Category Archives: Structure

Posts that discuss the structuring of a text

Breaking Points

When I teach paragraphs, I always talk about how paragraph breaks should be dictated by textual demands rather than length. Sometimes that approach works out perfectly for a writer: each particular topic fits comfortably within a paragraph, with obvious breaking points. Other times, however, creating a paragraph break can feel awkward. In other words, it’s all well and good to say that each paragraph needs a recognizable topic, but the reality is often more complicated. As I was writing the first draft of my last post, I realized that I was dealing with one of those awkward paragraphs: too long to be a single paragraph, but with enough unity that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to make it more than one paragraph. Since this problem is frequently raised by my students, I decided to use this post to show a few strategies for managing a balky paragraph.

Before we look at the example, a quick note about paragraph length: I generally write shorter paragraphs on the blog than I would in normal academic writing. I do so for two reasons. First, I think the quality of attention that we give to a blog post is often less than to an article, so I try to make the component parts more manageable. Second, I’m aware that people will read a post on all sort of devices, some of which will offer such a compressed reading space that paragraphs will feel longer than they are. I want to be clear that these considerations apply to blogging and need not concern an academic writer. Academic writing ought to presuppose a certain type of attention (whether it gets it or not is another matter) and ought to presuppose that, regardless of where it might be read, its main objective is to provide the kind of sustained argumentation that generally requires longer paragraphs. All of which is to say that the example that I’m about to show is long only by the standards that I use on the blog. The shorter example works well for this space, and the editing strategies that I will suggest apply equally to the longer paragraphs that we need for academic writing.

Here is the example paragraph (still in very rough form):

We will think about the writing process differently depending on whether we think of the task broadly or narrowly [BROAD TOPIC]. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally creating a separate space for planning and for revising. And for some people, this is surely exactly what they need to do. For some writers, however, allowing writing to be the appropriate name for a broader range of activities is invaluable [SPECIFIC TOPIC]. If we think of planning as a species of writing [FIRST ASPECT OF THE SPECIFIC TOPIC], we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common; I sometimes see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ready to write. I’m not saying writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it may also generate the text that you need or lead you to the questions that you need examine. Similarly [MY ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT WE ARE MOVING TO THE SECOND ASPECT], we can use writing as way of manifesting our commitment to extensive revision [SECOND ASPECT]. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we are much less likely to enact the degree of alteration necessary to move from first to final draft. When writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to lapse into a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using (re)writing as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall [AN ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT I’M PULLING THE TWO ASPECTS TOGETHER], if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we give ourselves access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

As I was writing this, I was aware that it might need to be broken up, but I wanted to let it play out as a single paragraph until I knew what I wanted to say. Even in its rough form, you can see that this paragraph splits into two different supporting points. Once I understand the nature of my awkward paragraph, what are my editorial options?

1. Obviously, I could leave this paragraph as is: one topic, two aspects, one paragraph. In that case, I would be making the estimation that I don’t want it to run into a second paragraph, either because I don’t want to devote that much space to the topic or because I don’t want to draw that much attention to it. If I choose this option, it would stay roughly as it is, except for any necessary editing. Making the commitment to a single paragraph may mean lessening the detail so that it feels to the reader like a single idea.

2. I could try turning it into two paragraphs. This option—which frequently makes the most sense—is the one that often puzzles writers. If the first paragraph sets up the topic, can we break up the exploration of that topic into two or more paragraphs? We can, as long as we manage the opening of the subsequent paragraphs properly. In this case, the beginning of the second paragraph would need to be sharpened in order to announce the second element. Rather that simply signalling the shift—as I tried to do above with the word ‘similarly’—I would need some repetition or parallelism to orient the reader; for instance, we could say, as I did in the final version, ‘Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can …’. By echoing the language used in the first point, I alert the reader to the fact that we are turning to the second point. If we were to divide this paragraph into two, it would be fine for any concluding material to appear at the end of the second paragraph; again, just make sure that there is sufficient indication of the scope of the conclusion. This approach also works when using ordinals, as we so often do. We can say that a topic will have two aspects and then announce the first one with a ‘first’. When it comes time to address the second aspect, if we need to do so in a separate paragraph, we will do so with more than just a ‘second’; for instance, we could say, ‘The second aspect of [this topic] concerns …’.

3. Lastly, I could, if I had enough to say, turn this into three paragraphs, with the first one acting like a topic paragraph and the next two each having their own topic sentence. Needless to say, we wouldn’t choose this option unless we want to expand the content and unless we want the reader to pay a lot of attention to these ideas.

Overall, the key is to let the drafting stage be a time when ideas are allowed to develop as they wish, without worrying about the optimal placement of paragraph breaks for our eventual reader. We often won’t know how much space a topic warrants until we try it out. And even when the topic won’t be given much room in a final draft, our ability to create that more compressed version can be enhanced by having previously created a less compressed version. Once we’ve decided on the appropriate amount of detail and development, we can decide about paragraphing. Knowing that we’ve got the proportion right can then make us confident in our ability to divide up the text into workable paragraphs. We have the freedom to divide our text as we wish, as long as we are constantly mindful of the needs of the reader. Think about what you are asking your reader to carry from one paragraph to the next, and give them the necessary cues to make that transition seamlessly.

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What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.

Structural Lists

This post will be the last one for a few weeks. Explorations of Style will return in the first week or two of August. If you have any ideas for topics that you would like to see addressed in future posts, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments below. Have a great summer!

If you can stand it, I am going to talk about using lists one more time. (Then I’m going to stop before I have to relaunch this blog as Explorations of Lists.) As I said in the first post on lists, they are an inevitable by-product of the complexity of academic material. Consider this example, which we have seen before, of a simple list:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

After reading that passage, my expectation would be that these seven points will not be important in what follows. That is, the author wanted the audience to know a bunch of things about educational leaders but isn’t planning to devote any more time to those individual points. You can easily imagine that the next sentence would build on the overall point of the previous one without dealing in the specifics (for example, ‘Given the complexity of this role, educational leaders often …’).

Lists, however, aren’t just ways of describing detailed material. They can also be ways of structuring our writing. That is, lists can do more than just list stuff; lists can also establish crucial information that will be used to structure later parts of the text. The key to these ‘structural lists’ is that the reader is getting useful guidance on how to read the text. Contrast these four (deliberately simplified) lists:

Blood is composed of erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
 
Blood is composed of three types of cells: erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
 
Blood is composed of three types of cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
 
This section discusses the three types of blood cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
 
In the first sentence, we see simple information about blood composition. We can’t tell, from this sentence alone, whether this is a passing reference or whether we are likely to hear more about these three components of blood. The second sentence places more emphasis on the fact that there are three types of cells; even if we don’t hear much more about each individual type, we may see further discussion of the fact that a tripartite division exists. The third sentence–with its use of numbering–is telling the reader to pay particular attention to these three things. If they are not discussed in what follows or if they are discussed in a different order, the reader will be disappointed. Incidentally, this sentence structure would also easily accommodate additional information; for instance, it would be easy to provide a definition, explanation, or example of each type. The fourth example goes beyond an implicit indication of the importance of the division; its use of metadiscourse tells the reader explicitly that this division into three types of cells will be used to organize the rest of the section. Generally, sentences like the fourth one are written retrospectively, during the editing process; when we are creating a first draft, we frequently discuss a series of things without necessarily grasping the internal structure. Once we start to revise and thus begin to perceive (or develop) that internal structure, we can add in useful structural lists that tell the reader what to expect.
 
Let me end by addressing one question that often arises in this context. Once you have created a structural list, you must be careful about creating sub-lists. In other words, once you have said that three things are coming, you must be very clear about any subsequent use of numbering. If the individual items on your first list can themselves be broken down into a number of parts, your readers need to be able to understand at all times which list they are in the midst of. Consider this generic example:
 
This issue has three key elements: X, Y, and Z. We will begin with a discussion of X. Scholarly research into X usually takes three distinct forms. First, X is seen as …. Second, X is seen as …. Third, X is seen as …. The second element of this issue is Y.
 
In this example, the final sentence is designed to tell readers that they are back in the main list. If, instead, this last sentence had begun with a ‘second’, it would have followed awkwardly on from the ‘third’ that immediately preceded it. In my experience, however, it is common for writers to neglect to tell readers whether they are reading an element of the broader list or a subpart of one of those elements of the broader list. Since creating lists, as I keep saying, is an inevitable and valuable feature of academic writing, we all need to be sure that we are making the divisions and subdivisions in our writing crystal clear to our readers.

Lists: Backwards and Forwards

The last post was about writing effective lists. In that post, I talked about two important aspects of lists. At the simplest level, we should be able to use parallelism to make sure our lists are easy to read. At a more sophisticated level, we should be able to look at our own lists analytically to see if we can deepen our understanding of the ideas we are trying to convey. Apparently, I have a lot to say about lists since I now realize that I have two more points I wish to make. Today I would like to discuss the first of those points: how to improve ‘backwards’ lists. These are lists that list first and explain themselves last. Here is an example:

Effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support were all issues identified by the focus group.

As a reader, you aren’t aware that you are reading a list of issues until you get close to the end. At that point, you might have to double back to fully grasp the sentence. Or you might even have had trouble the first time through since the structure of the sentence isn’t self-evident. Here is a revision:

The focus group identified three issues: effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support.

This simple revision—and certainly more could be done to improve this sentence—has two obvious benefits. One, it starts with a clear subject and a strong verb (‘The focus group identified’), and, two, it notifies the reader that a list is coming. It is valuable to have a strategy for dealing with backwards lists because they are a natural reflection of how we think; we often figure out what the ‘issues’ themselves are before we know to characterize them as issues. It seems plausible to me that we will write ‘x, y, and z all matter in some way’ before we can write ‘the significant issues are x, y, and z’.  We just need to remember to switch these backwards lists around; once they have done their initial work in allowing us to understand the list we are trying to construct, we can rework them in a way that suits the needs of the reader.

This strategy is also helpful in dealing with transitions between sentences. If you find yourself using a lot of additive transition words (for instance, ‘also’, ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’), it may be helpful to go back and see how the various points relate to one another. When we analyze the internal relationships in our writing, we will find many different sorts of relationships, most of which will benefit from being made more explicit. One of those relationships could be that of a list. Since I don’t have room here for an elaborate example, let’s look at a version of the sentence we used last week:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership. In addition, they must demonstrate moral leadership and support their staff. Long hours on the part of educators are necessary to improve student achievement. Also, they must exercise fiscal prudence.

A quick analysis of this passage would show the writer that these four sentences all concern things an educational leader must do. It would then be easy to reword to reflect that commonality:

Today’s educational leaders have multiple responsibilities: providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and working long hours to improve student achievement.

While this example was simple (and slightly exaggerated for effect), it does show how implicit lists can be identified in our writing after the fact. Once we have so identified them, we can turn them into explicit lists. And an explicit list is, of course, a list that the reader experiences ‘forwards’: first the announcement of the list and then the list items themselves.

The final point I want to make about lists—how we can use them to guide the reader through our text—is too long to tackle in this post. So come back next time when I’ll talk about how the internal organization of a list communicates structural information to the reader.

Writing Effective Lists

At this time of year, I spend a lot of time meeting with students. In the next few blog posts, I plan to address some of the issues that come up over and over again in these sessions. I will start by talking about lists. I did discuss lists briefly in an earlier post on colons, but now I can treat the topic more fully. At the most basic level, lists are important because academic writing is full of them. But they aren’t just prevalent, they are also significant because they are used to convey both content and structural information. Here is an example to consider:

Today’s educational leaders face increasing demands for public accountability, working long hours to improve student achievement, providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first step is to identify the shared root of the list, the part that must work with each list item. In this case, the shared part of the sentence is ‘Today’s educational leaders face …’.

Today’s educational leaders face (1) increasing demands for public accountability, (2) working long hours to improve student achievement, (3) providing instructional leadership, (4) demonstrating moral leadership, (5) exercising fiscal prudence, (6) supporting their staff, and (7) need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first thing we see is that educational leaders face increasing demands. So far, so good. But do they also face working, providing, demonstrating, exercising, and supporting? Probably not. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about those formulations, but they are awkward and presumably not exactly what the author intended. The final item is, in fact, grammatically incorrect. We cannot say ‘Today’s educational leaders face need to …’. And changing the final phrase from ‘need to navigate’ to ‘navigating’ would give us parallelism but would not solve the broader problem with the list.

The simplest solution will come from looking at the list items to see what they all have in common; we can readily see that each list item is something that educational leaders must do. By choosing a more general verb for the shared part of the list, we will then be able to accommodate a wider assortment of terms in our list. Here is a new version of our sentence:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

This sentence is fine, but there may be more we can do. When analyzing list items, we need to consider that establishing parallelism may not be enough; we also need to consider that the ideas themselves may not actually be parallel. In this sentence, I would be inclined to separate out the things that educational leaders must do from the things that make those tasks even more challenging. We might say something like this:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and work long hours to improve student achievement. These responsibilities are further complicated by low teacher morale, a litigious environment, and increasing demands for public accountability.

By breaking up a list and grouping similar items together, we can often get more clarity about what we are trying to say. During the drafting process, it is easy to create lists out of what are actually dissimilar items; during the revision process, we can take another look and reorganize the list according to an enhanced understanding of our own communicative aims. (Note that in these two lists, I have placed the most complex list item last; lists are easier to read when the most grammatically complex items are put at the end of the list.)

A second issue with lists–one which we will have to look at in the next post–is the purpose of the list within a text. The example that we have been looking at today provides a bunch of information quickly. The sentence sounds as though the author simply needed to provide some necessary background without wanting to engage in any further discussion of these points. After reading this sentence, my expectation would be that these particular points would not be important in the rest of the text. Next week we will look at the way we use lists to accomplish a very different task: to anticipate and announce the structure of our texts.

Transitions

Learning how to make effective transitions is essential to strong academic writing. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs that so often afflict novice academic writing. When we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

Here are a few key principles to help create clear transitions in your writing:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples: ‘A is connected to B. This is…’ and ‘A is connected to B. This connection is…’. Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call this pattern ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers—where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one—but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples: ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’ and ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’ The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This need for more fulsome transitions can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

This post describes the third 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; paragraphs; verbs; and subjects.

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

  • In Full Stop, I talk about the way we create flow across sentences.
  • Breaking Points looks at how we can signal the relationship we are trying to create between paragraphs.

Paragraphs

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: