As writers, we can easily get lost in the details of our topic. How do we stay focused and concise when writing papers?

When writing articles, writers must learn to quickly get their points across without losing readers in the details and data presented. Keeping an article focused on the topic and main ideas is critical in helping readers understand and remember what an article is about. After all, it’s fruitless to write an article if readers forget why they’re reading. 


In the article “Main Idea Identification: Instructional Explanations in Four Basal Reader Series,” Victoria Chou Hare and Beverly Milligan describe a study they conducted on how students learn about the main idea of a piece of writing. The purpose of the study was to systematically characterize and evaluate instructional explanations of main idea identification in four basal reader series, to speculate about why these explanations were used, and to make suggestions for improving main idea instruction. 

“If supporting details cannot be found for an idea, that idea is probably not the main idea.”

—Hare and Milligan (1984)

Then the researchers examined four manuals containing reading instruction: Pathfinder, Basics of Reading, The Holt Basic Reading System, and Scott, Foresman Reading. The goal was to determine how the manuals taught students about the main idea, including what it is, how to identify it, and why to identify it. From the results, the researchers determined that the manuals’ instructions were more similar than different and that none offered very detailed explanations. The manuals focused more on instructing students how to identify main ideas than on giving in-depth explanations of it. For example, the manuals gave relatively straightforward examples of how to identify main ideas but seemed to lack instruction on properly determining the importance of the details in a text. Therefore, students may learn several facts about the main idea, but comments intended to guide students in their selection of a particular main idea are unclear, since not all students have the same notion of ‘importance’ as adults do. The basic methods of the manuals can especially be a problem in less straightforward texts. The higher the level of schooling, the more complex writing is, making it even more essential for students to be able to identify main ideas. 


A common challenge for writers is knowing which details to leave out and which to include in order to get the main idea across. While students are taught how to determine the importance of details when they’re introduced to a topic, they can struggle if they don’t understand how experts define the main idea. If the main idea isn’t defined properly, the students may not understand the point of the document, and the purpose of it isn’t achieved. This can also be the case if the document isn’t written clearly enough for readers to pick up the main idea. An editor’s job is to help the writer remain focused on the main idea. Many writers have the habit of straying away from the main idea, and doing so can cause the reader to be confused. Editors must be aware of these trends so that they can be prepared to assist writers in staying on the topic and knowing which details to keep and which to remove. 

To learn more about strategies that writers can use to help readers identify main ideas in a document, read the full article:

Hare, Victoria C., and Milligan Beverly. 1984. “Main Idea Identification: Instructional Explanations in Four Basal Reader Series.” Journal of Reading Behavior 16: 189–202.

—Bronte Rath, Editing Research


Find more research

See Erin Nightingale’s Editing Research article “The Key to Understanding Authors” for tips on how to understand authors and how they write.

Read the Editing Research article “Editing and Research: Beware of Burning Out,” by Tori Hamilton, to learn how to balance the roles of editing and research.