Writing paragraphs, explaining ideas, structuring points.
A paragraph is a group of sentences (and sometimes a single sentence) that explains an idea. In academic writing, a paragraph is sometimes defined as a unit of meaning. A paragraph is not made up of a specific number of sentences, as you may have been told. The number of sentences isn’t important; what matters is the unity of the information. Regardless of the length of a paragraph, the reader should be able to identify a central idea in each paragraph they are reading. Here’s a basic rule: include only one main idea per paragraph. When you begin to drift into a new idea, it is time for a new paragraph.
The information that goes into your paragraphs should always have a relationship to the topic sentence or the controlling idea of the paragraph. This means that your reader should be reminded of the relationship between the sentences and the topic of the paragraph from beginning to end. When you have decided what the topic sentence of the paragraph is going to be, then it is important to formulate the sentences to convey your ideas in an organized manner throughout your paragraph. This will guide the reader easily through the paragraph and help them easily understand your information.
Important Elements in a Paragraph
A well written academic paragraph contains a topic sentence and has the following characteristics: unity, coherence, and adequate development.
A topic sentence is a sentence that explains the main idea of the paragraph. It is often advantageous to place the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph to ensure that the reader easily grasps this main idea. This does not mean that a topic sentence cannot appear elsewhere in the paragraph. However, it is often easier for the reader to identify the topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph.
Focus, also called “unity,” means that any given paragraph centers on a single idea. Every sentence should have a clear and logical connection to the topic sentence. The connection may not always be direct; however, you should be able to trace the relationship back through sentences that have a direct link to the topic sentence. Do not wander into other ideas within a paragraph. Always begin and end your paragraphs on the same topic.
Coherence, also called “flow,” means that each sentence is logically connected to the ones before it and after it. Using an organizational pattern, such as description or cause/effect, can help.
Many organizational patterns can be used to build your paragraphs.
Not all paragraphs will necessarily follow one of these patterns, but many will.
Coherence can also be enhanced by using pronouns to refer to concepts, things, or people in previous sentences, and transition words can link sentences together to make the paragraph flow.
Transitions come in the form of single words, phrases, sentences, and even whole paragraphs. They help to establish relationships between ideas within a paragraph (and between paragraphs) and to create a logical progression of those ideas.
TIP: Transitions from one paragraph to the next appear at the beginning of paragraphs, not at the end.
Adequate development means that the idea presented in the topic sentence is discussed fully. When a paragraph is only a few sentences long, the idea in it may not be explained enough for the reader to fully understand your point. When writing a paragraph, you should thoroughly describe and analyze the topic, thus helping the reader to fully understand the idea behind the paragraph.
Five Steps to Good Paragraph Development
Adapted from “Paragraph Development” by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center; see Sources below.
A Poorly Written Paragraph
This example illustrates what happens when you do not keep your focus of your paragraph, when too many ideas confuse the controlling idea, and when the coherence of the paragraph has been lost.
Although many people rely on a mechanic, paying more money than necessary, changing oil in a car is easy. You can buy oil at any local automotive store and get the job done in little time and with little effort. Located under your car you will find a big tank with a bolt. Emptying that tank and filling it is easy. Changing spark plugs and checking your battery can be just as easy. Mechanics should be relied on for jobs that you cannot do yourself or for jobs that require tools you do not own.
In this paragraph, although the reader should realize the ease with which a person can change the oil in a car and learn how to change oil, he also is told that other jobs are just as easy. The paragraph loses focus and the controlling idea merges with the uselessness of a mechanic.
A Well Written Paragraph
Here is a better example of a paragraph that explains that changing your oil can be both economical and easy.
Although many people rely on a mechanic, paying more money than necessary, changing oil in a car is easy and economical. Purchase your oil at an automotive store for about $12. Under your car you will find an oil tank with a big bolt. Using a vise grip loosen the bolt, drain the old oil into a safe container, then tighten the bolt on the oil tank so the tank will again be secure. Using a filter wrench and moving counter-clockwise, remove the oil filter from the side of your engine, making sure to drain the excess oil into the same oil container under the car. Without over tightening, now turn the filter wrench clockwise. You will feel when the filter hits the engine. Rotate the wrench only slightly more than half a revolution. Locate the cap that is labeled “oil” and you are ready to pour your oil into the engine. Cars do vary slightly, so check your owner’s manual for the correct amount of oil necessary, usually about 4-5 quarts. Check for leaks and the job is done. Remember that the used oil must be disposed of safely. In less than an hour, you are set for another 3000 miles, and you saved yourself some money.
This paragraph begins with a controlling idea, formulates this idea, and leads the reader through the paragraph with one main focus.
Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2007.
Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Collins. The St. Martin’s Handbook: Annotated Instructor’s Edition. 5th Ed. New York: St. Martin’s 2003.
Purdue University. “Paragraphs & Paragraphing.” The OWL at Purdue. 4 Dec. 2007. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/606/01/.
Rosen, Leonard and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn and Bacon Handbook: Annotated Instructor’s Edition. 4th Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center. “Paragraph Development.” 4 Dec. 2007. http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/paragraphs.html.