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Staying On Topic In An Essay Or Paragraph Outline

Staying on Topic: Rough Draft vs. Outline

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If you have completed your rough draft, you should have written it by using the original outline as a guide. While what you cover in your research paper is not set in stone, your first draft should, at the very least, loosely follow the original plan. This gives you a point of reference to determine whether you have stayed on topic.

Your outline is flexible. To determine whether your rough draft stays focused on your thesis by addressing the topic in the right way, compare your original outline to your first draft. During this comparison, you can make adjustments if your paper introduces something not already in the outline, or remove points that you deem irrelevant during the writing process. Following the few steps below, you can do a solid comparison to determine the direction your revisions and final draft need to take.

Side-by-side comparison

Before proceeding with your research paper, a side-by-side comparison of your outline and rough draft lets you know if you are staying focused. In addition, it allows you to adjust your focus if in flushing out your rough draft, you determine certain information should be excluded or included. If you followed your plan closely, each paragraph essentially correlates with one idea or line in your outline. If a certain area of the outline covers a broader point, you might have several paragraphs that cover one point.

Check to make sure every point you planned appears within your rough draft. If you decided to leave something out of the paper, remove it from your outline.

If all of your ideas from the outline are flushed out in the rough draft but follow a different order, either rearrange your outline, or rearrange your draft. Ultimately, your draft needs to follow a logical presentation of information. Always consider your paper’s purpose and its intended audience.

Using a reverse outline

Another way you can check whether you are staying focused is by creating a reverse outline from your rough draft to compare against your original one. Start by numbering each paragraph of your rough draft. In a separate document or on a sheet of paper, write down the paragraph numbers. Next, write down the main ideas or points in each paragraph. After going through your entire rough draft, you have a reverse outline.

For each paragraph number, you want to ask several questions to determine if you are staying on topic.

  • Is each paragraph focused on one main point?
  • Do any paragraphs have multiple ideas crammed into them that could form another paragraph?
  • Does the topic sentence show the main point of each paragraph?
  • Are there ideas within a paragraph that fit better in another paragraph?
  • Are there ideas that should be omitted entirely?
  • Are there ideas that are not flushed out enough?
  • Does the entire outline stay on topic with the focus of your thesis?

Answering these questions allows you to decide whether your rough draft stays on topic. You can compare the reverse outline with the original one, and make adjustments as needed to stay on topic. You might even need to restructure or rethink your entire thesis or the focus of your thesis.

Whatever changes are necessary to stay on topic should be made in this stage of writing your research paper. Ensuring your working draft is as focused and on topic as possible ensures that the rest of the writing process – from editing and revising all the way through to your final draft – goes much more smoothly and produces a stronger, well-developed paper.

Topic Sentences

Since body paragraphs for an essay should be centered around one main idea that relates the thesis, creating a clear topic sentence is helpful for both the writer and the reader. For the writer, a topic sentence makes it easier to stay on topic and develop the main idea without getting off track. For the reader, topic sentences announce what the paragraph will be about and demonstrate how different paragraphs and ideas are connected to each other. 

A topic sentence generally appears early in a body paragraph (often the first or second sentence) and controls the paragraph. A topic sentence is like a mini thesis sentence for each paragraph and serves to unify the contents of the paragraph. Everything that follows in the paragraph needs to relate to the topic sentence. Not all essays call for explicit topic sentences, but most beginning writers should learn how to write effective topic sentences early on in order to achieve paragraph unity.

It is also important that all topic sentences relate to the thesis statement. This allows for the essay to have greater unity and focus.

Examples of Topic Sentences:
Let’s use the following thesis statement as an example to see how topic sentences work: In order to succeed in the classroom, college students need to utilize the resources available to them throughout their academic careers.

Because this thesis statement is clear, we know that the essay will be about the various resources that college students need to use to succeed. Thus, each one of these resources becomes a main point that will be written about in the essay, and, in turn, each of these needs a topic sentence. Here are some examples of topic sentences that can be used for this essay:

One important resource that all college students should utilize for success is tutorial services.

Another important resource for student success is frequent use of the library.

In addition to using tutoring services and the library, college students should consult with their advisor on a regular basis to monitor success and make necessary changes when needed. 

Notice how these topic sentences not only help the reader know what will be written about in each paragraph, they also help the writer organize the main ideas of the essay. If a writer creates clear topic sentences early in the writing process, he/she can use these to organize the essay and create unity in each of the paragraphs. 

As writers become more advanced, topic sentences are not always needed. However, all beginning college level writers should know how to create and use them when constructing an essay.

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