Went to the Lafayette Apple Festival today – loads o’fun.
Here’s what Braddock says. Pretty straightforward, but some interesting connections:
Braddock, Richard. “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose.” In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 2nd ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.
Braddock, in response to the popular paragraph model prescribed by composition textbooks, which direct students to write expository paragraphs that begin with a topic sentence, shows through researching a set of 25 essays that this formula holds true with only 13% of paragraphs written by professional writers. He discovers four general types of topic sentences: simple and delayed-completion topic sentences, which are more explicit, and assembled and inferred topic sentences, which are more implicit. All in all, professional writers only wrote explicit topic sentences – the kind taught in textbooks – half the time. He challenges writing instructors to look more closely at how professional writers write and to teach students how to complicate their expository prose through writing a variety of the four kinds of topic sentences.
Interesting to Note:
Braddock confines the implications of his research to “teachers and textbook writers should exercise caution in making statements about the frequency with which contemporary professional writers use simple or even explicit topic sentences in expository paragraphs.” I think this study has more reach than this. I see connections to Perl’s article – it shows that althought there is a prescribed model that seems to make sense and works most of the time, such as the writing “process” and the write-a-topic-sentence-first rule, it does not hold true for all writers or for all rhetorical situations. Judging the quality of an expository essay alone on whether or not there is a topic sentence at the beginning of every paragraph is overlooking the important part: what the essay does. I don’t think anyone really evaluates an essay based on such rudimentary, mechanical criteria as this, however. I think Braddock might be overplaying the importance of the topic sentence. My family laughed out loud when I read them the title. I mean, really.
But it is interesting to see that the “good” writers break the rules. There is something to say about knowing that a topic sentence or an organizing idea is needed to make a paragraph work. I think the good writers internalize that maxim and have it play out in a variety of ways in their own prose, hence Braddock’s four types of topic sentences.
He does admit to a hierarchy of topic sentences: major topic sentences, that deal with more of the paper than just a single paragraph, and subtopic sentences, which refer to smaller points within the larger work. He uses Kellogg’s T-unit to split the paragraphs into T-units: the topic “sentences” are really topic “T-units.”
I think there can be some interesting connections between Braddock’s study and the debate over the writing process(es). There is no one way to write, but there probably are methods one can teach a struggling writer to implement in order to make his or her prose more fluid. Including one of the four types of topic sentences is one of those ways.