Publish & Flourish: Revising around key sentences

Dr. Tara GrayAt the 2018 Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference in Santa Fe, NM, Dr. Tara Gray presented on her twelve-step program, “Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar”. Steps 7 & 8 of the program focus on the revision process by identifying and using key sentences in each paragraph as follows:

Step 7: Revise paragraphs around key sentences

Step 8: Use key sentences as an after-the-fact or reverse outline

In order to complete step 7 and revise paragraphs around key sentences, it’s important to first identify the key sentence in each paragraph. So, what is a key sentence?

According to Gray, “Key sentences are to paragraphs like street signs are to cities: they orient readers and help them navigate.” Further, “Key sentences are different from what you may have been taught about topic sentences because they [should] announce the point of the paragraph as well as its topic. Also, they need not be the first sentence in a paragraph.”

Can you identify the key sentence in the following paragraph?

“Cancer is what happens when normal cells start growing and dividing out of control. If we want to prevent cancer, we need to know what causes that switch—why do ‘good cells go bad?’ My research targets that question—I study how genes interact with each other to keep cells working and growing at the “right rate,” and how those interactions break down, turning normal cells into cancer cells. I work on zebrafish because their genes behave similarly to those of people—and you can’t grow people in an aquarium. If we learn what causes growth regulation to break down, we may be able to prevent or reverse it. So, yes, I hope that my work will ultimately contribute to curing cancer” (Schimel, Joshua. (2012). Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 200).

If you identified the second sentence, “If we want to prevent cancer, we need to know what causes that switch—why do ‘good cells go bad?’”, you’re correct. The second sentence, which contains the question, is key. (And yes, it’s fine that it’s a question). The question announces both points simply, with little detail and without trying to prove them—it allows the rest of the paragraph to do that. Sentences three and four answer the question posed in the second sentence (“Why do ‘good cells go bad?”) and sentences five and six pick up on the idea of curing cancer, which was also raised in the key sentence and should therefore be addressed in the paragraph.

Key sentences are like topic sentences because they should:

  • Announce the topic—or better, the point—of the paragraph
    • simply with little detail (the most general statement)
    • without trying to prove the point (the rest of the paragraph serves that function)
  • Be short and memorable
  • Be broad enough to “cover” everything in the paragraph, but no broader
  • Use key words as subjects (for example, if the topic of the paragraph is “Napoleon” then, ideally, the word “Napoleon” appears in the key sentence rather than the word “he.”)
  • Ensure everything after the key sentence is about the point in the key sentence.

Is there a sentence in this paragraph that meets the requirements of a key sentence?

“Seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line after Peter the Great were plagued by some sort of palace revolt or popular revolution. In 1722, Peter the Great passed a law of succession that terminated the principle of heredity. He proclaimed that the sovereign could appoint a successor in order to accompany his idea of achievement by merit. This resulted in many tsars not appointing a successor before dying. Even Peter the Great failed to choose someone before he died. Ivan VI was appointed by Czarina Anna, but was only two months old at his coronation in 1740. Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, defeated Anna, and she ascended to the throne in 1741. Succession not dependent upon authority resulted in boyars’ regularly disputing who was to become sovereign. It was not until 1797 that Paul I codified the law of succession: male primogeniture. But Paul I was strangled by conspirators, one of whom was probably his son, Alexander I” (Williams, Joseph. (1990). Style: Toward clarity and grace. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 88).

In this example, the paragraph has no key sentence. Worse, the first sentence invites the reader to think about “palace revolt or popular revolution.” The paragraph isn’t about palace revolt or popular revolution; it’s about succession to the throne. Therefore, the first sentence should be rewritten to serve as a true key. Try: “After Peter the Great died, seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line were plagued by turmoil over disputed succession to the throne” (Williams, 1990, p. 95). With this key sentence, the whole paragraph comes into focus. This is what a good key can do for a bad paragraph.

Once you have identified the key sentence in each paragraph, step 8 begins with the construction of a reverse outline by listing the key sentences. That list can then be used to check for the purpose and organization of the paper. After making any necessary revisions to the outline, the paper should be revised to reflect the changes.

Dr. Gray presents her entire twelve-step program as a TAA workshop. Learn how to schedule the “Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar” workshop at your institution today!


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.