(“Wrecked,” by John Vanveen, with permission)
A paragraph is the expression of a single idea. All the information in a paragraph should connect to that central idea. When a paragraph is unified it is said to be coherent. When it’s not, it’s choppy or incoherent.
As you work on your final essay it may be easiest to start not with your intro and conclusion, but with some of your main body paragraphs. It’s easier to make some specific points than to know exactly how you will tie everything together. Even if you have an outline prepared (as you should!), starting in the middle will help you to focus on the particulars before you worry about the final argument. In fact, as you work on your paragraphs, your thesis will slowly lose its fuzzy outline and come into focus.
On this page you will find some general instruction in paragraph writing, as well as some activities for developing your own writing skill set.
Most paragraphs start with what’s called a topic sentence. Your first sentence introduces the main point of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph consists of facts, quotations, and other forms of proof. Some paragraphs end with a brief conclusion, whereas others assume that the reader will have understood what the paragraph was about.
Here is a sample paragraph from a critical source:
It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere. On May 31, 1970, at 3:23 in the afternoon, a massive earthquake struck Peru. With a magnitude of 7.8, it was felt throughout the country–but it was in the department of Ancash, along the coast in central Peru, that the quake was most catastrophic. Entire cities, towns, and villages were destroyed, and some 76,000 people died. Another 140,000 were injured, and as many as 800,000 were left without homes. It has been estimated that 160,000 buildings were ruined. The cataclysm destroyed roads, railroads, bridges, businesses, schools, and government facilities. Water, sewerage, telephone, and electrical systems were put out of operation. All this because of an earthquake that lasted less than a minute. (194)
Source: de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.
Notice how the first and last sentence are more general, and how everything in the paragraph backs up the central idea, namely that this was a devastating earthquake.
Let’s look at another example. The following paragraph uses quotations to strengthen its claims. In this case, the author’s main point is that firefighters in British Columbia face a unique challenge. Not every forest is the same, and some forests need regular forest fires for revitalization. When this does not occur (because of successful fire fighting), then those fires that do break out are unusually destructive:
In the Interior’s forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, fire is a natural cleansing force that sweeps away undergrowth, renews grasses, releases seeds and generally revitalizes the forest. The cycle is so regular that fires are seldom severe enough to burn the trees themselves. But as John Betts, a forester with the Western Silvercultural Contractors Association, explains, decades of successfully fighting forest fires has created an unnatural forest, one thick with undergrowth and carpeted with generations of dead pine needles. The result is kindling, and when a fire does take hold, it does so with an unnatural ferocity, consuming trees it might otherwise have left unscathed and destroying healthy bacteria in the soils of the forest floor that nourish life. “The forest systems are out of whack due to our well-intentioned conservation practices, which dictate not letting the forests go up in smoke,” says Betts. “The true root of the problem is the long-term denial of fire’s rightful place in the forest.” (17)
Source: Anderson, Charles, and Lori Culbert. Wildfire: British Columbia Burns. Edited by Shelley Fralic, Greystone Books, 2004.
This paragraph has a rather complex argument, and it takes the author a few sentences to connect the dots.
As you read your sources, you will find that popular books and articles are quite relaxed about paragraph structure. Often there’s no clear topic sentence and the argument simply carries on from the previous paragraph.
In your own essay you will want to be a bit more formal. Begin by stating your main idea and by connecting it (if necessary) to what came before.
For more information, please visit our separate pages on paragraph writing and paragraph transitions.