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The Writing Process

Effective paragraph transitions signal to readers how two consecutive paragraphs relate to each other. The transition signals the relationship between the “new information” and the “old information.”

For example, the new paragraph might

  • elaborate on the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • introduce a related idea
  • continue a chronological narrative
  • describe a problem with the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe an exception to the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe a consequence or implication of the idea presented in the preceding paragraph        

Why should each paragraph make a point?

In an essay, a paragraph is not just a careless group of sentences about a common topic; a thoughtfully constructed paragraph builds upon the foundation laid by the essay’s thesis and works in harmony with the other paragraphs. Each paragraph should serve a specific purpose related to the thesis—to explain a relevant idea, provide background information, argue a supporting point, or offer a counterargument. A paragraph that does not serve any of these purposes may be unnecessary.

Paragraphs provide a visual representation of your ideas. When revising your work, evaluate the logic behind how you have organized the paragraphs.

Question whether your presentation would appear more logical and persuasive if you rearranged the sequence of the paragraphs. Next, question the structure of each paragraph to see if sentences need to be reordered. Determine whether you are organizing information deductively or according to chronology or according to some sense of what is most and least important

While you generally want to move from the known to the new, from the thesis to its illustration or restriction, you sometimes want to violate this pattern. Educated readers in particular can be bored by texts that always present information in the same way. For example, how Valerie Steele's anecdotal tone and dialogue in the opening sentences of her essay on fashion in academia prepare the reader for her thesis:

As much as any of the above guidelines, you should consider the media and genre where your text will appear. For as much as paragraphs are shaped by the ideas being expressed, they are also influenced by the genre of the discourse. For instance, newspapers and magazines produced for high-school educated readers tend to require much shorter paragraphs than those published in academic journals.

Readers also expect paragraphs to relate to each other as well as to the overall purpose of a text. Establishing transitional sentences for paragraphs can be one of the most difficult challenges you face as a writer because you need to guide the reader with a light hand. When you are too blatant about your transitions, your readers may feel patronized.

To highlight the connections between your ideas, you can provide transitional sentences at the end of each paragraph that look forward to the substance of the next paragraph.

Your goals for the opening sentences of your paragraphs are similar to your goals for writing an introduction to a document. In the beginning of a paragraph, clarify the purpose. Most paragraphs in academic and technical discourse move deductively--that is, the first or second sentence presents the topic or theme of the paragraph and the subsequent sentences illustrate and explicate this theme.

Regardless of whether a paragraph is deductively or inductively structured, readers can generally follow the logic of a discussion better when a paragraph is unified by a single purpose. Paragraphs that lack a central idea and that wander from subject to subject are apt to confuse readers, making them wonder what they should pay attention to and why. To ensure that each paragraph is unified by a single idea, Francis Christensen, in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric (NY: Harper & Row, 1967), has suggested that we number sentences according to their level of generality.

Segues are used hand-in-hand with transitions to create uninterrupted movement between ideas. Without the use of segues, ideas can appear disconnected and the writing may appear to lack continuity.

In what ways are segues used to signal a shift in ideas?

  • To reiterate an earlier point before introducing another: Segues may be used to remind the reader of an important point or detail from an earlier discussion and link that idea to a new point.
  • To focus on how the author moved from one point to the next: Writers should not rely on their readers to make correct inferences about how two points relate. Instead, skilled writers make clear connections between ideas by using appropriate words or phrases to segue from one point to the next.

What is a topic sentence?

A topic sentence summarizes the main idea or the purpose of a paragraph. In an essay, topic sentences serve an organizational purpose similar to a thesis statement but on a smaller scale; a topic sentence helps guide the organization of a single paragraph while a thesis statement guides the organization of the entire essay. A topic sentence may be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a paragraph depending upon the way the writer chooses to organize the paragraph.

Provide thesis and forecasting statements in the introduction to help busy readers focus.

Approximately 100,000 books and millions of journal articles are published each year in the United States (see Bowker Annual). Digital Archivists estimate the size of the Deep Web at over 7.5 billion documents.

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

Do you have a grand theory or an explanation for a fundamental question such as, "Do computers think?" or "How long have human beings existed?" If so, you may want to use visual language to reveal the complex details, interactions, and processes embedded within your theory.

Use an inductive organizational structure to surprise readers or to address controversial topics.

While writers are under increasing pressure to organize information deductively, they can--and do--write inductively. Typically, writers employ a more inductive style when the topic is controversial or when they wish to surprise readers.

Determine the questions typically addressed in the document you are writing.

Writing and thinking involve asking and answering questions. The term heuristic is derived from the Greek word heuresis, which means to discover or invent. Heuristic questions refer to the questions both writers and readers commonly ask of documents.

Organize information into logical groups.

As with describing, narrating, defining, and comparing, classifying is a component of all writing genres. Just as writers pause to describe ideas and events or define new concepts in most documents, they routinely classify information--that is, show or tell readers how information can be grouped into categories.

Organize according to time. Reveal the logical or chronological steps one conducts to complete something or the cause-and-effect relationship between events.

Writers frequently use chronological order or reverse chronological order to organize a document. Narratives, resumes, family histories, historical narratives, process reports--these common genres typically employ a narrative order. 

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

Cluster diagrams, spider maps, mind maps--these terms are used interchangeably to describe the practice of visually brainstorming about a topic. Modern readers love cluster diagrams and spider maps because they enable readers to discern your purpose and organization in a moment.

Define content by comparing and contrasting categories or classes of objects.

Comparing and contrasting issues can be a powerful way to organize and understand knowledge. Typically, comparing and contrasting require you to define a class or category of objects and then define their similarities and differences.

Why is it important to organize a paper logically?

Academic writing—like many types of writing—is typically more effective when the writer’s ideas are presented logically. For the sake of clarity and cohesiveness, a logical plan should inform the paper’s organization from beginning to end at the global (big picture) and local (zoomed in) levels. The target audience is more likely to become engaged, and maintain their engagement, when the conversation is clearly organized and purposefully presented.

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

In 1765, Joseph Priestly created the now commonplace timeline. Priestly's timeline depicted the lifespan of 2000 inventors whom he considered the "most distinguished in the annals of fame."