Imagine reading one long block of text, with each idea blurring into the next. You are likely to lose interest in a piece of writing that is disorganized and spans many pages without breaks.
Paragraphs separate ideas into logical, manageable chunks, each paragraph focusing on only one main idea and presenting coherent sentences to support that one point. Because all the sentences in one paragraph support the same point, a paragraph may stand on its own. For most types of informative or persuasive academic writing, writers find it helpful to think of the paragraph analogous to an essay, as each is controlled by a main idea or point, and that idea is developed by an organized group of more specific ideas.
Thus, the thesis of the essay is analogous to the topic sentence of a paragraph, just as the supporting sentences in a paragraph are analogous to the supporting paragraphs in an essay.
In essays, each supporting paragraph adds another related main idea to support the writer's thesis, or controlling idea. Each related supporting idea is developed with facts, examples, and other details that explain it. By exploring and refining one idea at a time, writers build a strong case for their thesis.
Effective paragraphing makes the difference between a satisfying essay that readers can easily process and one that requires readers to mentally organize themselves. Thoughtful organization and development of each body paragraph leads to an effectively focused, developed, and coherent essay.
An effective paragraph contains three main parts:
- a topic sentence
- body, supporting sentences
- a concluding sentence
In informative and persuasive writing, the topic sentence is usually the first sentence or second sentence of a paragraph and expresses its main idea, followed by supporting sentences that help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence.
In narrative and descriptive paragraphs, however, topic sentences may be implied rather than explicitly stated, with all supporting sentences working to create the main idea. If the paragraph contains a concluding sentence, it is the last sentence in the paragraph and reminds the reader of the main point by restating it in different words. The following figure illustrates the most common paragraph structure for informative and persuasive college essays.
|Topic Sentence (topic + comment/judgment/interpretation):|
|Supporting Sentence 1:|
|Supporting Sentence 2:|
|Supporting Sentence 3:|
|Supporting Sentence 4:|
|Supporting Sentence 5:|
|Supporting Sentence 6:|
|Concluding Sentence (summary of comment/judgment/interpretation):|
The number of supporting sentences varies according to the paragraph's purpose and the writer's sentence structure.
Creating Focused Paragraphs with Topic Sentences
The foundation of a paragraph is the topic sentence, which expresses the main idea or point of the paragraph.
The topic sentence functions two ways:
- it clearly refers to and supports the essay's thesis, and
- it indicates what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
As the unifying sentence for the paragraph, it is the most general sentence, whereas all supporting sentences provide different types of more specific information, such as facts, details, or examples.
An effective topic sentence has the following characteristics:
A topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
First, we need a better way to educate students.
Explanation: The claim is vague because it does not provide enough information about what will follow, and it is too broad to be covered effectively in one paragraph.
Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many states.
Explanation: The sentence replaces the vague phrase ?a better way? and leads readers to expect supporting facts and examples as to why standardizing education in these subjects might improve student learning in many states.
A good topic sentence is the most general sentence in the paragraph and thus does not include supporting details.
Salaries should be capped in baseball for many reasons, most importantly so we don't allow the same team to win year after year.
Explanation: This topic sentence includes a supporting detail that should be included later in the paragraph to back up the main point.
Introducing a salary cap would improve the game of baseball for many reasons.
Explanation: This topic sentence omits the additional supporting detail so that it can be expanded upon later in the paragraph, yet the sentence still makes a claim about salary caps & improvement of the game.
A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.
In general, writing an essay, thesis, or other academic or nonacademic document is considerably easier and of much higher quality if you first construct an outline, of which there are many different types.
Explanation: The confusing sentence structure and unnecessary vocabulary bury the main idea, making it difficult for the reader to follow the topic sentence.
Most forms of writing can be improved by first creating an outline.
Explanation: This topic sentence cuts out unnecessary verbiage and simplifies the previous statement, making it easier for the reader to follow. The writer can include examples of what kinds of writing can benefit from outlining in the supporting sentences.
Location of Topic Sentences
A topic sentence can appear anywhere within a paragraph or can be implied (such as in narrative or descriptive writing).
In college-level expository or persuasive writing, placing an explicit topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph (the first or second sentence) makes it easier for readers to follow the essay and for writers to stay on topic, but writers should be aware of variations and maintain the flexibility to adapt to different writing projects.
The following examples illustrate varying locations for the topic sentence. In each example, the topic sentence is underlined.
Topic Sentence Begins the Paragraph (General to Specific)
After reading the new TV guide this week, I wondered why we are still being bombarded with reality shows, a plague that continues to darken our airwaves. Along with the return of viewer favorites, we are to be cursed with yet another mindless creation. "Prisoner" follows the daily lives of eight suburban housewives who have chosen to be put in jail for the purposes of this fake psychological experiment. A preview for the first episode shows the usual tears and tantrums associated with reality television. I dread to think what producers will come up with next season and hope that other viewers will express their criticism. These producers must stop the constant stream of meaningless shows without plotlines. We've had enough reality television to last us a lifetime!
The first sentence tells readers that the paragraph will be about reality television shows, and it expresses the writer's distaste for these shows through the use of the word "bombarded."
Each of the following sentences in the paragraph supports the topic sentence by providing further information about a specific reality television show and why the writer finds it unappealing. The final sentence is the concluding sentence. It reiterates the main point that viewers are bored with reality television shows by using different words from the topic sentence.
Paragraphs that begin with the topic sentence move from the general to the specific. They open with a general statement about a subject (reality shows) and then discuss specific examples (the reality show "Prisoner"). Most academic essays contain the topic sentence at the beginning of the first paragraph.
Topic Sentence Ends the Paragraph (Specific to General)
Last year, a cat traveled 130 miles to reach its family, who had moved to another state and had left their pet behind. Even though it had never been to their new home, the cat was able to track down its former owners. A dog in my neighborhood can predict when its master is about to have a seizure. It makes sure that he does not hurt himself during an epileptic fit. Compared to many animals, our own senses are almost dull.
The last sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It draws on specific examples (a cat that tracked down its owners and a dog that can predict seizures) and then makes a general statement that draws a conclusion from these examples (animals' senses are better than humans'). In this case, the supporting sentences are placed before the topic sentence and the concluding sentence is the same as the topic sentence.
This technique is frequently used in persuasive writing. The writer produces detailed examples as evidence to back up his or her point, preparing the reader to accept the concluding topic sentence as the truth.
When the Topic Sentence Appears in the Middle of the Paragraph
For many years, I suffered from severe anxiety every time I took an exam. Hours before the exam, my heart would begin pounding, my legs would shake, and sometimes I would become physically unable to move. Last year, I was referred to a specialist and finally found a way to control my anxiety--breathing exercises. It seems so simple, but by doing just a few breathing exercises a couple of hours before an exam, I gradually got my anxiety under control. The exercises help slow my heart rate and make me feel less anxious. Better yet, they require no pills, no equipment, and very little time. It's amazing how just breathing correctly has helped me learn to manage my anxiety symptoms.
In this paragraph, the highlighted sentence is the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea: that breathing exercises can help control anxiety. The preceding sentences enable the writer to build up to his main point (breathing exercises can help control anxiety) by using a personal anecdote (how he used to suffer from anxiety). The supporting sentences then expand on how breathing exercises help the writer by providing additional information. The last sentence is the concluding sentence and restates how breathing can help manage anxiety.
Placing a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph is often used in creative writing. If you notice that you have used a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph in an academic essay, read through the paragraph carefully to make sure that it contains only one major topic.
Implied Topic Sentences
Some well-organized paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence at all, a technique often used in descriptive and narrative writing. Instead of being directly stated, the main idea is implied in the content of the paragraph, as in the following narrative paragraph:
Heaving herself up the stairs, Luella had to pause for breath several times. She let out a wheeze as she sat down heavily in the wooden rocking chair. Tao approached her cautiously, as if she might crumble at the slightest touch. He studied her face, like parchment, stretched across the bones so finely he could almost see right through the skin to the decaying muscle underneath. Luella smiled a toothless grin.
Although no single sentence in this paragraph states the main idea, the entire paragraph focuses on one concept--that Luella is extremely old. The topic sentence is thus implied rather than stated so that all the details in the paragraph can work together to convey the dominant impression of Luella's age. In a paragraph such as this one, an explicit topic sentence would seem awkward and heavy-handed. Implied topic sentences work well if the writer has a firm idea of what he or she intends to say in the paragraph and sticks to it. However, a paragraph loses its effectiveness if an implied topic sentence is too subtle or the writer loses focus.
Exercise: Choose the Most Effective Topic Sentence
In each of the following sentence pairs, choose the more effective topic sentence.
- This paper will discuss the likelihood of the Democrats winning the next election.
- To boost their chances of winning the next election, the Democrats need to listen to public opinion.
- The unrealistic demands of union workers are crippling the economy for three main reasons.
- Union workers are crippling the economy because companies are unable to remain competitive as a result of added financial pressure.
- Authors are losing money as a result of technological advances.
- The introduction of new technology will devastate the literary world.
- Rap music is produced by untalented individuals with oversized egos.
- This essay will consider whether talent is required in the rap music industry.
Exercise: Evaluating Topic Sentences
Read the following statements and evaluate each as a topic sentence. Say whether the sentence is Good, Not-Good, or Not a Sentence.
- Exercising three times a week is healthy.
- Sexism and racism exist in today's workplace.
- I think we should raise the legal driving age.
- Owning a business.
- There are too many dogs on the public beach.
Create a Topic Sentence
Create a topic sentence on each of the following subjects. Write your responses on your own sheet of paper.
- An endangered species
- The cost of fuel
- The legal drinking age
- A controversial film or novel.
Writers often want to know how many words a paragraph should contain, and the answer is that a paragraph should develop the idea, point, or impression completely enough to satisfy the writer and readers.
Depending on their function, paragraphs can vary in length from one or two sentences, to over a page; however, in most college assignments, successfully developed paragraphs usually contain approximately one hundred to two hundred and fifty words and span one-fourth to two-thirds of a typed page.
A series of short paragraphs in an academic essay can seem choppy and unfocused, whereas paragraphs that are one page or longer can tire readers. Giving readers a paragraph break on each page helps them maintain focus.
This advice does not mean, of course, that composing a paragraph of a particular number of words or sentences guarantees an effective paragraph. Writers must provide enough supporting sentences within paragraphs to develop the topic sentence and simultaneously carry forward the essay's main idea.
For example: In a descriptive paragraph about a room in the writer's childhood home, a length of two or three sentences is unlikely to contain enough details to create a picture of the room in the reader's mind, and it will not contribute in conveying the meaning of the place.
In contrast, a half page paragraph, full of carefully selected, vivid, specific details and comparisons provides a fuller impression and engages the reader's interest and imagination.
In descriptive or narrative paragraphs, supporting sentences present details and actions in vivid, specific language in objective or subjective ways, appealing to the readers' senses to make them see and experience the subject.
In addition, in some sentences, writers make comparisons that bring together or substitute the familiar with the unfamiliar, thus enhancing and adding depth to the description of the incident, place, person, or idea.
In a persuasive essay about raising the wage for certified nursing assistants, a paragraph might focus on the expectations and duties of the job, comparing them to that of a registered nurse.
Needless to say, a few sentences that simply list the certified nurse's duties will not give readers a complete enough idea of what these healthcare professionals do. If readers do not have plenty of information about the duties and the writer's experience in performing them for what she considers inadequate pay, the paragraph fails to do its part in convincing readers that the pay is inadequate and should be increased.
Informative or Persuasive Paragraphs
In informative or persuasive writing, a supporting sentence usually offers one of the following:
- Reason: The refusal of the baby boom generation to retire is contributing to the current lack of available jobs.
- Fact: Many families now rely on older relatives to support them financially.
- Statistic: Nearly 10 percent of adults are currently unemployed in the United States.
- Quotation: "We will not allow this situation to continue," stated Senator Johns.
- Example: Last year, Bill was asked to retire at the age of fifty-five.
The type of supporting sentence you choose will depend on what you are writing and why you are writing.
For example, if you are attempting to persuade your audience to take a particular position, you should rely on facts, statistics, and concrete examples, rather than personal opinions.
Personal testimony in the form of an extended example can be used in conjunction with the other types of support.
Consider the elements in the following paragraph:
|Part of the Paragraph||Sentence|
|Topic Sentence||There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.|
|Sentence 1 (statistic)||First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle.|
|Sentence 2 (fact)||Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving.|
|Sentence 3 (reason)||Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump.|
|Sentence 4 (example)||Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance.|
|Sentence 5 (quotation)||"It's the cheapest car I've ever had," she said. "The running costs are far lower than previous gas powered vehicles I've owned."|
|Concluding Sentence||Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex's example in the near future.|
Sometimes the writing situation does not allow for research to add specific facts or other supporting information, but paragraphs can be developed easily with examples from the writer's own experience.
Farheya, a student in a freshman English Composition class, quickly drafted an essay during a timed writing assignment in class. To practice improving paragraph development, she selected the body paragraph below to add support:
Topic: Would you be better off if you didn't own a television? Discuss.
Lack of ownership of a television set is also a way to preserve innocence, and keep the exposure towards anything inappropriate at bay. From simply watching a movie, I have seen things I shouldn't have, no matter how fast I switch the channel. Television shows not only display physical indecency, but also verbal. Many times movies do voice-overs of profane words, but they also leave a few words uncensored. Since all ages can flip through and see or hear such things, television can be toxic for the mind, and without it I wouldn't have to worry about what I may accidentally see or hear.
The original paragraph identifies two categories of indecent material, and there is mention of profanity to provide a clue as to what the student thinks is indecent.
However, the paragraph could use some examples to make the idea of inappropriate material clearer. Farheya considered some of the television shows she had seen and made a few changes.
Not owning a television set would also be a way to preserve innocence and keep my exposure to anything inappropriate at bay. While searching for a program to view, I have seen things I shouldn't have, no matter how fast I switched the channel. The synopsis of EuroTrip, which describes high school friends traveling across Europe, leads viewers to think that the film is an innocent adventure; however; it is filled with indecency, especially when the students reach Amsterdam. The movie Fast and Furious has the same problem since the women are all half-naked in half tops and mini-skirts or short-shorts. Television shows not only display physical indecency, but also verbal. Many television shows have no filters, and the characters say profane words freely. On Empire, one of the most viewed dramas today, the main characters Cookie and Lucious Lyon use profane words during their fights throughout entire episodes. Because The Big Bang Theory is a show about a group of science geeks and their cute neighbor, viewers might think that these science geniuses' conversations would be about their current research or other science topics. Instead, their characters regularly engage in conversations about their personal lives that should be kept private. The ease of flipping through channels and seeing or hearing such things makes television toxic for the mind, and without a television I wouldn't have to worry about what I may accidentally see or hear.
Farheya's addition of a few examples helps to convey why she thinks she would be better off without a television.
Consider the paragraph below on a literary topic, based on J. D. Salinger's short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" developed with specific examples from the text. Before Farheya could continue, she needed to first create a working thesis and determine the body paragraph topic:
|Part of the Paragraph||Sentence(s)|
|Thesis||Author J.D. Salinger relied primarily on his personal life and belief system as the foundation for the themes in the majority of his works.|
|Supporting Point/Topic Sentence||Salinger, a World War II veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that influenced themes in many of his works.|
Examples 1 - 3
A title and description of each work are used to establish support for the topic sentence.
|Salinger, a World War II veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that influenced the themes in many of his works. He did not hide his mental anguish over the horrors of war and once told his daughter, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose, no matter how long you live." His short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" details a day in the life of a WWII veteran who was recently released form an army hospital for psychiatric problems. The man acts questionably with a little girl he meets on the beach before he returns to his hotel room and commits suicide. Another short Story, "For Esme--with Love and Squalor," is narrated by a traumatized soldier who sparks an unusual relationship with a young girl he meets before he departs to partake in D-Day. Finally, In Salinger's only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, he continues with the theme of post traumatic stress, though not directly related to war. From a rest home for the mentally ill, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield narrates the story of his nervous breakdown following the death of his younger brother.|
An effective concluding sentence draws together all the ideas raised in your paragraph. It reminds readers of the main point--the topic sentence--without restating it in exactly the same words. Using the sandwich example, the top bread (the topic sentence) and the bottom bread (the concluding sentence) are very similar. They frame the "meat" or body of the paragraph.
Compare the topic sentence and concluding sentence from the first example on hybrid cars:
There are many advantages to owning a hybrid car.
Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex's example in the near future.
Notice the use of the synonyms "advantages" and "benefits." The concluding sentence reiterates the idea that owning a hybrid is advantageous without using the exact same words. It also summarizes two examples of the advantages covered in the supporting sentences: low running costs and environmental benefits.
Writers should avoid introducing any new ideas into a concluding sentence because a conclusion is intended to provide the reader with a sense of completion. Introducing a subject that is not covered in the paragraph will confuse readers and weaken the writing.
A concluding sentence may do any of the following:
- Restate the main idea.
Example: Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States.
- Summarize the key points in the paragraph.
Example: A lack of healthy choices, poor parenting, and an addiction to video games are among the many factors contributing to childhood obesity.
- Draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph.
Example: These statistics indicate that unless we take action, childhood obesity rates will continue to rise.
- Make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information in the paragraph.
Example: Based on this research, more than 60 percent of children in the United States will be morbidly obese by the year 2030 unless we take evasive action.
- Offer an additional observation about the controlling idea.
Example: Childhood obesity is an entirely preventable tragedy.
Although paragraph length is discussed in the section on developing paragraphs with supporting sentences, some additional reminders about when to start a new paragraph may prove helpful to writers:
- If a paragraph is over a page long, consider providing a paragraph break for readers. Look for a logical place to divide the paragraph; then revise the opening sentence of the second paragraph to maintain coherence.
- A series of short paragraphs can be confusing and choppy. Examine the content of the paragraphs and combine ones with related ideas or develop each one further.
- When dialogue is used, begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. Begin a new paragraph to indicate a shift in subject, tone, or time and place.
Parts of a Paragraph
- Identify the topic sentence, supporting sentences, and concluding sentence in the following paragraph.
- Pair with another student and compare your answers.
The desert provides a harsh environment in which few mammals are able to adapt. Of these hardy creatures, the kangaroo rat is possibly the most fascinating. Able to live in some of the most arid parts of the southwest, the kangaroo rat neither sweats nor pants to keep cool. Its specialized kidneys enable it to survive on a miniscule amount of water. Unlike other desert creatures, the kangaroo rat does not store water in its body but instead is able to convert the dry seeds it eats into moisture. Its ability to adapt to such a hostile environment makes the kangaroo rat a truly amazing creature.
Improving Paragraph Coherence
A strong paragraph holds together well, flowing seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use a combination of elements:
- A clear organizational pattern: chronological (for narrative writing and describing processes), spatial (for descriptions of people or places), order of importance, general to specific (deductive), specific to general (inductive).
- Transitional words and phrases: These connecting words describe a relationship between ideas.
- Repetition of ideas: This element helps keep the parts of the paragraph together by maintaining focus on the main idea, so this element reinforces both paragraph coherence and unity.
In the following example, notice the use of transitions (in pink) and key words (in green):
Owning a hybrid car benefits both the owner and the environment. First, these cars get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. "It's the cheapest car I've ever had," she said. "The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I've owned." Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex's example in the near future.
Words such as "first" and "second" are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer's ideas by showing that he or she has another point to make in support of the topic sentence. The transition word "because" is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas).
In addition to transition words, the writer repeats the word "hybrid" (and other references such as "these cars," and "they"), and ideas related to benefits to keep the paragraph focused on the topic and hold it together.
To include a summarizing transition for the concluding sentence, the writer could rewrite the final sentence as follows:
In conclusion, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex's example in the near future.
Although the phrase "in conclusion" certainly reinforces the idea of summary and closure, it is not necessary in this case and seems redundant, as the sentence without the phrase already repeats and summarizes the benefits presented in the topic sentence and flows smoothly from the preceding quotation.
The second half of the sentence, in making a prediction about the future, signals a conclusion, also making the phrase "in conclusion" unnecessary.
The original version of the concluding sentence also illustrates how varying sentences openings can improve paragraph coherence. As writers continue to practice and develop their style, they more easily make these decisions between using standard transitional phrases and combining the repetition of key ideas with varied sentence openings.
The following table provides some useful transition words and phrases to connect sentences within paragraphs as well as to connect:
Table of Common Transitional Words and Phrases
|Transitions That Show Sequence or Time||after, before, later, afterward, before long, meanwhile, as soon as, finally, next, at first, first, second, third, soon, at last, in the first place, then|
|Transitions That Show Position||above, across, at the bottom, at the top, behind, below, beside, beyond, inside, near, next to, opposite, to the left, to the right, to the side, under, where|
|Transitions That Show a Conclusion||indeed, hence, in conclusion, in the final analysis, therefore, thus|
|Transitions That Continue a Line of Thought||consequently, furthermore, additionally, because, besides the fact, following this idea, further, in addition, in the same way, moreover, looking further, considering, it is clear that|
|Transitions That Change a Line of Thought||but, yet, however, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand|
|Transitions That Show Importance||above all, best, especially, in fact, more important, most important, most, worst|
|Transitions That Introduce the Final Thoughts in a Paragraph or Essay||finally, last, in conclusion, most of all, least of all, last of all|
|All-Purpose Transitions to Open Paragraphs or to Connect Ideas Inside Paragraphs||admittedly, at this point, certainly, granted, it is true, generally speaking, in general, in this situation, no doubt, no one denies, obviously, of course, to be sure, undoubtedly, unquestionably|
|Transitions that Introduce Examples||for instance, for example|
|Transitions That Clarify the Order of Events or Steps||first, second, third, generally, furthermore, finally, in the first place, also, last, likewise, lastly|
- A paragraph contains three distinct components: a topic sentence, body, and concluding sentence.
- The topic sentence expresses the main idea of the paragraph.
- Good topic sentences are general enough to cover the supporting sentences and limited enough to be developed well.
- Topic sentences are clear and easy to follow, and provide an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
- Topic sentences may be explicit or implied. They are usually explicit in informative and persuasive essays, whereas they are often implied in narrative and descriptive writing.
- Topic sentences may be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a paragraph. In most academic essays, the topic sentence is placed at the beginning of a paragraph.
- Supporting sentences help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence by offering facts, reasons, statistics, quotations, or examples.
- Concluding sentences summarize the key points in a paragraph and reiterate the main idea without repeating it word for word.
- Transitional words and phrases help organize ideas in a paragraph and show how these ideas relate to one another.
- Repetition of keywords helps keep paragraphs focused and coherent.