Finding the Main Idea

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Your grammar and your sentence structure are great. You’ve got a good handle on how to write a pretty decent essay in ninety minutes. The only problem is that your professor keeps saying that you’re going off topic. It’s possible that you’re missing the main point; the author’s main idea. And while it’s great that you can write a good essay, for the CATW, it’s extremely important that your essay is a response to the passage that you were given.

So, how do you find the main idea? If you’re lucky the title of the article can be a big help. If an article is titled “Smoking is Bad for You” then, most likely the main idea of the article is that smoking is bad for you, and the author will go on to tell you why this is so. But if the title is something more obscure like, “Cigarette Breath and Nicotine Withdrawal,” you have to look a beyond the title, in order to ascertain what the main idea of the passage is.

Sometimes the main idea is stated very clearly in a thesis statement like this:  Many people used to think that smoking a cigarette was a  good way to take a much needed break from their problems. Now, studies show that smoking causes serious health hazards. It is most likely that the rest of that passage is going to be about the health hazards that can occur as a result of smoking.

If a passage doesn’t have a very clear thesis statement you will have to figure it out on your own. A good thing to remember is that the main idea is going to be something  general like, smoking is bad for you. It will be followed by supporting details which are more specific such as, smoking causes emphysema, halitosis, and lung cancer. Try not to get sidetracked by a particularly interesting supporting detail and focus on that, while losing track of the main idea.

If you’ve read through the essay once and you’re not positive that you know what the author’s main point is:
1. Read the title again.
2. Look for a thesis statement.
3. Look for a general idea followed by more specific details.

General Idea                        Supporting Details
Smoking is bad                      It causes emphysema, halitosis, and lung cancer
I had a bad day                      I got fired from my job, my dog doesn’t like me anymore
Smart phones are useful        You can make calls, check your email, and take pictures

4. Look for repeated words and phrases. If the author keeps saying something over and over again it’s probably pretty important to the passage.

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