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How to Stay on Topic When Writing an Essay

by Maria Magher, studioD

Whether writing a personal essay or an argumentative essay, you must stay on topic so your essay is focused and compelling. The strength of your essay's argument or emotional appeal dissipates when you veer off-topic; you risk losing your readers. As a student, learning how to stay on topic may also mean the difference between getting a good or bad grade on a writing assignment. Developing a strong thesis statement and making an outline can help keep your writing focused.

Develop a strong thesis statement. Your thesis statement is your essay's primary idea. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab says that a thesis statement should be narrow and concrete, and you should be able to support it with evidence in the body of the essay.

Develop an outline guided by your thesis statement. Use a pen and paper or note cards to organize your ideas as you put together the outline.

To create the outline, note your thesis statement at the top of the page and write a large A, B and C on the left side of the paper to correspond with each of your paragraphs. Use as many letters as needed for as many paragraphs as needed.

Write a main topic idea next to each letter. Growing With Grammar suggests that even the briefest paragraph should have a main topic, and the first sentence of the paragraph is usually the topic sentence. Each topic sentence should support the main thesis. For example, if your essay is about how kale is the healthiest food to eat, each supporting statement might focus on one of the health benefits of kale.

Write the numbers "1", "2" and "3" under each topic sentence on your outline. These will correspond to the supporting details for each paragraph's main idea. For example, if the paragraph is about how kale is the healthiest food to eat because it contains a lot of calcium, your supporting points could include information on how much calcium it contains, how much calcium is recommended for each person, and how eating enough calcium benefits health.

Within each paragraph, you have to back up and explain your main argument, so develop supporting details for each paragraph. For example, if the paragraph is about how kale is the healthiest food to eat because it contains a lot of calcium, your supporting points could include information on how much calcium it contains both when raw and cooked and whether the average American gets enough calcium through dietary choices. San Bruno, California's Skyline College professors Karen Wong and Rachel Bell explain that you should ask yourself "How do I know this is true?" for the main idea in each paragraph, and the answer you give yourself will help you flesh out your argument.

Double check every line of your essay to ensure that it supports the main idea in the paragraph, which should then support the thesis. Ask yourself how each sentence provides specific evidence to support your main idea. The sentence should be able to offer support when read on its own and not in context with the other information.

Items you will need
  •  Paper
  •  Pen
  •  Note cards


  • Ask a classmate or friend to read your essay, while looking for any inconsistencies or weakness in your argument. The person you ask to proofread your essay can point out any places where your essay seems to go off-topic or let you know any questions that are raised but are not answered by the essay.
  • Do not include "fun facts" or bits of trivia, anecdotes or personal observations in your essay unless they support your argument.

About the Author

Maria Magher has been working as a professional writer since 2001. She has worked as an ESL teacher, a freshman composition teacher and an education reporter, writing for regional newspapers and online publications. She has written about parenting for Pampers and other websites. She has a Master's degree in English and creative writing.

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