Paragraphs are the building blocks of essays. A paragraph is a series of sentences grouped together for a specific reason. It includes a topic sentence, supporting sentences and sometimes a concluding sentence.
“Paragraphs civilize writing. Without them an essay would be like a wilderness in which it is easy to get lost.” (PEH, 60)
Because paragraphs are meant to keep the reader on the right track, a good paragraph makes a clear point, supports the main idea, and keeps to one topic.
Some paragraphs act as signposts by performing functions for an entire essay: introducing, providing transitions, concluding.
Some paragraphs have more to do with function than with content. They serve to take the reader from one point to another, making a connection and offering a smooth transition from one idea to the next. These transitional paragraphs are often short.
An important element of a good paragraph is unity. Unity means that a paragraph discusses one and only one main idea from beginning to end. Every supporting sentence in a paragraph must directly explain, develop or prove the main idea of the paragraph, which is expressed in the topic sentence.
Just as a thesis statement helps readers keep your main idea in mind, a topic sentence in a body paragraph lets readers know what the main idea of the paragraph is.
The topic sentence states the main idea of the paragraph in two ways: it names the topic and it limits the topic to one specific area that can be discussed in the space of a single paragraph, the controlling idea.
This novel, which was published in 1971, has been interpreted in two ways.
__topic___ __controlling idea_
The topic sentence is often, but not always, the first sentence in a paragraph. When placed first, a topic sentence makes a generalization and serves as a reference point for the rest of the information in the paragraph (deductive organization). When placed after a couple of other sentences, the topic sentence focuses the details and directs the reader’s attention to the main idea. When placed at the end of the paragraph, the topic sentence serves to summarize or draw conclusions from the details that precede it (inductive organization).
A good paragraph provides enough information, through its supporting sentences, to demonstrate the idea of its topic sentence.
“Underdeveloped paragraphs are like undernourished people: they are weak, unable to carry out their assigned tasks.” (PEH 67)
At the same time, a good paragraph does not provide information beyond the scope of its main idea. To move on to a related subject, or expand the subject somehow, start a new paragraph.
When to begin a new paragraph:
To introduce a new point (which supports the main idea)
To expand on a point already made by offering new examples or evidence
To break up a long discussion or description into manageable chunks
Concluding sentences serve two purposes: to signal the end of the paragraph, and to leave the reader with the most important ideas to remember, either by summarizing the main points or by repeating the topic sentence in different words. Never introduce a completely new idea in the concluding sentence!
Another important aspect of a good paragraph is coherence.
Readers expect to be able to move with ease from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next, following a clear flow of logical argument. Readers look for transitions – word bridges – to move them from paragraph to paragraph. A new paragraph signals a shift in topic, but that topic should not be entirely separate from what has gone before, and readers will look for transitional words and phrases that tell them how the new paragraph relates to the paragraph that precedes it.
“Writings without transitions are like a strange land with no road signs.” (PEH 78)
Your job is to provide your readers with road signs!
Refer to the main idea of the previous paragraph as you begin a new one.
Repeat key nouns instead of using a pronoun whenever the meaning would not be clear otherwise.
Use consistent pronouns, the same person and number throughout your paragraph.
Use words like this and these to provide a link.
Use transitions such as also, too, in addition, however etc to signal the logical connection between ideas.
Arrange your ideas in logical order, an order that will appear logical to a reader accustomed to the English way of writing. Examples of logical order in English: chronological (time), logical division of ideas (topic divided into parts), comparison/contrast (similarities & differences)
Provide coherence by using repeated words or connected words, such as pronouns linked to nouns; words with the same, similar, or opposite meanings; or words linked by context.
Transitional words and expressions
Make clear connections between sentences and between paragraphs either by using explicit connecting words like this, that, these, and those to refer to something mentioned at the end of the previous sentence or paragraph or by using transitional expressions:
Adding an idea: in addition, further, furthermore, moreover
Contrasting: however, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the other hand, in contrast, still, on the contrary, rather, conversely
Providing an alternative: instead, alternatively, otherwise
Showing similarity: similarly, likewise
Showing order of time/ideas: first, second, third, then, next, later, subsequently, meanwhile, previously, finally
Showing result: as a result, consequently, therefore, thus, hence, accordingly, for this reason
Affirming: of course, in fact, certainly, obviously, to be sure, undoubtedly, indeed
Giving examples: for example, for instance
Explaining: in other words, that is
Adding an aside: incidentally, by the way, besides
Summarizing: in short, generally, overall, all in all, in conclusion
USE BUT DO NOT OVERUSE!
Too many of these transitional expressions, used too often, will make your writing heavy and mechanical.
In coherent pieces of writing, information that has been mentioned before is linked to new information in a smooth flow. On the sentence level, use consistent subjects and topic chains for coherence.
Detective stories are becoming more and more popular. Readers of all ages find them appealing.
Detective stories are becoming more and more popular. They appeal to readers of all ages. (=Topic chain)
Put new information at the end of a sentence for emphasis.
If your form a topic chain of old information, new information will automatically come at the end of a sentence. Make your sentences end on a strong and interesting note, one that you want to emphasize. Don’t let a sentence trail off weakly.
Children need more free play at school, according to this study. (weak)
According to this study, children need more free play at school. (revised)
Coordination, subordination, and transitions
When you write sentences containing two or more clauses, consider where you want to place the emphasis.
Coordination: You give two or more clauses equal emphasis when you connect them with a coordinating conjunction: and, but, or, nor, so, for, yet. Punctuation: When coordinators connect two independent clauses, use a comma. When they connect two words or phrases, do not use a comma.
Subordination: When you use subordinating conjunctions such as when, if, or because to connect clauses, you give one idea more importance by putting it in the independent clause. Punctuation: Put a comma after a dependent clause but not in front of one.
Although she left early, she did not get there in time.
She did not get there in time although she left early.
Transitional expressions: Use words such as however, therefore, and nevertheless (conjunctive adverbs) and phrases such as in addition, on the other hand, and as a result to signal the logical connection between independent clauses.
Avoid excessive coordination or subordination!
Too much of any one stylistic feature is not a good thing.
For instance, strings of independent clauses connected by coordinating conjunctions may be repetitive and monotonous. Excessive coordination does not show precise relationships between thoughts. Subordinate for emphasis and for effective, varied sentence construction. Express main ideas in independent clauses and less important ideas in dependent clauses.
Although the crime rate is high, society has progressed in some ways. (optimist)
Although society has progressed in some ways, the crime rate is high. (pessimist)
At the same time, avoid excessive overlapping of dependent clauses – piling one dependent clause on top of another will make sentences very long and might get in the way of meaning.
Structure and organization of academic essays
Give examples. Beginning with a generalization and supporting it with specific illustrative details is a common method of organizing a paragraph, known as deductive organization.
Tell a story. Choose a pattern of organization that readers will be able to grasp easily. Organize the events in a story chronologically so that readers can follow the sequence. You may use inductive organization, beginning with background information and the specific details of a story in chronological order and ending with a generalization.
Analyze component parts. Large complex topics can become more manageable to writers and readers when they are broken down for analysis.
Classify into groups. Dividing people or objects into the classes or groups that make up the whole gives readers a new way to look at the topic.
Compare and contrast. When you examine similarities and differences among people, objects, or concepts, different types of development achieve different purposes. A) You can deal with each subject at a time in a block style of organization, perhaps summarizing the similarities and differences at the end. This organization works well when each section is short and readers can easily remember the points made about each subject. B) You can organize the important points of similarity or difference in a point-by-point style of organization, referring within each point to both subjects that you are comparing/contrasting.
Structure 1: General to specific
The general-to-specific structure, used frequently in the humanities and arts, moves from the thesis to support and evidence. Basic structure:
Introduction: Provide background information on the issue, why it is an issue, and what the controversies are. Announce your position in a claim or thesis statement.
Body/Argument: Provide evidence in the form of supporting points for your thesis. For each new point, start a new paragraph.
Acknowledgement of opposing views: Use evidence and detail to describe and logically refute the opposing views. You could also deal with opposing views one by one as you deal with your own points of support.
Conclusion: Return to the topic as a whole and your specific claim. Without repeating phrases and sentences, reiterate the point you want to make. End on a strong note.
Structure 2: Specific to general
Alternatively, you might choose to begin with data and points of evidence first and then draw a conclusion. A specific-to-general argument, often used in the sciences and social sciences, can look like this:
Introduction: Statement of problem/issue and controversy, sometimes presentation of hypothesis that will then be tested in the body of the essay
A number of paragraphs giving examples of the issue, including statistics and facts.
3. Conclusion: Discussion of data and presentation of thesis = generalization formed from analysis of the data.
In your introduction, establish a context for the forthcoming discussion, capture the reader’s interest, and lead into your thesis. When you write an essay in the humanities:
Do not assume that your reader knows your assigned question. Do not restate it, but make sure your essay can stand on its own.
Provide context and background information.
Define key terms that are pertinent to the discussion.
Establish the tone of the paper: informative, persuasive, serious, humorous, personal, impersonal, formal, informal etc.
Engage readers’ interest: Provide a hook (attention grabber) that will make readers want to continue reading. Examples of “hooks”: surprising statistics, a challenging question, a good quotation, an unusual fact, a relevant anecdote, interesting background details, an intriguing opinion statement.
Avoid being overly general and stating the obvious, and avoid making exaggerated claims (“This essay will change the way we look at…”).
Think of your conclusion as completing a circle. Remind the reader of the purpose of your essay, recall the main idea, and make a strong statement about it that will stay in the reader’s mind.
Include a summary of the points you have made, but keep it short and use fresh wording – do not repeat the wording you used in the introduction.
Frame your essay by reminding the reader of something you referred to in the introduction as well as your thesis.
End on a strong note: a quotation, a question, a suggestion, an insightful comment, a call to action, a look to the future etc.
Do not apologize for your argument or your opinions.