What is a paragraph?
All good academic writing consists of paragraphs. They are the building blocks of your text. A paragraph consists of one or more sentences on a single topic. Each paragraph presents one idea contributing to the overall coherence of your text. Paragraphs present one main point and all sentences in the paragraph should clearly relate to that point in some way, generally by discussing the main idea in greater detail.
It is important for paragraphs to be set out in an order you have announced in the beginning of your text and that the way paragraphs follow each other and link together is reflective of a structure, a narrative that has a logic within the whole structure of your text.
Paragraphs are physically marked by starting a new line. They may also be indented and/or may have a blank line between them.
Paragraphs make a text easier to read:
- they visually break up a solid mass of text.
- they help a reader to understand the meaning of a text by grouping and separating ideas.
- you need to use paragraphs to bring together what belongs together. Each paragraph should say one thing/refer to one main idea that is generally summarised in the first sentence of the paragraph (the topic sentence). The rest of the paragraph then develops this main idea providing details, examples, evidence or in some other way reinforce the main point.
- Try to start a new paragraph whenever you start a new idea. This does not always work.
- Sometimes one idea makes a very long paragraph and you need to break it up at the most logical place.
- Sometimes two or three minor points can be treated in a single paragraph.
Your writing should be grouped in a series of paragraphs that follow a logical order. If you write as you encounter more information, ideas may be dispersed in a text which then becomes repetitive, if not dis-organised. This is why at a certain stage it is important to group ideas and see how they link together by using maps of these ideas or temporary headings under which ideas can be grouped.
How many paragraphs do we need?
A general guideline would be to start a new paragraph whenever you start a new idea. But this won’t always work. In practice, you may find that two or three minor points can be treated in a single paragraph, or you may discover that what at first looked like a single sub-point is growing so big that it needs to be broken up.
Even so, if you remember that paragraphs cue your readers to important thought units below the level of your lowest subheading, yet above the level of the sentence, you’ll have a good basis for deciding how many paragraphs you need.
How long should paragraphs be?
There’s no set rule for how long a paragraph should be. Consider grouping of meaning. Consider how the paragraph will look on the page.
Paragraphs are visual groupings, you also need to consider what your reader will actually see on the page. Longer paragraphs are asking the reader to slow down and concentrate. Short paragraphs tend to invite readers to browse or skim lightly. Try to have at least two paragraphs on a double spaced page, more if your spaces are single. It is a good idea to vary the length of paragraphs, but ultimately, the length of your paragraphs should be dictated by content. Use long paragraphs to explore and develop ideas and shorter ones to summarise or make transitions.
A page without paragraphs will seem harder the read. It may be difficult to find the point. Similarly a page with many paragraphs consisting of one sentences can be hard to read . Unless they are bullet points in a report (where the main point is stated on top), it may be difficult to find the main point and understand the logic of text as a whole.
- Longer paragraphs slow the tempo, asking readers to continue reading and concentrate. BUT a whole page of text, not separated in paragraphs can be discouraging for a reader and make it difficult to find what the point is.
- A series of short paragraphs picks up the tempo and invites readers to browse or skim lightly. BUT a whole page of single sentence paragraphs is hard to read – readers may wonder what the point is and why they can’t find it.
When to begin a new paragraph?
- To show you are switching to a new idea
- To highlight an important point by putting it at the beginning or end of your paragraph
- To show a change in time or place
- To emphasise a contrast
- To indicate changing speakers in a dialogue
- To give readers an opportunity to pause
- To break up a dense text
Linking paragraphs to each other
Using topic sentences
Making the transition to another paragraph can be done in the first sentence which introduces the material to be covered in the paragraph (topic sentence), and might also refer to the previous paragraph in some way. Sometimes the last sentence in the previous paragraph links to the next paragraph. You can then in the next paragraph make an allusion to the topic of the preceding paragraph. You might refer to the main topic of your last paragraph.
Using topic sentences help guide your reader, as a topic sentence summarises the main message of each paragraph. The rest of the sentences in the paragraph give details, examples, evidence or in some other way reinforce this message. To support a topic sentence, consider some of the possible ways that provide details. To develop a paragraph, use one or more of these:
- Illustrate the point you are making using an example
- Discuss a process
- Compare and contrast
- Use analogies
- Discuss cause and effect
- Define your terms
The purposes of a topic sentence
- To state the main point of a paragraph
- To give the reader a sense of direction (indicate what information will follow)
- To summarise the paragraph’s main point
If you know what your main point will be, write it as clearly as possible. Then focus on key words in your topic sentence and try to explain them more fully. Keep asking yourself “How?” or “Why?” or “What examples can I provide to convince a reader?” After you have added your supporting information, review the topic sentence to see that it still indicates the direction of your writing.
You may create your topic sentence by considering the details or examples you will discuss. What unifies these examples? What do your examples have in common? Reach a conclusion and write that “conclusion” first. If it helps, think of writing backwards–from generalisation to support instead of from examples to a conclusion.
Placement of topic sentences
Topic sentences are generally placed first in the paragraph. A reader who reads only first sentences of each paragraph should get an overall idea of what the text is about.
Using transitional expressions
Paragraphs do not usually exist on their own and must be linked to the rest of the text in some way. Transitional expressions are words and phrases that act as signposts for readers, telling which direction the writing is about to move in. They usually come at the beginning of a sentence, where they show how a new thought relates to what has come before.
You have to consider yourself as guiding the reader. Transitional words or phrases are sometimes used to help the reader to navigate through your writing. Very often, such transitions:
- address an essential similarity or dissimilarity (likewise, in the same way, on the other hand, despite, in contrast)
- suggest a meaningful ordering, often temporal (first, second, at the same time, later, finally) or causal (thus, therefore, accordingly, because)
- in a longer paper, remind the reader of what has earlier been argued (in short, as has been said, on the whole).
By doing so they also help ensure a critical approach to the literature review.
It is important to make sure a word is part of your active vocabulary before you use it. If you use a word that signifies a relationship, that indicates an argument, that relationship has to exist. For example: It is not raining today, however the gardener has arrived – implies that somehow the gardener only comes when it rains.
You have to guide the reader through your writing. The reader has to feel that you are in control, that you know where you are going and how you will get there. Transitional words or phrases sometimes are precisely what you need to help the reader to navigate through your essay. Very often, such transitions:
- Address an essential similarity or dissimilarity (likewise, in the same way, on the other hand, despite, in contrast).
- Suggest a meaningful ordering, often temporal (first, second, at the same time, later, finally) or causal (thus, therefore, accordingly, because).
- In a longer paper, remind the reader of what has earlier been argued (in short, as has been said, on the whole).
Some transitional words:
- Contrast and qualification: on the contrary, however, in contrast, still, yet, nevertheless, although, but, conversely, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead, nevertheless, nonetheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the one hand, on the other hand, otherwise, regardless, still, to the contrary, yet.
- Comparing: also, comparing, likewise, in comparison, in the same way, similarly.
- Continuity–besides, furthermore, in addition, also, secondly, to continue, next, similarly, likewise, moreover, indeed, again, in other words, and, again, as well as, furthermore, in addition.
- Cause/effect–thus, therefore, as a result, consequently, hence, for this reason
- Exemplification–for instance, for example, in fact, more specifically, to illustrate, for instance, namely, specifically, the following example, to illustrate.
- Summation: finally, in conclusion, to sum up, in brief, lastly, as we have seen, accordingly, as a consequence, as a result, because, consequently, then, thereupon, so, so that, then, therefore, thus.
- Locating: above, adjacent to, below, beneath, beyond, closer to, elsewhere, farther on, here, inside, nearby, next, opposite, opposite to, over, there, to the left (right), under, where.
- Situating Phrases in Time: after a few days, after a while, afterward, as soon as, at length, at that time, before, briefly, consequently, finally, first (second, third, etc.), in the meantime, meanwhile, next, now, presently, shortly, simultaneously, since, subsequently, so far, soon, the next day, then, thereafter, until, when.
- Giving an explanation: certainly, indeed, in fact, in other words, obviously, of course, put another way, simply stated, such as, that is.
- Making a concession: although it is true that, granted that, one has to admit that, it may appear that, naturally, of course.
- Summarising ideas: after all, all in all, as seen, in any event, in brief, in closing, in conclusion, in short, in summary, in retrospect, on the whole, therefore, to conclude, to sum up, to summarise.
Although transitional words and phrases can be useful, even gracious, they never should be applied to force a paragraph into a place where it does not, structurally, belong. While transitions describe relationships between ideas, they do not automatically create relationships between ideas. You have to use transitions with enough context in a sentence or paragraph to make the relationships clear. In other words, the logic of the paragraph must already exist in order for transitions to do their job. You cannot use transitions to hide a real connection. It just won’t work.
Other ways of managing links
- repeating key words, words that refer to your central ideas. Often they appear in the subject. They can be used to signpost your writing.Do not try to be creative and find a variety of synonyms for key words – this is likely to confuse a reader. Repeating these key words not only keeps them at the forefront of your readers’ attention, but also helps stitch your text together, providing coherence and continuity between thoughts. When a key term begins to feel over used, substitute a synonym. Then, after using the synonym a few times, come back to the key word.
- repeating an idea in different words. Careless and unconscious repetition is weak and should be avoided. However, deliberate, purposeful repetition is often an effective writing technique.
- picking up the next step or idea in an obvious sequence.
- summarising the main idea of the previous paragraph.
- pronouns stand in place of other words that have already been used. This makes them useful as transitional devices. They look back at and connect with what has come before, and in doing so they help readers see connections between thoughts.
If you are having a terrible time figuring out how to get from one paragraph to the next, it may be because:
- you shouldn’t be getting from one paragraph to the next quite yet.
- there may be something crucial missing between this paragraph and its neighbour’s–most likely an idea or a piece of evidence, or both.
- maybe the paragraph is misplaced, and logically belongs elsewhere.
The reason you can’t come up with a gracious connective sentence is that there’s simply too large an intellectual span to cross, or that you’ve gone off in the wrong direction.
Before you can go on, some causality needs first to be explicated, some other piece of evidence offered. You have to guide the reader safely to the next idea by making certain that everything that should have been discussed by this point has in fact been thoroughly discussed. While it is true that an essay is a conversation between a writer and a reader, in which the reader’s questions and concerns are internalised and addressed by the writer at the appropriate times, it is also true that even the most committed reader cannot read your mind. You have to guide your reader.
Transitions between paragraphs that really do belong where they are in the essay can be strengthened by the repetition or paraphrasing of one paragraph’s key words into the next.
Linking sentences within a paragraph together
Transitions are important from between paragraphs as well as between sentences. In a well-crafted academic text, every sentence is a transitional sentence. Each sentence links to what came before and after. This is mainly achieved through logical progression and the use of linking words and vocabulary to show that progression.
Each sentence has its internal logic and coherence, so does the paragraph; and so does the text as a whole. It is important to make sure that all your sentences are linked.In good academic writing
Linking words also play a role in the development of arguments. For example:
- to indicate a conclusion: so, therefore, thus, accordingly
- to indicate cause and effect: for, because, as, for the reason that.
Lists of transitional words and how to use them are available from the internet. See for example: University of Wisconsin – Madison (2014), The writer’s handbook. Using transitions.