Every so often, instructors ask students to write either a very short essay or a long paragraph (say roughly 250-500 words). For convenience’s sake we’ll call this a mini-essay.

The purpose of such an assignment is not merely to shorten the pain of marking student papers. A mini-essay is like a miniature painting or an intricate sketch–it forces you to concentrate on a few select details that capture a single impression.

Obviously most of the rules of essay writing will apply to a mini-essay. Nevertheless, mini-essays have a few unique features worth emphasizing.

Key Features

A Snappy Introduction

Don’t waste time introducing your thesis. If you’re writing a longer paragraph (of say 250 words), use just a sentence or two to state your argument. Even if you’ve got a bit more space, keep it short. The art of a mini-essay is to let the details do the talking.

Compare the following two sentences:

Many of us don’t like to be told how to behave, and Friedrich Nietzsche was no exception.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Friedrich Nietzsche came to despise Christian moralism.

The second is much more specific. So make sure you zoom in as quickly as possible.

A Nuanced Argument

Just because your essay is super short, it doesn’t mean that you should settle for a simple thesis. Although mini-essays often require you to take one side of an argument, it’s important to avoid generalizations or black and white arguments. Try at least to recognize the existence of other perspectives:

Weak: It would be too dangerous to allow robots to develop their own code of ethics.

Better: While we might like to treat robots with respect–and even grant them some level of autonomy–it would be too dangerous to give robots the right to develop their own code of ethics.

Your teacher will be pleased to know that you’ve thought about the issue from all sides.

Variable Paragraph Structure

In a mini-essay you’re not restricted to the classic essay format (introduction–body–conclusion). You can write one long paragraph (if your word count is quite low), or you can blend in your intro and conclusion with your first and last paragraph. You can also use very short paragraphs–say if your intro or conclusion consists of just one or two sentences.

While paragraph breaks are still useful, don’t waste too much time with elaborate topic sentences, summary statements, or transitions. Let your ideas flow naturally so that the reader gets as much quality content as possible.

Short Quotations

As a rule of thumb, three to four short quotations are better than one long block quotation. Choose your quotations carefully and make sure each one makes a unique and essential point.


To add depth to your mini-essay, try list a number of other details or examples that further prove your point.

Other fairy tales that use a “restoration” plot are “Snow White” and “The Frog Prince.”

After revolutionizing the vacuum cleaner, James Dyson invented (among other things) the Airblade hand dryer and a fan without blades. He is now working on creating an electric car.

Garth Williams’ illustration of the stereotypical schoolhouse is part of a larger attempt to depict a kind of American identity. The schooner Stuart Little sails on has an American flag, there’s a Cornell flag on George’s bedroom wall, and the little town of Ames’ Crossing represents the laid back attitude of rural America.

Do make sure, though, that these details illustrate your main point, and are not just a meaningless digression.

Concise Conclusions

In a short essay, your reader really does not need an elaborate reminder of what you’ve argued. If you do want to repeat your main point, at least try to vary your word choice. Your final sentence or two should create closure, but in a way that remains detailed and specific.


Paragraph Writing

(“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.

Paragraph Structure

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.


Paragraph Writing

Print out our Paragraph Writing Assignment to practice creating a paragraph from scratch.

Transitional Expressions

When we write we usually know in our own mind how our sentences relate to each other. Yet to a stranger the connections between them may not be immediately obvious. So, to get better at connecting your sentences, try our Transitional Expressions Assignment.

For more information, check out also the pages on conjunctive adverbs and connecting sentences.



A paragraph is more than a bunch of loosely related observations or facts. A good paragraph explores just a single argument.

The argument is usually expressed right at the beginning. This opening statement is called the topic sentence.

You can also zoom out a little at the end of the paragraph and provide a brief conclusion.


As a guideline, the typical paragraph is between 3 and 12 sentences long. If you go over a page double-spaced then you may want to split up your paragraph.

Of course, there is no law about paragraph length. The main criterion is that your paragraph should express just one idea.

If you find it difficult to capture your point effectively, that may be a sign that you need to break it up into smaller sections. Just because your essay makes two or three general points doesn’t mean that you are limited to that many body paragraphs!


A paragraph is coherent if all the sentences are smoothly and logically connected and together express a single point of view.

A quick way to check if your paragraph is coherent is to highlight or underline some key words and phrases:

The moon greatly influences our life on earth. For instance, its gravitational pull helps to create the ebb and flow of the tide. But how did the moon itself come into being? There are various hypotheses for how our moon was formed. The most common theory is that at one point a planet the size of Mars collided with the earth and broke into many pieces. Remnants of this planet (sometimes called Theia) came together to form the moon. The proto-planet that hit the earth would have had to be moving quite slowly, or else its impact would have exceeded the binding energy of the earth. So far twelve people have actually walked on the moon.

We can already see that the paragraph deals with quite a few topics (the moon’s influence, the tide, the formation of the moon, the number of people on the moon).

We can also see that our topic sentence (the first sentence) is not nearly broad enough to cover all the points that are being made. For instance, the fact that twelve people have walked on the moon does not prove that the moon “greatly influences our life on earth.”

The next step, then, is to make a quick outline of the various points made in the paragraph:

1. The moon influences life on earth.

example: the tides.

2. There are different theories about how the moon was formed.

example: a planet collided with the earth

3. Twelve people have walked on the earth.

As it turns out, we have three separate points!

Let’s say we decide that the second point is the most interesting. We can then delete the other material, and now we have a decent draft for a paragraph:

There are various hypotheses for how our moon was formed. The most common theory is that at one point a planet the size of Mars collided with the earth and broke into many pieces. Remnants of this planet (sometimes called Theia) came together to form the moon. The proto-planet that hit the earth would have had to be moving quite slowly, or else its impact would have exceeded the binding energy of the earth.

Now we’re also in a position to zoom in a bit more, to give a more precise explanation, and to insert some relevant quotations.

Integrating quotations

One of the hardest things to learn is how to incorporate quotations in your paragraph.

Our first suggestion is not to use a quotation in your topic sentence. This is where you get to give your opinion. So why quote someone else?

When you do use quotations, the key is to know how much to say about them. When you introduce a quote, be sure to give enough context so your reader can immediately make sense of it. If you think it’s obvious how the quotation connects with your argument you may not have to explain its relevance.

The following paragraph uses a number of shorter quotations and paraphrases. Note how the quotations function as evidence for the claim made in the topic sentence:

Odyssey Paragraph

Note also that the final sentence does not merely repeat the point made in the topic sentence. The key is to bring the paragraph to a close without being formulaic.

Internal Transitions

A good paragraph is like a river: it flows in a certain direction. To create that sense of flow we need to use transitional words and expressions.

In the paragraph above, the writer creates a sudden shift in perspective with a few well-chosen words:

On the surface, Helen seems repentant. . . . However, even though she is once more married to Menelaus, we sense a great deal of tension in their relationship.

Here is just a small sampling of similar connecting words:

By contrast
On the other hand

If you visit the page on conjunctive adverbs, you will find plenty of other examples.

Yet, if you constantly use the same words, your writing will feel clunky and wooden. That’s why experienced writers try to make their transitions as unobtrusive as possible. Here is an example where a little rewriting makes the prose more stylish:

Karl Marx believed that capitalism produces alienation for workers. First of all, the worker sells his or her labour to the employer. As a result, the worker receives merely a wage and does not own the final product. In addition, because of the division of labour the worker loses sight of the complete process of production. The worker thus becomes narrowly focused on a small number of mind-numbing tasks. This finally causes the worker to be alienated from his or her creative potential and from the life-giving forces of nature. Therefore, the worker is turned into an animal.

Karl Marx believed that capitalism produces alienation for workers. This happens as soon as the worker sells his or her labour to the employer. The worker receives merely a wage and does not own the final product. Because of the division of labour, the worker also loses sight of the complete process of production. Work then becomes a small number of mind-numbing tasks. Such conditions alienate the worker from his or her creative potential and from the life-giving forces of nature. In the end, the worker is turned into an animal.

The point is not to get rid of every transition; rather, we want the ideas to flow naturally, without a constant series of signposts pointing out where we’re heading.


Students often have a hard time splitting up paragraphs. This is especially the case when multiple examples are used to demonstrate a particular point. If the examples are brief and similar in nature you will likely want to keep them in the same paragraph. On the other hand, if the examples demonstrate slightly different aspects of the same argument, or are simply longer in length, you may want to use separate paragraphs. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to press Enter when you feel that paragraph break would help to organize the material.

In fact, the more you write, the more you will want to experiment with paragraph structure. In academic writing, paragraphs are more tightly structured than elsewhere. If you’re a travel writer, you might start a paragraph in Tokyo and end up in Yokohama. If you’re writing your memoir, you might tell an anecdote without having a clear argument or topic sentence. Similarly, many history books, in following the timeline of events, will occasionally digress from their main thesis. In such cases, paragraph breaks indicate less a ninety degree turn than a slight bend in the road or a change in scenery.