Some of the prewriting activities in "Generating and Developing Ideas" will also help you decide which ideas are most important. Looping is an obvious example of an activity that can do both, because it requires you to keep finding the "center" of your topic - the most important or interesting thing about it. Clustering can also help you find your main idea. If you find a particular word or phrase that most of your other ideas "branch out" from or connect to, you might try to incorporate that phrase into the main point or thesis of your essay.
Here are some other techniques you can use to find and clearly express your main idea, once you have a first draft:
Analyzing the Assignment: Often assignment sheets contain key words that offer clues about what your instructor is looking for. This is always a good place to start in deciding what you should focus on in a final draft. Re-read the assignment sheet or your notes about the assignment, looking for words like "compare/contrast," "discuss," "analyze," "define," "synthesize," etc. These words tell you what kind of assignment the teacher is looking for. Then, look for other key terms relating to subject matter. For example, if the assignment asks you to "Contrast Freud's and Erikson's stage theories of personality," your main idea needs to include Freud, Erikson, and "stage theories of personality."
Backwards Outline: Once you've determined that you're meeting the requirements of the assignment, you'll want to get even more specific about what your essay says exactly. One way to do this is to create a "backwards outline." (It's "backwards" because it is written after rather than before the draft itself.) To do this, simply read your essay paragraph by paragraph. After each paragraph, determine the main idea of that section, and write the main idea in the margin of your draft. If you find more than one significant idea in a paragraph, write them both down. When you're finished, read over your marginal notes (or "outline") and look for connections - is there one central idea that each paragraph supports? If so, that's your main idea. If not, you'll probably want to look for an idea that most of the paragraphs support and consider dropping or rewriting paragraphs that don't support your focus.
Once you've found your focus, read the following pages on writing topic sentences and thesis statements for help with clearly expressing your essay's main idea.