Thursday, April 15, 2004

Braddock, 1975, "Frequency and Placement"

 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.

Big Idea
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"

Monday Morning
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? 

Passages Passages
"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 advocating" (39).

Bookmark and Share Posted by at April 15, 2004 11:04 PM to Reading Notes

Oh my gosh! I have to get that book. Post your notes away! It is great to "hear" someone else thinking about the things I am thinking about. And even better to get some resources. :-)

Posted by: Sam at April 16, 2004 6:03 AM

I'm happy to hear that you're interested in this project, Sam. The book is pricey; it might also be called "priceless" by some folks. If I wanted to buy a copy, I'd pick it up from

Posted by: Derek at April 16, 2004 7:51 AM

I am working through the ideas I use in teaching writing- mostly because there seem to be two main camps at my school, and each side is vocal and adamant- and dismissive of the other side. I am struggling with the opposing ideas of an organic approach to teaching writing (good writing becomes from authentic motivation and, well, just happens) vs. a more structured approach which teaches rhetorical structures, devices and such.

My personal feeling is that both approaches have their place- and I need to make space for both in my courses. I actually just had a discussion about topic sentences and thesis statments in my freshman comp (1st level). They are in the process of writing a documented cause and effect essay on a topic they have chosen to research. I am experimenting with a formal outline process and asked them to create clear topic sentences to go in the outline- next week I will have them take a paragraph from their essay and rewrite it without the topic sentence. Precisely because part of our discussion was the fact that the writing we look at in class often doesn't have an explicit topic sentence, but the writer clearly has control of his/her ideas.

I will get a copy of the text! Thanks for the link.

Posted by: Sam at April 16, 2004 8:48 PM


I don't know if they're still doing it, but when the compilation was first released, they (Bedford) gave out free examination copies at CCCC. Might be worth a shot to see if they're still doing it...


Posted by: collin at April 16, 2004 10:59 PM

I think it's good, Sam, that you're turning to other sources for different ways of thinking about the most salient model for student-writers. I witnessed a fair amount of turf war while taking my MA, and I was relieved to dodge the scorn and tension that rained on the program from time to time. I can't place myself neatly in either of the camps you describe, since I tend to identify with each of them at times.

Hope you're able to land an exam copy of the Braddocks. (Thanks, Collin, for providing that link.)

Posted by: Derek at April 18, 2004 11:16 PM