A crucial strategy for improving academic writing is to pay attention to the importance of the paragraph as a unit of discourse. Novice writers tend to think of both full texts and sentences as areas for improvement, but they give less thought to the role of the paragraph. They recognize, of course, that a full text must possess a certain communicative goal, and they understand that sentences are the building blocks of the whole. But paragraphs? In my experience, these intermediate units are consistently neglected. This neglect greatly underestimates the important role that paragraphs play for the reader. A paragraph break means something to a reader; when we move from one paragraph to another, we imagine that we are leaving one thought (or issue or topic or argument or point or perspective or piece of evidence) and moving on to another. We attempt, in other words, to find some unity within a paragraph and to discern some diversity between paragraphs. When the writer has not managed paragraphs well, those attempts will lead us—consciously or not—to be disappointed. Most of us benefit from adding paragraphs to our list of things that must be effective if our writing is to succeed. To that end, here is my list of four things I wish every academic writer knew about paragraphs:

1. That they are very important. Simply stated, effort should be devoted to working on paragraphs, as well as on sentences and full papers.

2. That they usually need a topic sentence. The ‘usually’ is there to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, but I do in fact advise writers to start with the assumption that every paragraph will require a topic sentence. The main exceptions are introductory paragraphs (which often, in effect, act as a kind of topic paragraph for the whole text), transitional paragraphs (which exist to signal a significant shift in topic), and serial paragraphs (all of which refer back to a single topic).

3. That they should be thematically linked. The rest of the sentences should be recognizably about the theme announced in the topic sentence. These thematic linkages should also involve noticeable linguistic linkages, accomplished through strategic repetition and the use of key terms.

4. That their length is meaningful. The length of a paragraph should be determined by the demands of content, not by the number of sentences or space taken up on the page. When I ask students for the rationale behind a paragraph break, they frequently say something to the effect of ‘I thought it had gone long enough’. (The phrase ‘my high school English teacher always said …’ also comes up a lot in this regard, but the ongoing trauma of a high school English education lies well outside the scope of this post!)

Paying more attention to paragraphs can, needless to say, improve their internal cohesion. But this attention to paragraphs is also a key way to improve the overall coherence of a complete text. Our ability to engage in thorough structural revision can often be undermined by the difficulty of finding our way into our own text. Once that text is thought of as a series of paragraphs—each of which has an explicit role to play—we are better able to grasp the overall demands of structure.

This post describes the second of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines; transitions; verbs; and subjects.

For more on paragraphs, you can consult these other posts:

10 responses to “Paragraphs

  1. if you have time, might you address the idea of the topic sentence (such that it is needed in a given paragraph) as a “claim/conclusion” that the rest of the sentences seek to support and develop?

    I am having trouble getting my students to stay on topic…and so i am trying to make them use stronger topic sentences (which make a claim)…so their paragraphs are more controlled and narrow in scope.

    not all writing is deductive, of course. but, well, some of my students (okay, a lot of them) treat and think about the paragraph as a place to say all that they know about a topic.

    hence, the zigzag nature of their paragraph…where i can’t discern a main message.

    i guess the hard part of writing a deductive topic sentence is that it requires the writer to know what he or she is claiming. …and in reality…we dont know what we want to say until we say it.

    so there’s the paradox. and the need for treating writing as a process that requires tons of steps and revision and rethinking…so that we finally flesh out what we think…and use that clarity to animate our paragraphs with strong “conclusions” and premise points at the beginning of our paragraphs…rather than the outcome of such a block of text.

    the rambler,

    • Those are interesting ideas. I would hesitate to recommend that type of topic sentence to all writers, but I do think it sounds like a valuable teaching strategy. By exaggerating the nature of the topic sentence, you draw attention to the fact that paragraphs should have a unity of purpose (i.e., be trying to show something rather than just amass loosely connected ideas). What I particularly like about the idea is that it requires an iterative writing process. Since none of us can sort out our claims before considering our evidence, we would all be impelled back to the beginning of a paragraph to structure an appropriate claim. And making that sort of revision an essential part of the writing process is a huge benefit to academic writers.

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  3. Thanks for posting. What would help me is seeing a paragraph without a topic sentence (located anywhere in the paragraph).

    • I suppose it’s very difficult to have a paragraph without a topic sentence anywhere! That is, if we go looking for a topic, we are likely to find one (or more!) somewhere in the paragraph. It’s very common to find topic sentences at the end of paragraphs; in his case, the author is articulating the topic of the paragraph on the basis of what they have figured out throughout the whole paragraph. Topic sentences are often not part of the way that we draft paragraphs but can be a very useful part of the revision process. Think of a topic sentences as places where we give the reader what they will need to get the most out of the rest of the paragraph.

  4. I didn’t find out about topic sentences till well into my PhD, and even then, not through PhD training but through a first year English course! I am still unsure where they are, or even if I’ve written one. If I were writing bullet points to put on a PowerPoint slide, would the topic sentence be the heading at the top?

    • Roughly speaking, yes. A topic sentence is simply the organizing principle of the paragraph, stated early enough that the reader knows what is going on. We all write them all the time without knowing it. But knowing about them helps us to add them in when we haven’t. I suppose one of the benefits of the very inorganic nature of a PPT presentation is that it nudges us to think about the internal hierarchy of what we are saying (what is topic, what is evidence, etc.). Since paragraphs in a piece of academic prose develop in a more organic fashion, we often lose track of our topics and themes, making our reader’s life a bit more difficult.

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