Writing Great Paragraphs

All writing requires both creative thinking and technical proficiency. On the far technical side, you have the mechanics of writing, such as knowing how to apply punctuation and grammar rules. On the far creative side, you have the development of ideas and new story lines. Combining these two into a written form that deeply engages your reader and effectively communicates your thoughts requires both sides. This synergy between creativity and technicality is most apparent in the paragraph. Regardless of the type of writing you produce, you have to pay attention to your paragraphs.

1. Basic Paragraph Components

Let’s think about the two basic components of all paragraphs and then examine how we may use them for effective writing.

a. The idea: One paragraph = one central idea. Has someone ever said to you, “Hey, you’ve got a good point there”? Well, that’s what your paragraph does. It makes a point, one point, which is the central idea of the paragraph. You might think of it as the purpose for the paragraph. That one point of a paragraph may be supported by several other ideas, and the paragraph, itself, may be written to support a broader idea, but its purpose remains the same. It stands alone as the vehicle to express one complete idea to the reader.

b. The support: Paragraphs must have both external and internal support for the central idea. External support means the way the central idea of the paragraph connects to the ideas prior to and following the paragraph. (This is called external support because it provides a reason for the central idea to be expressed.) Another way to describe what we mean by “external support” is the way you link the paragraph to its context. Internal support is how the content within a paragraph connects to its central idea. As an analogy, think about branches on a tree. The central idea is the branch. The external support is the main trunk, and the internal support is the leaves that grow from the branch.

If you extend this analogy a bit, you see how branches (i.e., ideas) are connected to each other. Some paragraphs are quite long because, for the purpose of this analogy, the author chose a big branch that has smaller branches growing from it. Some are quite short because the author chose the smallest identifiable branch. In both cases, however, the paragraph has internal and external support.

Since this article is about what happens inside paragraphs, we’ll make the assumption that the idea is clear and focus on the support–what happens inside a paragraph. How do you make those internal and external supports work to express the idea?

2. General Paragraph Structure

Perhaps you had an English teacher tell you that a paragraph must have a thesis statement at the beginning. This is partially true. Your thesis statement is the point you are trying to communicate, but you have a couple of choices about its placement: beginning and end. You can start with the central idea and then build the internal and external supports, or you can provide the supports and then make your point. With all respect for English teachers, we have a strong preference for the second method because it mimics the way people think.

By making your point towards the end of the paragraph, you are leading your reader through ideas to arrive at the conclusion. Also, with the point at the end, you can most effectively organize your external and internal supports. However, expressing the main point at the beginning is also valid in some cases. With this method, you are telling the reader, “Here’s the point, and now I’ll explain it.” Basically, you have to determine which method will work best for a particular paragraph. As our preference is for the second method, though, we will focus on that.

3. Detailed Structure

a. The beginning of the paragraph: The first couple sentences in a paragraph establish your external support. The external support ties the paragraph to the context in which the paragraph is placed. You’re telling the reader, “Here’s how this paragraph connects to what was just written.” It should follow naturally from (i.e., connect to) the end of the prior paragraph, which serves as a transition between ideas. Without this external support, you don’t have a good transition from the prior paragraph, you need to strength the connection, or the paragraph is out of place entirely. (This is one of the hardest parts of writing to master, and, for those who are writing academic papers, one that is very commonly criticized by teachers and professors.) Once you have established your external support, you need to think about the topics that will be discussed internally.

The first couple of sentences tell the reader, “Here’s what this paragraph will discuss.” Using the analogy above, you present the leaves. These topics should lead the reader to the point of the paragraph. If they don’t, save them for a different paragraph. We do not recommend writing anything that resembles a list. Subtlety is better. In fact, these topics may only be recognized by reading the entire paragraph.

b. The body of the paragraph: Once you have established your external support and your internal topics, you expand on those topics. The main purpose here is to show how these topics support the central idea. Each topic creates a pathway to the point, the destination. With this perspective, you will realize how each topic starts at or near the beginning of the paragraph and continues to the end. They are not presented sequentially; instead, they are discussed simultaneously. You should be able to identify particular words and phrases throughout the paragraph that relate to each topic, making a chain from beginning to end. This chain helps the entire paragraph be more purposeful, coherent, and graceful–as well as economical and effective.

c. The end of the paragraph: “Holy Moley!” you might be thinking by now. “When do we actually get to make our point?” The answer is “Now.” If you have done all the above, you’re ready to make your point, to present the reader with the central idea that you want to express. And if you have done it well, your main point should make logical sense to the reader. Because you have kept your central idea in mind throughout, the conclusion of your paragraph should naturally and logically tie together all that you have written so far. You might only need one sentence to expressing your central idea. We follow a two-sentence rule: If you need more than two sentences to express the central idea, revise and simplify. If you still can’t do it, then you might need to break your idea into smaller parts and write additional paragraphs. And this brings us to the last element of the paragraph–setting the stage for the next paragraph.

As you recall from the discussion above on external support, paragraphs need to connect to prior and following paragraphs. Thus, when you get to the final sentences of one paragraph, you need to have a clear idea about where you’re going next. What is the idea that logically follows what you have just written? At the end of one paragraph, you provide the reader with an indication of what’s next. This is the basis for the transition between ideas, which is the same as the transition between paragraphs. This paragraph is now done, and you’re ready to start the next.

4. Summary of Everything Above

Because we covered a lot of ground above, we’re going to provide a quick and dirty summary of what we’ve written so far.

  1. Paragraphs need internal and external supports.
  2. Each paragraph should have one, and only one, central idea.
  3. The central idea is supported by one or more topic chains.
  4. Your “point sentence(s)” should tie the entire paragraph together as a logical conclusion.
  5. The end of one paragraph should direct the reader to the next idea.

5. Examples

a. Example One (From a document on teaching children with special needs)

The term “disabilities” comprises many conditions that may inhibit student learning (e.g., visual and auditory difficulties, cognitive processing delay, behavioral management). Often students with disabilities require specialized instructional strategies to reduce the degree to which these inhibitors may affect learning. Students with special needs require a highly-qualified teacher with training and experience in addressing such needs. As part of the tutor selection process, ATS identifies those teachers possessing these unique skills, resulting in the ability to match students with special needs with tutors possessing appropriate teaching ability. Teachers will utilize strategies that allow for differentiated pacing with careful sequencing, monitoring, and control of the learning process.

External support to prior paragraph: [The prior paragraph concludes with the statement that some students have disabilities that affect their ability to learn.] The external support is provided by the phrase “The term ‘disabilities’ comprises.”

Central point: The teachers in this company differentiate their instruction to maximize student learning. Notice that this paragraph makes this point but does not need to state it explicitly.

Topic chain 1: Conditions. This is supported by the following words and phrases throughout: disabilities, degree, inhibitors, such needs, special needs, differentiated

Topic chain 2: Specialized instruction. This is supported by the following words and phrases throughout: specialized instructional strategies, highly-qualified teacher, selection, unique skills, teaching ability, teachers

External support to next paragraph: “Teachers will utilize strategies” [The next paragraph discusses how strategies are selected.]

b. Example Two (King Henry’s lines, From Shakespeare’s Henry V, act 3, scene 6)

I hope they will not come upon us now.

We are in God’s hands, brother, not in theirs.
March to the bridge; it now draws toward night.
Beyond the river we’ll encamp ourselves,
And on to-morrow bid them march away.

External support to prior paragraph: The external support is provided by the phrase “Not in theirs.”

Central Point: We will defeat them (“bid them march away”).

Topic chain 1: Timing of events. This is supported by the following words and phrases: it, night, to-morrow

Topic chain 2: Placement. This is supported by the following words and phrases: in God’s hand, in theirs, to the bridge, beyond the river, away

External support to next paragraph: “bid them march away.” [This is the end of the scene, and they leave. However, we are referred to “them,” the French. The next scene begins in the French camp.]

Keep up the writing!

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