Finding the Main Point

No matter what you are reading or why you are reading it, you want to make sure that you understand the main point. The main point is the key idea that the author is trying to convey in the text.

The techniques in this section apply best to nonfiction work, including scholarly articles, informational texts, textbooks, and arguments. While they can also be used for fiction or creative nonfiction, strategies for reading literature often work better for these types of texts because literary texts don’t always have a clear main point. If you are reading fiction or creative nonfiction, I recommend asking your professor for guidance.

The techniques in this section can be used separately, but they can also be used together.

Break the Reading into Sections

Just like chapters in a novel, informative and other nonfiction texts are often made up of sections. A section of a text has a point of its own. You can think of sections in a text like building blocks, each adding to the structure and content of the whole. In this fashion, each section should contribute at least one key idea to the main point.

Keep in mind that it often takes several paragraphs to work through the explanation of a single point. A section might be as short as a single paragraph, but it also might be much longer—six, eight, ten paragraphs long.

You can treat each section as its own little mini-text and work to find the main point of that section. If you understand the point of each section, you can often piece together the main point by combining the points of the sections.

It is usually helpful to try to summarize each section of text in one or two sentences. When you read those sentences together, you can often more easily see the main point. This approach can also get you started on a full summary of the text.

Texts with Obvious Section Breaks

Sometimes sections will be obvious because they will be labeled with headings. You’ll see this in textbooks, for example. These headings work like titles in that they can give you clues about the contents of that section.

Sometimes, headings are conventional . For example, in scholarly research essays in many fields, headings such as “method,” “results,” and “discussion” tell an experienced reader what kind of information to expect in each of those sections.

Even if you don’t find any headings, sometimes you’ll see extra space between paragraphs, often with a decorative symbol (like ‡). Even though these dividers have no heading, you can still treat them as sections, but without the information that a heading would provide.

Using Sections to Plan Your Reading
When you have a long text—longer than you can read in one sitting—you can use sections to divide up your time. Think about how long it takes you to read a page in that kind of text and estimate how much reading you can or want to do at one time. If you are taking good notes as you go, you’ll have reminders of what you have read, so you’ll be able to pick the text back up quickly, but it’s easier to pick up at a section break than in the middle of a section.

Texts Without Obvious Section Breaks

Sometimes, there are no headings or spacing to guide you in dividing up a text. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sections. You just have to look harder for them.

Look first for changes in topics. In some texts, authors will talk about a series of topics that are related but are clearly distinct from one another. For example, a text that describes harms caused by climate change might discuss different kinds of harm—harm to plants, harm to animals, and harm to people—and each of those could be considered a different section.

Other times, however, the changes in topics aren’t obvious. In these cases, your best approach is to look at the opening sentences of paragraphs for the transitions:

  • Transitions that show similarity (e.g., “also,” “likewise”) or example (e.g., “for instance,” “specifically”) usually do not indicate a section change. These signal that the author is continuing the same point.
  • Transitions that show contrast (e.g., “however,” “on the other hand”) or sequence (e.g., “first,” “second,” “next”) frequently do indicate a section change. These signal a change in perspective or topic.
  • Other types of transitions, such as those dealing with time (e.g., “before,” “recently”) or consequence (e.g., “therefore,” “accordingly”) may or may not signal a section change. You’ll have to read further or look for other clues.

Transitions are not always just single words, so you may have to look at the structure and meaning of those opening sentences to see how they are setting up the topic of the current paragraph.

Example: Transitional Ideas

Let’s take the following sentence and assume that it appears at the beginning of a paragraph: “While some may agree with Jones, others disagree.” Technically, there is no transition word in that sentence, but there is a transition idea. The first part of the sentence (“Some may agree with Jones”) gestures backward to what has already been discussed (Jones’s ideas). The second part (“others disagree”) signals that disagreement with Jones will be the subject of at least this paragraph, and maybe more.

Once you have identified sections, you can start working on understanding the point in each one and how that point contributes to the main point of the text.

Example: Mitchell’s Breaks

A quick glance at Mitchell’s text shows three sections. Two of them have headings: “Segregated Coexistence” and “Living in Community.” The other section appears at the beginning of the article, so you could think of this one as “Introduction.” By the time I reached this point in the reading process, I’ve already read the article, so I should be able to identify the key ideas in each section.

Given these headings, I would expect that the introduction would set up the article as a whole and would introduce key terms and concepts—the kind of work that introductions do in just about any article. The introduction explains that diversity is not just demographics. It also explains that the “quality of diversity” is a term that Mitchell is using to think about how Americans live together and how we handle the fact that there are differences among us. He says that there are two “stances”: “segregated coexistence” and “living in community,” which are the other two headings in this article.

“Segregated Coexistence” is the state of affairs now. He points out statistics and census data that show that we live in enclaves, grouped by race and ethnicity. He claims that such segregation creates a base for racism since it places some people in worse conditions than others and grouping like this makes other kinds of discrimination easier.

“Living in Community” is integration. Mitchell says that this is hard because we will have to acknowledge genuinely the race-based harms that have been done, address those harms, and make real changes in our current society so that such harms are avoided. This will only happen if we want it to work.

The last few paragraphs of this section aren’t describing “living in community.” Instead, they are doing some conclusion work, and I’ll talk about this in the next section.

Because I believe that I’ll need the points in those last four paragraphs to explain the main point, I’ll save my thoughts about the main point for the next section. However, notice that my division between this section “Breaking the Reading into Sections” and the next “Focusing on the Ending and the Beginning” is artificial. That is, you would look at the ending and beginning of Mitchell’s article as part of breaking the reading into sections.

If I’m taking notes on the sections, I would almost certainly see that the last four paragraphs are really a separate section, just without a section break. Why do I see it as a separate section? At the paragraph beginning with “Doing that work,” Mitchell changes topics from explaining the work of living in community to talking about the foundational question we need to answer, “How should we treat those whom we see as different from us?”

Activity: Breaks in Your Article

Using the article that you’ve chosen from the example assignment, identify the sections, and write out notes on the key ideas in each one.

Compare your notes with those of a classmate working on the same article. Talk through any differences to help you understand the focus of each section and ultimately identify the main point of the article.

Focus on the Ending and the Beginning

When we read, we remember best what we read last. Authors know this, so they often make sure that they provide some kind of clarity about their main point at the end of a text. If a text is intended to be read through to the end, you are very likely to find the main point there.

Exceptions to the Rule

Not all genres put their main points at the end.

Some, like newspaper articles, put their main point up front—usually in the first sentence. Newspaper articles are written with the expectation that most readers will read the headline and a few paragraphs of the story, so the main point is put right at the beginning (in what is called the “lead”).

This is also true for articles that use IMRD structure. IMRD stands for Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, and this structure is very common in scholarly research articles in the natural and social sciences. In those articles, the main point can be found in the abstract, within the first couple of paragraphs of the discussion section, and sometimes in the introduction.

If you aren’t sure whether you are reading something that places the main point in an unusual place, you should ask your professor for more guidance.

We remember best what we read last, but we also tend to remember what we read first. If you don’t see a main point at the end of a text, look back at the beginning to see if it’s there. It may also be in both places and a repeated idea is usually a pretty big signal that you have found the central idea.

Example: Mitchell’s Ending and Beginning

In my example set of notes in the last section, I noted that the last few paragraphs of Mitchell’s article aren’t really focused on “living in community.” In the last four paragraphs, he talks mostly about the debates in our society about how we should treat people from races and ethnicities that are not our own. He says that we should figure out what we want our real-world lives to be like when we think about diversity and that diversity is not just a theoretical issue for debate.

He doesn’t give us an answer directly, but it’s pretty clear that he thinks living in community is a better option than segregated coexistence. First, he puts living in community last, which is a signal that he thinks it’s more important. Second, he talks about things like “domestic stability” in ways that imply that we’ll be more stable if we were integrated rather than segregated.

Even though I was pretty sure I had found his main point, I checked the beginning, too, just to be thorough. The beginning focuses on the idea of the quality of diversity in America and how that concept is central to the debates about race relations happening at the time. In other words, he thinks we need to deal with this choice if we want our circumstances to get better.

So, when I put the beginning together with the ending, I see him focused on this central point: that Americans need to think actively about the real-world effects of choosing segregation (our current situation) over integration, which has a much better chance of providing stability in our society. He also suggests that we’ll be better people for choosing living in community.

Activity: Your Endings and Beginnings

Using the article that you’ve chosen from the example assignment, examine the ending and then the beginning, and write out notes on the key ideas in each one. Coupled with your notes from the sections, you should be able to write a sentence or two that explains the main point of your article.

Compare your notes and your sense of the main point with those of a classmate working on the same article. Talk through any differences that will help you strengthen your understanding of the main point.

Follow the Topic Sentences

Topic sentences are the sentences that sum up the main idea in a paragraph. In longer paragraphs, they help readers (and writers) remain focused on the key point. But topic sentences can also be read together to get a clearer idea of the main point of an article or chapter or even a section of a text.

Topic sentences are often, though not always, the first sentence in a paragraph, but they can appear anywhere. Since there is no hard and fast rule about their location, you want to watch for them. After you read a paragraph, go back and look specifically for that summary idea, the one that pulls together the specific information in a paragraph.

When you string topic sentences together, you get the gist of the author’s point in a text. You can highlight those sentences in your text, but it might also help to copy those sentences into a separate document and read them together. They won’t sound coherent, but if you focus on the ways in which the ideas develop, you should be able to identify the main point of the article.

Short Paragraphs
Using topic sentences to identify the main point will only work if the paragraphs are long enough to present fully developed ideas. Newspaper articles, for example, often have only one or two sentences in each paragraph, so trying to read first sentences alone will effectively mean that you’re reading the whole article. There’s not much point in that.
Example: Not Mitchell’s Topic Sentences

This approach doesn’t work with Mitchell’s text. None of his paragraphs are longer than two sentences, so I wouldn’t bother trying to identify the main point this way.

Just to show you what this approach looks like, though, let’s take the introduction to the book To Be An American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation by Bill Ong Hing, one of the titles I used to discuss subtitles.

The introduction is made up of fourteen paragraphs, averaging just under five sentences per paragraph. Here, I have copied those topic sentences, including information after each about which sentence number it is (the first number) and how many sentences there are in the paragraph (the number after the slash).

¶1 This paragraph has no topic sentence. Instead, there are three sentences of examples of proposals and legislation that would limit immigration and services for immigrants and undocumented residents.

¶2 “Is there any doubt that we are experiencing one of the most potent periods of anti-immigrant fervor in the United States?” (1/6)

¶3 “Much of America is hurting economically, insecure about its economic future…. To many who make up this part of America, the explanation that restrictionists (those who would severely reduce immigrant visas) offer up—the immigrant as culprit—makes sense.” (1/7 and 4/7)

¶4 “Since 1965, America has experienced significant demographic changes.” (1/5)

¶5 “Not since the first decade of the twentieth century—when southern and eastern Europeans entered in large numbers for the first time—has there been such a dramatic change in the ethnic composition of the nation.” (7/7)

¶6 “These demographic trends, altering the ethnic composition of America, have defined the debate for many modern-day restrictionists on what it means to become an American.” (1/5)

¶7 “Underlying the debate over immigrants and American identity is a concern about the interaction, or lack of interaction, among different racial groups.” (3/3)

¶8 “The current level of anti-immigrant rhetoric is simply not justified on economic grounds.” (3/3)

¶9 “Until we can understand the real causes of our fears about job loss and public bankruptcy, we cannot evaluate immigrants’ actual collective role in our economy.” (2/7)

¶10 “Because the principal complaint of restrictionists today is culturally and socially premised, the primary purpose of my efforts here is to analyze the positions of two broad groups: first, the assimilationists, whose opposition to current immigration is chiefly grounded in cultural or social complaints, and second, the cultural pluralists, the counterpart to the assimilationists, who promote diversity or multiculturalism…. We must all be encouraged to consider a new approach to cultural pluralism which respects diverse views and cultures, which is constantly attentive to race relations, and which shares a common core set of values.” (1/7 and 6/7)

¶11 “In their current attack on the influx of Asian and Latino immigrants and criticism of interethnic group conflict and separatism, assimilationists essentially posit two solutions: terminate or drastically curtail immigration; and Americanize those who are here. In response to these proposals that are couched in a rhetoric of culture, I set forth my own constantly evolving notions of cultural pluralism and what it means to be an American.” (1/2 and 2/2)

¶12 “Immigrant adaptation, and the creation of a common core, must be viewed as the dual responsibility of the immigrant and the mainstream.” (8/8)

¶13 “As I consider these issues, my experiences growing up in a multicultural community and working with immigrants seem relevant.” (1/4)

¶14 “Restrictionists and pro-immigrant advocates do agree on one critical point: we face a defining moment in the nation’s history. The course we choose will tell us much about ourselves.” (1/2 and 2/2)

Notice that sometimes I need to identify more than one sentence to get the point of a paragraph, and when there are two-sentence paragraphs, I really need both of them to be sure about the point.

It also helps to think about where in this book this part of the text appears. The introduction to a book, much like the introduction of an article, should give an overview of the text and lay out the central terms or concepts.

From reading these sentences, especially after reading the full introduction, I can see that the book is going to focus on the positions of “restrictionists” (defined by Hing as “those who would severely reduce immigrant visas” ¶3; a group which includes those who believe that anyone who immigrates here should assimilate with American culture) and cultural pluralists (“who promote diversity or multiculturalism” ¶10). According to this introduction, Hing’s book will be examining these positions in light of his own experiences and in relation to the idea that there are (or should be) a set of core values that define what it means to be American. Hing plans to argue the need for immigrants to be involved in defining that set of core values.

Activity: Topic Sentences in Your Article

Using the article that you’ve chosen from the example assignment, or another text you’re working on, first decide whether this approach will help. Remember that it really only works when you have long-ish paragraphs with topic sentences.

If your article has this kind of paragraph structure, copy out the topic sentences into a new document. Using these sentences as a guide, explain the main idea of that article.

If your article does not, locate another reading that you are working on, perhaps for another class, and try this approach. Again, using the sentences that you copy out, explain the main idea of the text.

Compare your notes and your sense of the main point with those of a classmate working on the same text, even if it’s not one of the texts here. Talk through any differences that will help you strengthen your understanding of the main point.

Eliminate the Examples

Some texts use a lot of examples. While examples help us understand the point, just like the voices of others in a text, they will never actually contain the main point of a text. If you find yourself getting caught up in the details or the stories in an article, you can temporarily get those out of the way.

Try printing out a hard copy or copying the article (or the difficult part of it) into a word processor. Then cross or black out everything that is an example. What you are left with will be the author’s explanations, and while what’s left won’t give you a coherent explanation, it should help you find the main point.

Example: Mitchell’s Examples Eliminated

Here’s what happens when I remove the examples from Mitchell’s “Segregated Coexistence” section:


With the examples out of the way, we can see more clearly the explanation of what segregated coexistence means and why Mitchell believes that it mattersA copy of the "Segregated Coexistence" section of the text with parts of sentences, three full paragraphs, and the photograph and caption blacked out.

Activity: Black Out

Working on a copy of one section from the article that you have chosen, eliminate the examples. Using a black pen or highlighter, cross out or cover over everything that is an example, whether it’s a complete paragraph, a sentence, or part of a sentence. Read what’s left, and write a brief description of the main point of that section.

Identify Who Is Talking

Most authors include viewpoints other than their own in their writing, and if you are going to understand an author’s point, you must know when the author is speaking in their own voice and when they are using the words and ideas of others. Most of the time this can be seen through citation or attribution, which is when credit is given to a source even when no citation is provided.

To determine when the author is speaking and when the author is using the voices of others, look for the following:

  • Quotation marks and the attributive tags that go with them: Jones says, “The sky is gray today.”
  • References to specific people or organizations in the same sentence or in the sentences immediately around the point, even without the quotation marks: United Airlines has made a point of saying that the sky is gray.
  • Vague references to groups of people, with or without sources provided: Some say that the gray has a yellow tint.
  • Citations or links to other sources for the information: The yellow tint to the gray can be caused by the sun (Jones and Smith, 2016).

You might find it helpful to identify in your annotations or notes how the author is using these voices, either as supporting or opposing voices.

Supporting Voices

Frequently, these viewpoints are supporting the author’s position or providing authority for their claims. In effect, the author is saying, “See? These other important and knowledgeable people agree with me!”

While these supporting viewpoints are helpful and even necessary, they are not the same as the author’s viewpoint, and so you won’t find the main point in these supporting voices.

Example: Supporting Voices in Mitchell

Mitchell uses a number of sources to support the ideas he is presenting. Here are a couple of examples:

  • He quotes the Othering and Belonging Institute report on the ways that most people living in metropolitan areas feel they are more segregated now than in 1990 and how the legacy of the redlining practices of the 1930s can be seen in present-day segregation. This supports his claim that we currently live in segregated coexistence.
  • He paraphrases Eric Yamamoto to explain what would be involved in the process of interracial justice that would lead to racial reconciliation. This supports his point that a change to living in community would be difficult.

Notice that in both of these, Mitchell himself still has to make his own points. In other words, the Othering and Belonging Institute isn’t making a specific claim about segregated coexistence—that’s Mitchell’s claim. And Yamamoto is not explaining living in community. Again, that’s Mitchell’s point. The sources just provide support for the point that Mitchell wants to make.

Opposing Voices

Sometimes it can seem like an author is contradicting themselves. While sometimes this is true, usually, the author is presenting someone else’s viewpoint as part of their argument. This is called a counterargument.

In a counterargument, an author will present an opposing idea in order to respond, usually in a way that explains why the author’s idea is better. For example, an author who wants to argue against the use of facial recognition technology might explain what others see as the benefits before making the case that this technology is too racially biased. You want to make sure that you understand when you are reading the author’s point and when you are reading the point of a source.

Example: Opposing Voices in Mitchell

Mitchell does not directly cite or attribute any opposing arguments. There are no quotations or paraphrases from people who oppose his position. However, the opposing positions are still there. Here are a couple of examples:

  • “We tend to think of diversity in demographic terms….” That “we tend” is vague, and it becomes more clearly a point Mitchell opposes when in that same sentence he writes “but that’s an incomplete take.” By offering a contrasting position immediately, we know that Mitchell doesn’t think that it’s enough to use demography to determine diversity.
  • At the beginning of the “Segregated Coexistence” section, he writes, “Segregated coexistence is a standard of diversity that relies on a surface-level demography that you could call ‘diverse’ because different races all live in one geographic region….” We know that this isn’t his position, even though there isn’t a citation or attribution because he says, “that you could call ‘diverse.’” This phrasing, plus the use of the scare quotes around “diverse,” tell us that he doesn’t buy that position, even though some people do.

There could be several reasons why Mitchell chooses not to identify specific sources for opposing positions in his article. He might, for example, prefer to focus on the alternative he proposes instead of getting caught up in the specific arguments around segregation. Or he might want to imply that these beliefs are vague, something we all seem to “know” without really knowing where the ideas come from. There could be other reasons, too.

Finding the Main Point in the Author’s Voice

Authors bring in other voices to support their ideas or to explain where their ideas are preferable. These supporting voices serve as evidence in their writing, but just like examples, the evidence cannot speak on behalf of the author. The author must do their own speaking, particularly on their main points.

Keep this in mind as you read and make note of who is speaking at any given point in a text. The voices of others are not the author’s voice—and thus will not contain the author’s main point. These voices will be support and evidence, and they can help you identify the main point, but they cannot be the main point.

Activity: Find the Voices
In the article that you have chosen, use the techniques in this section to identify places where the author is bringing in other voices. For each of these other voices, decide whether they are supporting the author’s point or opposing it.

Key Points: Finding the Main Point

  • The main point in a text is the key idea that the author is trying to convey.
  • There are a number of techniques for finding the main point:
    • Break the reading into sections, and identify the main point of each section. Put those together to figure out the main point of the entire piece.
    • Look at the ending and beginning of the text, especially the ending.
    • Examine the topic sentences of each paragraph, particularly when the paragraphs are long.
    • Eliminate the examples.
  • Be sure that you locate the main point in a section where the author is making their own point—not where the author is using a source or making a vague point about what some people know or believe.

Text Attribution

This section of this chapter headed “Follow the Topic Sentences” contains material taken from the chapter “Paragraph Analysis” from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear and is used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book