Finding the main idea in a piece of writing is a basic reading skill. No matter what type of expository text you read, the primary comprehension goal is to identify the main idea: the most important point that the writer wants to communicate. Main ideas are often stated toward the start of a text, usually in an introductory paragraph. They are often repeated in fuller form toward the end of a text, usually in a concluding paragraph. Main ideas may be reinforced through headings, subheadings, and other forms of emphasis. However, main ideas may also be implied and not stated directly in the text. Sometimes you need to infer the main idea based on the details, facts, and explanations in the text.
Some texts make the task of identifying the main idea relatively easy. Articles in scholarly journals often include an abstract, which is a condensed version of the information in the article, a version which focuses on main ideas. Textbooks, articles in general interest magazines, and online articles in blogs or on websites may include headings and subheadings which make it easier to identify core concepts. All types of texts may include graphic features such as sidebars, diagrams, and charts, which help readers understand complex information and distinguish between essential and inessential points. When reading a text with these features, use them to help identify the main idea.
For texts without graphic features, headings, or abstracts, and/or for texts with implied main ideas, use the following process to identify the main idea:
- Read the text.
- Ask yourself: What is the text about? – What is the topic?
- Ask yourself: What is the author saying about the topic?
- Identify repeated concepts and language; writers often use repetition to emphasize a main idea.
- Summarize the article after you read–put what you think the main idea is into your own words. See if you can find any statements in the article that are similar to your summary. If so, it’s likely that you’ve found the main idea. If the main idea in the text is not stated but implied, then ask if your summary encapsulates the one thing you think the writer wants you to understand about the topic.
For a discussion of finding the main idea which includes examples, link to Finding the Main Idea from Monterey Peninsula College’s Writing Center.
The following two videos also provide very clear, useful discussions of finding the main idea in a text.
Read the article, “Wikipedia Is Good for You!?” Then choose the statement that you think best offers the main idea. In the answer, you’ll also find one reader’s discussion of her thought process finding the main idea.
- Wikipedia is a good source in certain cases.
- Wikipedia, although itself not always a valid source, is useful as a starting place for ideas, search terms, and other sources.
- Wikipedia, although itself not always a valid source, is useful both as a starting place and as a process guide to producing a text.
The third choice best offers the article’s main idea. I knew that the main idea would have something to do with the topic “Wikipedia,” because of the title. But because the title included a question mark, I didn’t know if the main idea would end up being for or against Wikipedia. Immediately after I skimmed, I thought that the main idea was stated directly in paragraph 12: “There are productive ways to use Wikipedia. In fact, Wikipedia can be a good source in three different ways. Rather than a source to cite, it can be a source of (1) ideas, (2) links to other texts, and (3) search terms.” But when I read more fully, I realized that there were other things the author wanted me to understand, concepts more complex and nuanced than a direct “yes” or “no” answer to the title. I found key ideas relating to the benefits of Wikipedia in paragraphs 2 and 4 in addition to 12. Paragraphs 2 and 4 discussed Wikipedia in terms of writing processes: the need to go back and revise, the co-production of an article’s text based on input from many sources (a “conversation”), and the concept of writing for a real audience. There are also a number of paragraphs that talk about the detriments of Wikipedia if used as a source. Since there’s no single main idea sentence, I summarized the main concepts into a sentence that condensed and synthesized the article’s ideas into one main idea statement.