As an academic writer, novice or otherwise, a common, but nebulous criticism is: “you need to be more critical”. The sentence can easily be misconstrued to mean, “you need to be more negative” or “you need to question more”. More frequently, I find, the weakness in my own writing, and that of others, is the lack of argumentation. Argumentation can best be understood as taking a stand or making a point that carries throughout your article or dissertation. One solution is in focusing on whether and how topic and concluding sentences are strategically included in your writing.
When you read “whether” did you ask yourself: but don’t all paragraphs have topic and concluding sentences? Oh, I wish it were so. However, frequently authors presume that their point is obvious and begin and end their paragraphs without them.
Yet, topic and concluding sentences are an important part of argumentation because without them, the writer avoids or neglects to take a stand. This leaves the work of interpretation up to the reader. If the reader is confused as to why they are reading particular content or draws different conclusions than those we intended, our writing is deemed non-critical or confusing.
Let me provide an example. If I am describing my husband to someone who doesn’t know him. I might write:
My husband fishes, hikes, and camps solo throughout the summer. He goes out several times during the summer and is gone for several days at a time. I work weekdays so I can’t always join him.
Without a topic sentence, you might not notice write away that you have three sentences that are only somewhat connected. The first two are indeed about my husband, but the third is not. Without a concluding sentence, you might not understand what your take away is intended to be, especially since the last sentence appears to take a tangent and leave you hanging.
The reader might conclude: “wow, this man never spends any time with this wife!” That would be logical based on what little information you have. The first sentence lists his solo activities, the second time away, and the third focuses on me and why I might be left out of the previously named activities.
My reaction would be: “that’s now what I wanted you to take away from what I wrote!” Yet, that is what happens when we leave the interpretation up to the reader.
Now imagine I had written his description with both a topic and concluding sentence:
My husband is an avid outdoorsman. My husband fishes, hikes, and camps solo throughout the summer. I work weekdays so I can’t always join him. He has found several ways to enjoy nature, despite his weekend work schedule.
Now my paragraph directs the reader to what I want them to why I wrote the paragraph and what I want them to take away from the paragraph. The topic sentence “My husband is an avid outdoorsman” sets the stage for the list of activities, but is general enough to not take the place of the content paragraphs which provide details such as what he does, how it does them, when and why. The last sentence “He has found several ways to enjoy nature, despite his weekend work schedule” draws the reader’ attention back to “avid outdoorsman” through the reference to outdoor activities “several ways to enjoy nature”. It then adds the claim “despite his weekend work schedule” to lead the reader to understand why all of the details about time and work were included within the paragraph listing activities.
This simple example may not convince you with regards to academic writing, but I challenge you to look at your writing and the writing of others to notice whether or not topic and concluding sentences are used effectively and strategically. Use your observations to improve your argumentation and avoid the critique of “lack of voice”.