Whether you're reading a single paragraph or a longer passage from a text, it's important to know how to find the main idea. Simply put, the main idea is what the passage is about. It answers a specific question: who or what is being discussed?
Another important point is that the main idea is usually introduced early on and thread throughout the remaining prose. Let's begin with a discussion of what, specifically, the main idea is. Then, we'll cut right to the chase and see how to pinpoint it.
In a world where we can (mostly) write whatever we want and publish it wherever we want, one factor remains. You must have a purpose to your writing. This is where the main idea comes in. What central idea are you trying to convey? It depends partly on the type of writing you are doing. Novels, essays, short stories, poems, and news articles all have a main idea.
But, how do you come to that sort of conclusion?
What if a main idea isn't clearly stated, as in the example of an academic essay? No matter the medium or format - academic essay, news article, poem, or novel - look for a repetition of ideas. Is there some central concept the author keeps harkening back to?
Again, in an academic essay, it should never be difficult to identify the main idea, especially if the essay is reasonably well-written. It will be clearly stated in the thesis statement. But, if you can't quite pinpoint the thesis statement, ask yourself this:
"Who or what is being discussed?"
Are you able to answer that question? If so, you'll be able to summarize the text in your own words, thus arriving at the main idea. See if you can summarize who or what is being discussed into a single sentence of your own.
In matters of reading comprehension, it's important to be able to identify the main idea. Here are a few more tips to help you sniff out the main idea.
Reread the first and last sentence of the piece of writing. Especially if you're reading an essay or a shorter piece of fiction, it's safe to say the author will indicate the main idea in either the first few lines of text or the last few lines. As part of a conclusion, many writers will reiterate what, exactly, their focus was and what they hope you got out of their text.
Revisit specific facts, statistics, or narratives relayed. Usually, if a writer is citing a specific story or statistic, it's meant to bolster their overarching point - or main idea. If the first or last few lines aren't giving you any indication, revisit little snippets or stories shared throughout the text, as well as any facts or statistics.
Restate the central idea in one, concise line. Can you answer the question, "Who or what is this about?" in one, concise line? If so, you've probably hit the nail on the head. If, however, you can't get right to the heart of the matter, you may want to double check what you've pinpointed as the main idea. Review the first and last sentence again. Revisit cited facts, statistics, or narratives again.
Here's a sample introductory paragraph from a persuasive piece of writing:
Did you know the American population, ages 15 and older, averages three hours per day of television time? That's three hours watching people act silly in a sitcom or three hours watching the fictional fates of teenage characters unfold on the screen. But, have you ever considered what can be accomplished when the TV is switched off and real-life is switched on? In this essay, we'll explore a wealth of meaningful, productive activities that can be achieved in a world that doesn't lose over 20 hours per week staring at a screen.
Here comes the all-important question. Who or what is being discussed? The many things that can be accomplished when the TV is switched off. Again, academic essays are going to be fairly straightforward with regard to the main idea. But, when in doubt, don't forget the tips above.
The main idea and theme are two terms that are often interchanged, but there is definitely a difference between the two. You can sort them out by extracting cold, hard facts from one and emotion from the other.
Here's an example of a theme:
"Bravery will take you farther in life than complacency or cowardice."
Contrast with this example of the main idea:
"Brian enlists in the U.S. Army to put his fortitude to the test and serve his great nation."
In the examples above, the theme highlights personal attributes and attempts to provide a teachable moment. The main idea, however, is simply a statement of who or what is going to be discussed.
There's one other concept that often gets intertwined with the main idea. So far, we've covered main ideas, thesis statements, and theme. But, what about topic sentences? These sentences are akin to thesis statements. A thesis statement will indicate what an entire essay is about. A topic sentence, however, is an indicator of what a specific paragraph is about.
The next time you visit your local library or bookstore, scan a couple of the book flaps. Read the synopsis of the story. How well is the main idea indicated? Who or what is about to unfold within the pages?
And, if it's your book flap you hope to peel back some day, enjoy these tips on how to write a bestseller. We certainly hope to see your colorful prose out on the shelves some day!