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, sentences, and metadiscourse.
For more on paragraphs, you can consult these other posts: