Understand how to organize information in paragraphs so readers can scan your work and better follow your reasoning.
Unlike punctuation, which can be subjected to specific rules, no ironclad guidelines exist for shaping paragraphs. If you presented a text without paragraphs to a dozen writing instructors and asked them to break the document into logical sections, chances are that you would receive different opinions about the best places to break the paragraph. In part, where paragraphs should be placed is a stylistic choice. Some writers prefer longer paragraphs that compare and contrast several related ideas, whereas others opt for a more linear structure, delineating each subject on a one-point-per-paragraph basis. Newspaper articles or documents published on the Internet tend to have short paragraphs, even one-sentence paragraphs.
- Written by Christine Photinos
- Parent Category: Drafting
- Category: Paragraph Structure
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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.