in students’ expository writing and teach organizational variations as a controllable feature of composition (particularly calling attention to it during stages of revision, I think).
How much time and attention do writing instructors give to teaching about
t-units or topic sentences in 2004? Is the concept of topic sentences irresponsible if it leaves off the subtleties and variations? Should instruction about topic sentences in expository prose foreground
the act(ion) of research writing? When should students be welcomed to think about it? Is it inline with broader studies of textual organization (merging HTML, visual rhetorics, distributed schemes)? How do we
teach organizational awareness? Outlining? Mapping? Of students’ writing? Popular writing? How much time and energy does this deserve in a FY writing course? In an advanced expository course? Is this essay
still regarded as important (for its methods, perhaps, as much as its contribution to more sophisticated pedagogy)? Or is it rather more like a shelved artifact?
“This sample of contemporary professional writing did not support the claims of textbook writers about the
frequency and location of topic sentences in professional writing. That does not, of course, necessarily mean the same findings would hold for scientific and technical writing or other types of exposition. Moreover, it does not all mean that composition teachers should stop showing their students how to develop paragraphs from clear topic sentences. Far from it. In my opinion, often the writing in the 25 essays would have been
clearer and more comfortable to read if the paragraphs had presented more explicit topic sentences. But what this study does suggest is this: While helping students use clear topic sentences in their writing and identify variously presented topical ides in their reading, the teacher should not pretend that professional writers largely follow the practices he is