Flipping sentences, reversing sentences or writing your introductory sentences as concluding sentences in a paragraph is a common problem I see with my students. Flipping sentences can also occur in the first two sentences of a paragraph. It was also a problem with my own writing before I embarked on my thesis. It wasn’t until I was given feedback by my supervisors that I realised what I was actually doing wrong. I was flipping sentences. Rather than writing good, strong topic sentences, I was hiding these within the paragraph, often as concluding sentences. Doing so leads to vague language, confused paragraphs, and all too often confusing sentences with more than one idea making an unwelcome appearance. Since then I’ve made an effort to discuss with my students how this problem presents itself, and how it can be resolved. Having this problem with my writing pointed out to me and corrected has improved the ease and proficiency of my writing no end. And I’m hoping it will improve your writing as well.
The Problem and Cause
Flipping sentences is a legacy from when we are taught to write. The narrative, story telling approach to writing that we develop from a young age encourages us not to write up front – to hide conclusions, to present a mystery to the reader, and only to provide a resolution after all information has been presented (in some cases at least). From this a habit of writing without telling the reader what is actually happening ahead of time, or has happened, can develop.
Academic writing is different. Academic writing demands that we state what we are saying up front. For the most part, we aren’t telling a story; we are telling a factual account or explaining a critical analysis. And it’s this element which students (and myself) have the most trouble in getting their heads around.
It’s not simply a matter of stating conclusions up front. It’s a little more of an art-form than that. And you will find the best, particularly scientific writers, are able to write their topic sentences fluidly – giving you just enough information to know what their thesis or argument is, without giving away the conclusions. But at the same time, giving you enough information to know what the paragraph will be about.
As with everything, changing a writing technique, or knowing how to employ an academic writing technique takes a lot of practice.
With most forms of errors in writing, flipping sentences are hard to self diagnose. But students will often tell me some pointers that indicate they are flipping their sentences, even before I’ve looked at their work.
A classic case is being overly reliant on quotes in the topic sentence. I tell my students that I don’t want to see references or quotes in the topic sentence, if it can be helped. There is a place for it, but not in most paragraphs.
I will often hear that students are continually concluding paragraphs with a question. Posing questions as a concluding sentence is a classic example of what is most likely a topic sentence. I don’t like seeing questions written in academic papers – they should be answered, argued and explained. The questions raised should be intuitive, and flow from one paragraph to the next. This issue of leading into another paragraph is especially if they raise a counterpoint.
Another piece of consistent feedback will be that the language is too conversational, vague or non-academic. Often, this feedback is ignored because the student doesn’t know exactly what to do with it, or about how to change it.
For me, I know when I’m flipping sentences when I get feedback such as, “repetition in consecutive sentences”. I don’t notice this myself. When I’m writing I feel as though I’m elucidating subtle differences. But what it actually is, is that I’m not clear enough, active enough and positive enough to state my topic sentence clearly. For me it leads to a lack of succinctness and accuracy in detail which is a great skill to have if you can pull it off.
When flipping sentences between the first and second sentences within a paragraph, it shows a lack of confidence in what is being said. What I have found in my own writing is that I know what it is that I should say in the topic sentence, but I lack the confidence and authority to be able to state it up front. And I notice this with my students as well. I’m often telling my students to have confidence in what they are saying. Sometimes, we should listen to our own advice.
All of these symptoms (and possibly more) are the result of flipping sentences, and can be corrected by employing the use of appropriate topic and concluding sentences.
Tips to Improve and Correct Flipping Sentences
As with all things, the most effective way to improve writing is to practice. But there are some ways that I have been able to correct my own writing, and the writing of my students.
It is a little more advanced than simply knowing what a paragraph structure looks like, you must be able recognise what each of the elements does. However, most students do know this and require more corrective instruction, rather than outlines and generic formulas.
The first tip is to eliminate any conjunctions in the first sentence of a paragraph. Words like and, but, or join two parts of a sentence together. In the topic sentences, these words have a tendency to create passive language, confuse the writer, the reader, and often lead to a messy paragraph. By eliminating the conjunctions in the first paragraph, the writer is likely to say what the paragraph is actually about, and then explain appropriately from there.
A tip to tackle this problem is to reformulate the topic sentence. By reading out loud, you will begin to eliminate extraneous words, shorten sentences and write how it should be read.
If you feel it necessary to have a conjunction in the first sentence, first consider if the second topic is worthy of another paragraph, and then link them – rather than potentially messing up one clear paragraph.
Avoid vague descriptors in paragraphs, but especially in the topic sentence! Words like very, many, most, some will lead to passive language. These words can point to something important, so back it up with statistics or a reference – be forceful and active by taking out these words. If it requires further specification, move it to the second or supporting sentence and write another topic sentence introducing the topic of the statistic.
Remove references and quotes from first sentences. On occasions, using references and quotes can work in a topic sentence. But generally, as a marker, I want to see that students can explain the concept, topic or element of the work in their own words. Referencing and quoting detracts from that. When I’m under time constraints to mark and grade papers, if a student has placed quotes and references in each of their topic sentences, immediately I’m looking to place their grade in the middle of the pack.
And what to do with posing questions in an essay, especially as concluding sentences in a paragraph? There are multiple ways this issue can be tackled and corrected. The question rewritten as a solution can be used as the next paragraph’s topic sentence. The question, rewritten as a problem can be used as that paragraph’s topic sentence. And it can be stated as such. If you feel a question needs to be raised, it’s often a signal that the topic hasn’t been clearly explained, it lacks detail, or it hasn’t been fully argued.
Academic writing is a process of presenting, critiquing and arguing. Once a student is into the body of their work, questions raised should almost become intuitive to the reader. It’s fantastic when I’m reading a journal article, or book, and I think, “But what about this?” And without even posing the question, the author is able to tackle the question; the points raised or further explain. It is a hard skill to achieve, but when I see students that have been able to master this art, I do feel as if they “get it”.
I’ll write in upcoming addition about tips to produce high quality introductions. In that, I state there should be a justification for what it is that is being done. If a question is to be raised, it should be in there. Different pieces of work are different, but most undergraduate assessment pieces should follow that structure.
Answers, explanations, critiques and premises of that question are then expected to be unpacked through the assessment. If a student has a persistent problem with posing questions throughout the work, I would suggest listing these questions at the beginning of the paper, and analysing which are most beneficial to be stated there, as a way of shaping and structuring the paper.
Repetition, my own writing problem when flipping sentences, is solved by a drill that I work out. I delete the first two sentences of a paragraph that contain repetition, and I write one. Sometimes it is necessary then to rewrite the paragraph, but so be it. It makes my paragraphs more concise, succinct, to the point, active and confident. These are all things that I want to be aiming for when I write, and when I’m trying to eliminate flipping sentences.
What have you found helpful when rewriting topic sentences? What symptoms do you notice in your writing when you experience some of these symptoms? Let me know, and I’ll lend some assistance in the next writing tips post.