Developing a paragraph can be a difficult task for many students. They usually approach the task with certain ideas firmly in mind, most notably that a paragraph is 5-6 sentences and the paragraph is about what they are talking about, which isn’t necessarily a bad place to start. But when pushed to explain more specifically what constitutes a good paragraph or how to present the information they will discuss, problems begin to emerge. If you are struggling to craft a fully developed paragraph, you might find the following step-by step approach helpful.
Perhaps the easiest way to think about a “fully developed” paragraph is to think of writing each paragraph in 6 different steps rather than a certain amount of sentences. These steps can be helpful in not only understanding the criteria needed in a paragraph or how they connect to one another to create a conversation in your paper but also to ensure that your audience understands your purpose in presenting this paragraph.
Focusing on the number of sentences may limit how you express the idea being discussed. However, this doesn’t mean that the information can be presented without a plan in mind; you should begin with understanding what a paragraph needs to “be” and “do.”
Goals of the Paragraph: What it should “be”
While there is no “right way” to develop a paragraph, there are certain criteria that an academic paragraph should work to be:
- Unified: Every sentence presented works to explain the main idea for the paragraph.
- Coherent: You present the information in a logical order that allows the audience to understand your purpose.
- Developed: To achieve this, you must provide enough information so that the audience has a clear understanding of the main idea expressed in the topic sentence.
Developing the Paragraph: Creating what it should “do”
1. Establish a Main Idea (Topic).
- It is important to begin a paragraph with a clear, concise, and limited topic sentence. Many problems with unity and coherency begin with a faulty or vague topic sentence. Being able to recognize the parts of a topic sentence will help you maintain a unified paragraph. If we break a basic topic sentence down, there are two distinct parts:
The topic being discussed + Your approach to the topic
- Too often, students focus on the wrong part of the topic sentence. They believe that the topic or subject (or sub-claim) is the most important part of the sentence since “that is what I am talking about.” This is where the trouble with unity begins. There are many ways to discuss the topic, so conceivably any information related to that topic could end up in the paragraph. Ultimately, the unity breaks down and the reader will not understand the significance of your idea because the information may be having two different conversations, instead of one.
- When there are two different approaches to the same sub-claim, the conversation jumps from one to another, dissolving any unity to the paragraph. However, there is only one way to discuss your approach related to the sub-claim, and it is through that lens that we look at all the information presented in the paragraph and how we determine if the information belongs in the paragraph or not. See section 4.4 for help deciding when to begin a new paragraph.
2. Provide an Explanation
- This step may be a bit of a trap. Many students are often tempted to reach for their research and begin providing support for the main idea. However, this isn’t always the best option. Many times when students do this, they are using their research/ support to do the thinking for them. Before reaching for the research, students should provide an explanation regarding their topic sentence.
- You can also think of this section as a link between the topic sentence and supporting evidence where you provide any necessary contextual information for the evidence.
- The main focus of any paragraph should be what you have to say. If you are putting forth this idea in support of your thesis, the audience is going to want to know what you think about it–what is important or significant about this main idea. They may not fully understand the topic sentence the way you intend them to, so explain your reasoning to the reader.
3. Provide Support/ Evidence
- Now that your audience should have a better understanding of the main idea/ topic, you are ready to provide support/ evidence. You want to be very selective when deciding what textual support to include in the paragraph. Not all evidence is the same, and not all evidence achieves the same goals (thinking ethos/ logos/ pathos here). The textual support should help to reinforce or illustrate more about your topic sentence for the reader, helping them understand it in a more complete way. See section 4.3 for more information about supporting evidence.
- Whether your support takes the form of a direct quote or a paraphrase, it must be properly embedded and documented. See sections 9.5 and 9.6 for more information about citations.
4. Interpret the Support/ Evidence
- This is often one of the more difficult aspects for students, and a step in the development that they overlook. No matter how clear you think the textual support provided is, it does not speak for itself. The reason is that the audience may not understand how you intend them to interpret the information, and how that relates back to supporting the main idea of the paragraph. When you explain how this information is relevant to your topic sentence, why it is important or significant, you need to offer insight to that information.
- Don’t simply follow up your support with a single sentence that begins with a phrase like “This proves” or “Meaning” and then restate what the evidence said. Know why you included this information and why it is important to your paragraph. You need to connect the dots for your reader, so they see exactly how that information is providing support, and helping your main idea.
- The bulk of the information should be coming from you, not your sources. Your audience wants to what it is that you think, your perspective on the idea, and how you intended to link it back to the thesis.
5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, if necessary
- If you have more than one piece of textual support that you want to include, you need to repeat the two previous steps to fully develop your paragraph. You will want to vary your evidence. If you use statistics, then you may want to include expert testimony. If the first piece of evidence focuses on logic, you want to tap into one of the other appeals such as pathos to bring a full view of the issue to your reader. However, you don’t want to keep simply repeating this sequence: evidence should be used to help achieve your purpose, not to fill space.
6. Connect to the thesis statement
- When you feel that your audience has a clear understanding of your idea and its significance to your thesis, you can wrap up the paragraph in different ways:
- emphasize the importance of understanding the idea,
- make a connection to previous and/or forthcoming ideas
- overall ensure that the information is being related directly back to the main purpose of the essay as defined in your thesis statement.
While this is not the only way to write a paragraph, it can be a helpful guide and/or model when you need a structure to begin shaping and organizing your ideas, to help you compose a unified, coherent, well-developed paragraph.
Visit the methods of development link for help developing and organizing your ideas within paragraph.
4.2 Troubleshooting: Body Paragraph Development by John Lanning and Sarah M. Lacy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.