Kill the Topic Sentence

I used to hate writing. Looking back at composition classes in junior high and high school, writing had this mechanical feel, like following a recipe crafted by a mediocre cook who was more used to heating up microwave meals than using fresh ingredients. Topic sentences, thesis statements, stating the supporting points of an essay, it’s all so boring. What makes writing interesting? How do you write well? Start by committing a crime. Start by killing the topic sentence.

Air pollution in China is the worst in the world for many reasons. Fixing a flat tire on a bicycle is easy if you follow these simple steps. Scientists have learned to supplement sight in a number of ways. The center was not holding. Three of those sentences are from websites that teach writing. One of the sentences is from an essay by Joan Didion, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Which of these sentences makes you want to keep on reading?

Yeah, I’m dying to learn how to easily fix a flat bike tire too. It just takes a few easy steps. The center was not holding. What center? Why isn’t it holding?

What’s more important in teaching high-school students to write: following a mechanical structure or learning that writing doesn’t have to be boring? Is the focus of high-school writing being able to pass standardized tests? 1This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m actually curious. Good writing is engaging. It’s entertaining. Good writing flows well and communicates ideas. We hear the person behind the words. Good writing takes time and practice, but it helps if you’re reading well-written essays, articles, stories and poems. Moving from the first sentence of Didion’s essay through the first two paragraphs, you’ll see what I mean.

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people and the uneasy apprehension it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just around awhile, and made a few friends. 2First two paragraphs of Didion’s essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

I hadn’t meant to transcribe that much text, but how could I stop?Didion’s writing is so compelling. Should we kill the topic sentence or should we kill the boring, mechanical topic sentence? “It was not a country in open revolution,” sounds so much better than “it was not a country in open revolution for many reasons.” It’s direct. It can be built upon. It makes the reader lean closer. I used to hate writing for many reasons; now, I just hate reading bad writing. 3Photo credit: Taken by Karwik and used under CC


1 This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m actually curious.
2 First two paragraphs of Didion’s essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
3 Photo credit: Taken by Karwik and used under CC