Main Idea

Authors write because they want to communicate an idea or message to their readers. Whether they produce an editorial in a newspaper, a blog post, or an email, there is an overall message they want to express to their reader. The idea that the authors want to communicate is called the main idea. Keep reading to learn more about main ideas, their characteristics, and more. 

Main Idea Main Idea

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Table of contents

    Main Idea Definition

    The main idea is a central idea the author wants to communicate to readers. You can identify a text's main idea by answering this question: "What does the author want me to know about the topic?"

    A topic is a broad subject discussed in a speech or written about in a text.

    The main idea refers to multiple parts of a piece of writing, most commonly nonfiction. It can describe the big idea an author wants to express in an entire essay, or it can describe the idea of something smaller, like a paragraph.

    You can also find main ideas in fiction. Here, a main idea is an overview of the main characters' actions within the text.

    Main Idea and Supporting Details

    Main ideas are the big ideas found within an essay. You back your main ideas with supporting details.

    Supporting details are reasons, evidence, and facts that explain and support your main ideas.

    You can include main ideas and supporting details in an essay. For example, say you are writing an essay analyzing how the Allies won World War II. One of the main ideas for your essay could be how key military victories ensured the Allies won the war. You could use evidence from the effects of the Allies' victories in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge for your supporting details. Describing the impact of these battles on the war support your main idea that the Allies won because of vital military victories.

    Main idea, A World War 2 military police helmet, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Supporting details can flesh out the consequences of the main ideas

    Characteristics of Main Ideas

    Some of the characteristics of the main ideas in an essay often include:

    • Direct statements that let the reader know the point of the topic right away
    • Usually lies at the beginning of the essay (but can also be later in the body paragraph)
    • Usually formatted as one complete sentence

    Authors often state their main ideas in their writing early to avoid confusing their readers. Writers often convey their main ideas in a single sentence. In an essay, the paper's main idea is the thesis statement.

    A thesis statement starts an essay and states the essay's main idea.

    The thesis statement is typically placed at the end of the introductory paragraph.

    Writers may also write out the main idea for a shorter section of their writing, such as a paragraph. The main idea for a paragraph is called the topic sentence.

    A topic sentence starts a paragraph and states the paragraph's main idea.

    A topic sentence connects the essay's main idea (the thesis statement) to the main idea of the paragraph in question (the body paragraph).

    Examples of Main Ideas

    There are several examples of where the main idea would lie in an essay.

    The location and importance of thesis statements and topic sentences are consistent from subject to subject. In a history paper about the causes of World War I, you would find the example thesis statement at the end of the introductory paragraph. In this example, the author clearly says the main idea of their paper, which traces the main causes of World War I.

    The main causes of World War I include the conflicts arising from the rise of European nationalism, the clash between various European alliances, and the increased militarism within major European powers.

    For example, the main idea for a body paragraph for the thesis presented above would be about the rise of European nationalism. The topic sentence(s) would elaborate on this idea by introducing the supporting details used to support the main idea of this paragraph:

    The rise of European nationalism, especially in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, led to the outbreak of World War I. Politicians advocating for their country's supremacy and underestimating the strength of their geopolitical rivals was a dangerous combination.

    Difference Between Main Idea and Topic

    Young writers can easily confuse the terms main idea and topic. Remember, the topic is the broader subject you explore in an essay. The main idea is a central idea based on this broader topic. In other words, the main idea is your specific analysis or opinion on the topic.

    The topic of an essay could be the ethics of using stem cells in research.

    The main idea for this topic would be narrower.

    The main idea for this essay could be that stem cell research is ethical since it can lead to medical breakthroughs in treating illnesses.

    Main idea, A doctor with medical equipment, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many main ideas exist for a single topic.

    Difference Between Main Idea and Theme

    A trickier distinction is the difference between a piece's main idea and theme.

    A theme is a universal lesson or moral of a text.

    You primarily discuss themes when analyzing fiction. So, here are definitions for "theme" and "main idea" in terms of fiction.

    The main idea in fiction refers to the "point" of a story.

    A theme in fiction refers to its humanistic undertones, such as a philosophy or a human condition.

    Note how these are not mutually exclusive. For instance, a story's main idea (the point of it) can be its theme if the work is short and moralistic.

    Take the main idea and theme of Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare" (4th century BCE). In the fable, a turtle challenges a boastful rabbit to a race. The rabbit speeds ahead and pridefully waits for the turtle near the finish line. He takes a nap and thinks he will wake up in time to beat the turtle. However, the sleeping rabbit does not see the turtle cross the finish line and loses the race.

    Did you know? There are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop.

    The theme would be that pride can prevent one's success. The main idea is the same because it's the story's whole point as well.

    Main Idea, Picture of Rabbit in a Field, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A story's themes and main idea can be the same.

    That said, a story's main idea and themes might not collide so perfectly. Take The Lord of the Rings (1954). If you were to capture the epic fantasy's main idea in a single sentence, you might say something like this:

    The Lord of the Rings is an adventurous battle of good versus evil, involving a young, kind hobbit's quest to destroy the evil villain's magic ring.

    The Lord of the Rings is primarily a fantasy-adventure series, so its main idea regards the characters' actions and the thrust of the main story, as indicated here.

    In many fiction novels, the main idea is the same as the main story. In other words, the main idea lies in the story's action.

    On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings' s themes are less surface-level than the main idea:

    A theme in Lord of the Rings is death in the face of violent warfare and how people brave it and come to expect it.

    This theme is not plot or action-oriented. It is oriented in the human heart. This is the case with all themes in stories.

    A story usually has many themes, whereas you would argue that it only has one main idea.

    Analyzing Main Ideas

    On a timed test, you will no doubt analyze a main idea or two, whether in articles, essays, or fiction. First, you need to scope out the main idea's location. Second, you need to identify it and explain it, which might be harder to do than you think!

    Location of Main Ideas

    Where could they be hiding? In introductions, body paragraphs, and fiction, main ideas are in various locations.

    Location of the Main Idea in the Introductory Paragraph

    As you recall, the main idea of an introduction is its thesis statement. A thesis statement is after the hook of an essay.

    A hook invites the reader into an essay using statistics, anecdotes, quotes, or other entertaining but informative descriptions.

    The thesis statement often appears at the end of the introductory paragraph.

    Location of the Main Idea in the Body Paragraph

    Usually, you will find a topic sentence at the start of an essay's body paragraph. It might look like this:

    Regarding the district's need to cut costs while maintaining a high level of academic success, teacher salaries should not be cut.

    This topic sentence is an argument, and evidence would follow it.

    Location of the Main Idea in Fiction

    An author is rarely going to enumerate their story's main idea. A story's main idea and themes will often be for the author to know and the reader to find out!

    However, if you are lucky enough to find a summary for a story on the jacket, this is a good place to start for finding the story's main idea. Otherwise, it will be up to you to find the main idea: by reading the story in its entirety and describing it in your own words.

    This is why it's important to know how to search for inexplicit main ideas.

    Implied or Unclear Main Ideas

    As discussed, the main idea in fiction will be implied and not explicit. This is normal.

    However, sometimes you will read an essay or article where the main idea, whether in the introduction or a body paragraph, is not obvious. You can call this an implied main idea. However, the main idea might also simply be unclear.

    Say, on a timed test, you are asked to analyze the "main idea of this essay's opening paragraph." Imagine that paragraph reads like this.

    People just don't live the way they used to live. When you wake up every morning, you think, "I've got all this stuff I need to do today that affects people halfway across the world." You've got a job that connects you to a cold corporate headquarters you've been to once. Technology has progressed so rapidly that your head is spinning with all things you could, can't, or maybe could have done. There is no simplicity today. We live in a cyber web of our design, and there seems to be no way out. It wasn't always this way.

    So what's the main idea here? Unfortunately, that's your job to put into words, since the writer didn't!

    Here's what to do. Narrow the point of what you just read down to a single sentence, focusing on any overarching argument or call for change. Here's how that might look.

    Modern society has sped people up unnaturally, beyond the healthy speed we operated at in the past.

    There you go. Main idea: done!

    It takes a bit of active reading and some close reading to do this, but it's the only way you can suss out the main idea if the piece of writing doesn't do it for you.

    In the case of fiction, narrow the point of what you just read down to a single sentence, focusing on the story's action, the growth of the main character, and any themes you identified.

    Main Idea - Key Takeaways

    • Main ideas are the central idea the author wants the reader to take away about a topic. A topic is a broad subject discussed in a text or speech.
    • The topic of the text is the broad subject discussed. The main idea is the central idea of the text.
    • In fiction, the main idea addresses and summarizes the text's main action and characters. A theme is the text's universal lesson.
    • Writers often state their main ideas in thesis statements and topic sentences. The thesis statement contains the main ideas of an entire paper, while topic sentences state the main ideas of a body paragraph.
    • Writers may imply their main ideas, in which case it's your job to synthesize the main idea.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Main Idea

    What is the meaning of main Idea?

    The main idea is a central idea the author wants to communicate to readers. You can identify a text's main idea by answering this question: "What does the author want me to know about the topic?"

    What is an example of a main Idea?

    Your main idea is the central idea of a text or a portion of it. Let's say you are writing an essay analyzing the causes of the Civil War. The main idea of this essay would be this thesis statement: "The main causes of the Civil War include the effects of the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the failure of congressional compromises on the question of slavery in newly admitted states, and the rise of anti-slavery political parties."

    What are the characteristics of a main idea?

    The characteristics of the main idea are that it can be directly stated or implied. If directly stated, it can refer to a thesis statement, which is the main idea of an entire essay, or topic sentences of paragraphs. If implied, you will need to infer the main idea based on supporting details. 

    How do I identify a main idea in a text?

    You can identify a main idea in a text when, if directly stated, you find it in the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. If the main idea is implied or unclear, read the entire passage and narrow the point of what you just read down to a single sentence, focusing on any overarching argument or call for change.

    How do I begin to develop my main idea when writing?

    When writing, you can begin with the main idea by knowing your thesis. Your thesis statement will contain the main ideas of your entire essay. You can also begin paragraphs with the topic sentence, which identifies the main idea of your paragraph. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Select whether the following statement refers to the main idea or topic of an essay: The ethics of human cloning.

    Select whether the following statement refers to the main idea or topic of an essay: "Human cloning is not ethical because it would lessen genetic diversity."

    Where is the thesis statement located in the essay? 

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    Team Main Idea Teachers

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