Paragraphs

Introduction

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.

Length

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!

Coherence

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
Finally
Furthermore
Indeed
Moreover
Nevertheless
On the other hand
Therefore
Thus
Yet

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.

Conclusion

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.

Paragraph Transitions

Introduction

So far we have mostly looked at paragraphs in isolation. In an essay, however, we need to link our ideas together. This page provides a few tips to help you craft strong paragraph transitions.

The Weakest Link

Let’s first review what not to do.

1. Don’t introduce your next point too early. Don’t end a paragraph by announcing what you will talk about next:

… In the next paragraph, we will see how the teaching of phonics can help young children diagnosed with ADHD.

(¶) Some researchers have argued that if all students were taught phonics we would have fewer cases of ADHD.

2. Avoid cumbersome expressions:

Expanding on the aforementioned point …

With regard to the argument that …

Despite what I have described in the previous paragraph …

If you would never say these things in an ordinary conversation, think twice about writing them down.

3. Be careful when you use words such as another, also, further, or moreover. These words merely state, here is an additional point about the same subject. They say very little about how the two paragraphs are actually connected:

… Electric armor on a tank would thus vaporize an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.

(¶) Another interesting technology that is being developed is the wireless charging of electronic devices.

In this example, both paragraphs are about new technology, but that’s about the only connection.

4. Watch out you don’t let other people’s ideas take over your topic sentence. While it’s okay to start or end a paragraph with a quotation, it’s also risky:

… In Greece, marriage between first cousins is generally frowned upon.

(¶) By contrast, Sue Blundell points out that “[i]n Classical Athens, close-kin marriages were relatively common” (120).

(Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. British Museum P, 1999.)

If you do decide to use a quotation to make a transition, be careful that the reader doesn’t lose the thread of your argument.

Strong Transitions   

The key to a strong segue is the impression that each paragraph builds upon the last. Whether it provides a counterargument or strengthens and deepens a previous point, it is important that we feel a sense of development.

Take the following transition:

… Given that Fantastic Mr. Fox explores the differences between urban and natural living, it is not surprising that the film opens with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” an homage to the “land of the free.”

(¶) The film subsequently uses the Beach Boys classic “Heroes and Villains,” which provides a more nonsensical perspective on the subject of the wild frontier.

Both paragraphs are clearly trying to determine what the songs in the film share in common.

Sometimes the transition is more abrupt. Here is an example of a literary analysis that picks up on the conclusion of the first paragraph to make a new point:

… The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled “A Nightmare” precisely because the universe can easily seem absurd.

(¶) Surprisingly, for Chesterton it is this absurdity that paradoxically proves the existence of God.

No matter whether your transitions are subtle or sudden, you want your paragraphs to act like building blocks: the more you pile on top of each other, the further you can see.

Implicit Connections

As always, we prefer a natural, flowing style, and so we suggest that you keep formulaic transitional expressions such as however or nevertheless to a minimum.

Often the connection between paragraphs can be left implicit. Take the following example:

… My grandmother’s total fortune came to $900,000.

(¶) However, when she passed away in 2015, I received only an old photo album.

To make the transition more natural we could pick a different word (unfortunately, sadly, yet). We could also remove the transitional expression (however) altogether, as the reader will immediately see the connection.

Such minimalist transitions are especially common in two places: right after the introduction and before the conclusion.

When you conclude an essay you can a leap from the last detailed point to the overall argument. While you might use a transitional phrase such as “therefore” or “what we have seen then,” you can rely on your reader to notice that you’re starting your conclusion. The blank space after the conclusion makes that abundantly clear.

Similarly, after the more general thesis statement, the first body paragraph has to start somewhere specific, and so the linkage can be more casual:

… In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the playing of Ombre conveys the poem’s theme of sexual conquest.

(¶) Ombre is a trick-taking game, played by three people at a time.

The entire essay is about the significance of Ombre, and so the first paragraph begins by explaining the basic rules of the game. A less confident writer might have used the following topic sentence:

In order to see the symbolic significance of Ombre in the poem as a whole, the first thing we need to understand is the rules of Ombre.

Such a sentence is unwieldy and redundant. Just cut to the chase.

Conclusion

Each paragraph needs to link up not only with the previous paragraph, but also with the thesis of the essay. It can be helpful to repeat a key word from the thesis or simply remind the reader directly how far the argument has advanced. While you want to minimize expressions such as “what we have seen thus far,” you may sometimes want to summarize some previous paragraphs before moving on.

In the end all the advice on this page comes down to this: great transitions are invisible. The real aim is to let the reader focus on the flow of ideas. And, of course, no amount of rewriting will help a weak argument.