Date published November 10, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: October 12, 2016
Paragraphs represent the basic building blocks of the arguments made in academic essays. This article looks at two essential elements of paragraphs, offers a general method for constructing paragraphs, drafts a general template for paragraph structure, and looks at some common paragraph pitfalls.
In an academic essay, the purpose of a paragraph is to support a single claim or idea that helps establish the overall argument or purpose of the paper. Paragraphs should be focused around this single idea or point, and they should be clearly related to what comes before them.
Two essentials: Topic sentences and transitions
One of the best ways to ensure that a paragraph is focused and clearly related to the thesis statement is to ensure that it has a good topic sentence. Each sentence in a paragraph should help support the topic sentence of that paragraph (in the same way that each paragraph should relate to the thesis statement), so each sentence should connect with the main point of the paragraph in some way. Sentences should also connect well with each other, and in forging sentence-to-sentence connections, good transitions are crucial.
Beyond of these two key features of good paragraphs (good topic sentences and transitions), there is a certain method of presenting information in a paragraph, and there are things to avoid in paragraphs.
Method: Introduce, provide, explain, (repeat), conclude
Following the topic sentence, a paragraph should introduce, provide, and explain its evidence. After this, it should either repeat, with new topic-sentence-related evidence, or take a sentence or two to close the paragraph.
While good topic sentences offer an idea of what the paragraph is going to be about and how that fits into the rest of the paper, at the heart of a paragraph are evidence and explanation that support the key claim of the paragraph. We can call these the heart of a paragraph both in the sense that they give purpose to the paragraph and in the sense that they appear (roughly) in the middle of the paragraph.
Diagram of paragraph structure
It’s useful to think of a paragraph’s structure by comparison to the structure of an essay. As the body of an essay needs a good introduction, so do the evidence and explanation given in a paragraph. Usually, this evidence will need to be contextualized, prefaced, or otherwise introduced before it is provided.
Provide and explain
To provide evidence is usually to state a fact that supports your paragraph’s claim, given in the topic sentence. After providing any evidence, you will have to explain how that evidence supports the paragraph’s claim. Paragraphs on any subject require that the primary evidence for any claim be clearly explained to support that claim, so don’t assume that your facts speak for themselves.
In a sociology paper, this might mean explaining the significance of a statistic; in literary studies, the most interesting element of a quotation from a poem or story; in history of technology, what the technical explanation of a process means in simple terms; and in philosophy, the assumptions and logical connections at work in an argument. Different fields deal with such explanation in different ways, but they all require it.
Finally, a paragraph requires a satisfying conclusion. To evaluate whether you’ve done a good job wrapping up your paragraph, ask yourself whether the final sentence or two sufficiently conveys the thrust of the paragraph. If not, consider adding a summary sentence.
This template presents a very simple paragraph structure. It is highly adaptable and can be used throughout an essay, although there are certainly other ways of forming good paragraphs.
A good, simple paragraph might look something like this:
- Topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that introduces or contextualizes evidence.
- Sentence (or more) that provides evidence in support of the topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that explains how the evidence just given relates to the topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that eitherintroduces new topic sentence-related evidence (go back to step 2) or closes the paragraph.
Consider an example to illustrate:
(1) George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has had an enduring impact on thought about the relationship between politics and language.(2) This impact is particularly obvious in light of the various critical review articles that have recently referenced the essay.(3) For example, consider Mark Falcoff’s 2009 article in The National Review Online, “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited,” in which he analyzes several common words (“activist,” “civil-rights leader,” “diversity,” and more).(4) Falcoff’s close analysis of the ambiguity built into political language intentionally mirrors Orwell’s own point-by-point analysis of the political language of his day.(5) Even 63 years after its publication, Orwell’s essay is emulated by contemporary thinkers.
This paragraph could be altered or expanded (and improved) in several ways, but the course of the paragraph would always need to maintain the general form of (1) through (5). Even if we added or removed some of the particular sentences, these basic functions would need to be fulfilled.
- Notice that on the above template the minimum length of a paragraph is five sentences. This can be slightly condensed, since we can, for example, introduce and provide evidence in the same sentence. We can only condense so much, though—normally you won’t be able to cover all of the basic functions of a paragraph in under three sentences.
- Short paragraphs (three sentences or so) are rare, and should be used only when special emphasis is needed or the point of the paragraph is very simple. One- or two-sentence paragraphs are almost unheard of and should be generally avoided.
- Size is a good indicator of whether a paragraph is too long. Generally speaking, with double-spaced, 12 point, standard font, and standard margins, a paragraph should not go much over 3/4s of a page. The reason a paragraph runs too long is only loosely related to size, though—rather, it’s a matter of how many topic or points are covered in a paragraph.
- Remember, each paragraph should be about just one thing, and each paragraph should be just long enough to fully explain or prove its point.
- Where there is a significant shift in topic matter, even while making one larger argument, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.
- Where there is a significant shift in argument, even while the topic remains the same, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.
Unfocused or “too listy”
- A paragraph is unfocused or “too listy” when it mentions many things but does not cover most (or, perhaps, any) of them in enough detail.
- If you find a paragraph with this problem, you can (1) eliminate some points to focus on just a few, (2) break the paragraph into more robust sub-paragraphs by giving more attention to each point, or (3) work on tightening the connections between each of these points and their collective relation to the topic sentence or thesis.
- Note that all of these strategies require additional information, either to explain connections or to deepen the discussion (or both).
- Focus is a more common problem in long paragraphs, but can afflict short ones too.
There are 5 graded compositions in this course. Each of them counts as 4% of the final course grade.*
These 5 compositions are 200-225 words long and involve several steps:
- THE OUTLINE. Once your instructor has assigned the topic of your composition, you will need to write an outline. You will bring the outline to class on the dates identified in the calendar as "write in class". The outline is 5% of the grade.
- THE FIRST DRAFT. Using this outline, you will write the first draft of your composition in class. You will submit it at the end of the class. Your instructor will give you general comments and feedback on your first draft, and will mark your errors without correcting them. The first draft is 25% of the grade.
VERY IMPORTANT: The first draft of each composition needs to be written in class. If you are not in class and/or you do not submit a first draft, you will be not allowed to submit a final version and your grade for this composition will be zero.
- THE FINAL VERSION. You will revise your compositions, correct these errors, and include your instructor’s comments, before submitting the final version.The final version is 60% of the grade.
- THE ERROR ANALYSIS FORM. Print, complete and turn in this form with the final version of your composition. The error analysis form is 10% of the grade.
Specific instructions about the topic and goal of each composition will be given by your instructor on the dates assigned on the calendar.
Compositions will be graded on content, organization, grammar, vocabulary, and mechanics. You need to print a COMPOSITION EVALUATION FORM. You will submit this form with every draft and version of the composition.
VERY IMPORTANT: All compositions must be typed, double spaced, with 1-inch margins, and using a 12-point font. Accent marks and special Spanish characters need to be typed too.
VERY IMPORTANT: Compositions will not be accepted after the due date.
VERY IMPORTANT: All compositions must be written by the student without assistance. Tutor services are available at the University of Washington to help you with grammar explanations and specific questions. However, a tutor cannot revise or correct your composition. The use of online translation programs is not allowed either.
According to the honesty code of the University of Washington, “you are guilty of cheating whenever you present as your own work something that you did not do. You are also guilty of cheating if you help someone else to cheat”. Visit the following webpage for more information on academic honesty, cheating, and plagiarism:
*Summer courses have 4 compositions instead of 5. Each composition will be 3.75% of the final course grade.
EXCELLENT: there is an established purpose and audience; all components of the writing prompt are thoroughly addressed; very complete information; ideas supported with detail and evidence; relevant; on target; answers What? Why? How?
GOOD: prompt is addressed, but not thoroughly; adequate information; some development of ideas; some ideas lack supporting detail or evidence: some ambiguity of purpose and/or audience; leaves the reader asking a few What? Why? How?
FAIR: purpose and/or audience unclear; limited information; ideas present but not developed; lack of supporting detail or evidence; insufficient length; leaves the reader asking What? Why? How? questions
POOR: minimal information; information lacks substance; inappropriate or irrelevant information; insufficient length
UNSATISFACTORY: not enough information to evaluate
EXCELLENT: required format (letter, essay, email, etc.) and length; logically and effectively ordered; main points and details are connected; fluent; not choppy whatsoever; appropriate introduction and conclusion, appropriate use of connectors
GOOD: correct format and length; an apparent order to the content is intended; somewhat choppy; loosely organized but main points do stand out although sequencing of ideas is not complete; weak introduction and/or conclusion, missing some connectors
FAIR: format acceptable; limited order to the content; lacks logical sequencing of ideas; ineffective ordering; very choppy; lack of connectors, lacking a logical introduction or conclusion
POOR: series of separate sentences with no transitions; disconnected ideas; no apparent order to the content; no introduction and/or conclusion
UNSATISFACTORY: format not acceptable; short essay; not enough information to evaluate
EXCELLENT: student demonstrates mastery of grammar presented in the chapter; many accurate examples of all grammar from lesson; very few errors in subject/verb, adjective/noun agreement; work was well edited for language
GOOD: several accurate examples of grammar presented in the chapter; possibly missing a few examples of grammar from the chapter; occasional errors in subject/verb or adjective/noun agreement; some editing for language evident but not complete
FAIR: a few accurate examples of grammar presented in lesson but not all; some errors in subject/verb agreement; some errors in adjective/noun agreement; erroneous use of language often impedes comprehensibility; work was poorly edited for language
POOR: very few accurate examples of grammar presented in lesson; frequent errors in subject/verb agreement; non-Spanish sentence structure; erroneous use of language makes the work mostly incomprehensible; no evidence of having edited the work for language
UNSATISFACTORY: not enough information to evaluate
EXCELLENT: student maximized opportunities for use of words presented in lesson; precise and effective word use and choice; variety of vocabulary
GOOD: several examples of words presented in lesson, but there was opportunity for more; some erroneous word usage or choice
FAIR: used a few words presented in the lesson; erroneous word use or choice leads to confused or obscured meaning; some literal translations and invented words; some words used repetitively
POOR: inadequate; repetitive; incorrect use or non‐use of words studied; literal translations; abundance of invented words
UNSATISFACTORY: not enough information to evaluate
EXCELLENT: correct format; double spaced; almost no errors in spelling, punctuation, or capitalization
GOOD: correct format; double spaced; very few errors in spelling, punctuation, or capitalization
FAIR: correct format; double spaced; few errors in punctuation, spelling, or capitalization
POOR: not double spaced; frequent errors in punctuation, spelling, or capitalization
UNSATISFACTORY: unacceptable format; very frequent errors in punctuation, spelling, or capitalization; no evidence of having edited the work for punctuation, spelling or capitalization