Paragraphs & Topic Sentences
A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.
Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.
A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.
Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.
Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.
Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.
Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.
Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.
The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.
George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”
In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.
Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.
A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.
Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.
Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.
Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.
Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”
SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS
(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)
- To show addition:
- again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
- To give examples:
- for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
- To compare:
- also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
- To contrast:
- although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
- To summarize or conclude:
- all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
- To show time:
- after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
- To show place or direction:
- above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
- To indicate logical relationship:
- accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus
Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay. This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant. You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.
This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.
You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
|Analyse||Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.|
|Assess||Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.|
|Clarify||Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.|
|Comment upon||Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.|
|Compare||Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.|
|Consider||Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.|
|Contrast||Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.|
|Critically evaluate||Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.|
|Define||To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.|
|Demonstrate||Show how, with examples to illustrate.|
|Describe||Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.|
|Discuss||Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.|
|Elaborate||To give in more detail, provide more information on.|
|Evaluate||See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.|
|Examine||Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.|
|Explain||Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.|
|Explore||Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.|
|Give an account of||Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.|
|Identify||Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.|
|Illustrate||A similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.|
|Interpret||Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.|
|Justify||Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.|
|Outline||Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.|
|Review||Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.|
|Show how||Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.|
|State||To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.|
|Summarise||Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.|
|To what extent||Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.|
Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm
The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:
Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm
Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714
Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering