Edit your manuscript based on key sentences

November 8, 2016

If you have ever gotten bogged down with a manuscript? Does your student struggle to create a logical argument in the early drafts of a thesis or dissertation?

Some authors write from a sentence outline. However, many authors free write to get ideas on the page in a first draft. They organize the ideas in revisions. Sometimes a draft created in this way gets too long for us to see the underlying structure of the paper. Authors can improve the logical flow of their paper if they identify key sentences and use them to analyze the structure of their paper. The key sentence strategy helps authors locate gaps in their arguments and improve the overall coherence of their manuscript.

Key sentences (or topic sentences) state the main point of a paragraph simply. They usually appear early in the paragraph. The remaining sentences support the key sentence. They might explain the idea in more detail, describe an example, or provide supporting evidence for the idea stated in the key sentence. Thus, each paragraph should have one key sentence that provides a context that enables readers to organize and understand the content of the paragraph.

 Characteristics of a well-written key sentence

  • Key sentences are simple statements that identify the topic of the paragraph. They do not explain the topic or provide supporting evidence. That is the job of the other sentences.
  • Key sentences are broad enough to introduce the topic addressed by the rest of the paragraph. Avoid overly-broad sentences that raise questions about issues and ideas not discussed in the paragraph.
  • Key sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph, but they are often the first or second sentence. Earlier placement helps readers understand the paragraph. Key sentences might also be the last sentence, although readers will find paragraphs with the key sentence at the end more difficult to understand unless the topic is foreshadowed with an earlier (anticipatory) sentence.


 Using key sentences to improve writing.


Paragraph-level editing

If the main idea for the paragraph appears in more than one sentence, write a new sentence that combines these components in a single sentence. If the sentence is too long, consider writing a shorter, more general sentence as the main idea. Rewrite the sentences with detailed components as development or explanation of the main idea.

Can’t find the key sentence? Think about what you intend this paragraph to do. Write the one big idea you think this paragraph is about.

If a paragraph seems to have two key points and both are relevant to your argument, write one paragraph for each point.

If one of the ideas is irrelevant to your argument, delete material. Don’t send your reader down a rabbit hole.


Editing for logic and coherence of the full paper

Create an outline based on the key sentences for each paragraph. Extract these sentences in a separate document.

An edit that focuses on key sentences prevents you from getting bogged down in the minutiae of supporting evidence and explanations. You can focus on the big picture: the purpose of the paper and the main ideas and logic of your argument.

Can you follow the flow of your argument based on the key sentences alone?

Are the ideas presented in the right order to develop your argument?

Identify gaps in your argument. Difficult transitions between key sentences might reveal a missing step in the logic of your argument. Consider writing a new paragraph to provide this missing step.

Does the paper have a clear beginning, middle, and conclusion?



Gray, T. (2005). Publish & flourish: Become a prolific scholar. Springfield, IL: Philips Brothers Printers. 

If you have ever gotten bogged down with a manuscript? Does your student struggle to create a logical argument in the early drafts of a thesis or dissertation? 

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