Finding Main Idea

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? There are a few simple strategies anyone can use to find the main idea of most topics.

What Is the Main Idea?

In a world where you can (mostly) write whatever you want and publish it, it’s important to note that all writing has a purpose. 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. For the purposes of reading comprehension, it’s important to be able to identify the main idea.

Main Idea vs. Theme

The main idea and theme are two terms that are often interchanged, but there is definitely a difference between the two. The theme takes on a slightly more emotional tone. The theme is the underlying message that the writer would like to get across. Typically, the theme is some sort of statement about life or how the world works.

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.

Main Idea vs. Topic and Thesis Sentences

There’s one other concept that often gets confused with the main idea. Topic sentences are similar 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.

How to Find the Main Idea

What if a main idea isn’t clearly stated? How can you figure out what the main idea of the text is? Try out one or more of these simple main idea strategies to see if you can figure it out.

Look for the Thesis Statement in Essays

If you were writing an essay for school, the main idea would clearly be written in your thesis statement. There’s no guessing the writer’s intention with a thesis statement. It’s clearly outlined and subsequent paragraphs reinforce your thesis. The thesis statement is often found at the end of the introductory paragraph.

Look for the Lead in Newspaper Articles

If you were writing a news article, the main idea would be expressed in your lead. The lead is the opening sentence or two of an article, meant to lure readers in and entice them to want to know more. Of course, news articles should be fact-driven, but that doesn’t preclude them from a central idea.

Reread the First and Last Sentence

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.

Look for Repeated Ideas

In any type of text, you can look for a repetition of ideas. Is there some central concept the author keeps going back to? You can even use a highlighter to mark repeated ideas so you can measure their frequency later.