|Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support, and Vikki Visvis, University College Writing Centre|
What is a paragraph?
A paragraph is a series of related sentences developing a central idea, called the topic. Try to think about paragraphs in terms of thematic unity: a paragraph is a sentence or a group of sentences that supports one central, unified idea. Paragraphs add one idea at a time to your broader argument.
How do I unify my ideas in a paragraph?
Probably the most effective way to achieve paragraph unity is to express the central idea of the paragraph in a topic sentence.
Topic sentences are similar to mini thesis statements. Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence has a specific main point. Whereas the thesis is the main point of the essay, the topic sentence is the main point of the paragraph. Like the thesis statement, a topic sentence has a unifying function. But a thesis statement or topic sentence alone doesn’t guarantee unity. An essay is unified if all the paragraphs relate to the thesis, whereas a paragraph is unified if all the sentences relate to the topic sentence.
Note: Not all paragraphs need topic sentences. In particular, opening and closing paragraphs, which serve different functions from body paragraphs, generally don’t have topic sentences.
In academic writing, the topic sentence nearly always works best at the beginning of a paragraph so that the reader knows what to expect:
This topic sentence forecasts the central idea or main point of the paragraph: "politicians" and "journalists" rely on Twitter. The rest of the paragraph will focus on these two Twitter-user groups, thereby fulfilling the promise made by the topic sentence. By avoiding irrelevant information that does not relate to the topic sentence, you can compose a unified paragraph.
How do I develop my ideas in a paragraph?
Often, the body paragraph demonstrates and develops your topic sentence through an ordered, logical progression of ideas. There are a number of useful techniques for expanding on topic sentences and developing your ideas in a paragraph.
Illustration in a paragraph supports a general statement by means of examples, details, or relevant quotations (with your comments).
The definition paragraph does exactly what you would expect: it defines a term, often by drawing distinctions between the term and other related ones. The definition that you provide will often be specific to your subject area. Try to avoid perfunctory dictionary definitions that do not inform your analysis in a meaningful way.
The analysis or classification paragraph develops a topic by distinguishing its component parts and discussing each of these parts separately.
A comparison or a contrast paragraph zeroes in on a key similarity or difference between, for instance, two sources, positions, or ideas. Decide whether to deal only with similarities or only with differences, or to cover both. Also, keep in mind that a single comparison can be spread out over two separate paragraphs. As the following topic sentence indicates, you should make your intention clear to readers from the outset.
A qualification paragraph acknowledges that what you previously asserted is not absolutely true or always applicable.
The process paragraph involves a straightforward step-by-step description. Process description often follows a chronological sequence.
Very often, a single paragraph will develop by a combination of methods.
A celebrity is "known for being well-known" (Boorstin, 1961, p. 57), regardless of whether that eminence derives from the entertainment field, medicine, science, politics, religion, sports, or close association with other celebrities. Therefore, "fame" is a psychological concept akin to object-relations theory and is multifaceted in scope. The psychological study of celebrity and fame has generally followed three trends. First, there is an interest in characteristics that distinguish eminent people with significant skills or intelligence from the general population (Albert, 1996; Simonton, 1999). Other studies have addressed how celebrity affects public attitudes such as consumer behaviour (Till & Shimp, 1998; Tripp, Jensen, & Carlson, 1994). Lastly, there are psychological consequences of achieving fame. For instance, Schaller (1997) found that in some instances fame leads to chronic self-consciousness and perhaps self-destructive behaviour. This is an important aspect to the study of fame and celebrity given that other research has linked depressive neurosis to over-identification with social roles and norms, feeling dependent on others, self-esteem problems, and unfulfilled wishes of love and acceptance (Frommer et al., 1995). Indeed, Giles (2000) has described several problems faced by celebrities, including loneliness, making new friendships that are genuine, and the loss of privacy.
—Lynn E. McCutcheon, et al., "Conceptualization and Measurement of Celebrity Worship"
How do I make my ideas flow in a paragraph?
"Flow" is a word used to describe the way a paragraph moves from idea to idea. This movement occurs both within the paragraph and between paragraphs. The best overall strategy to enhance flow within a paragraph is to show connections. A variety of simple techniques can help you to clarify those connections and thereby communicate your intended logic.
Deliberate repetition of key words helps. Reiterating the focus of your analysis by repeating key words or synonyms for key words enhances the overall flow of the paragraph. In the following example, the repetition of the key words "Canadian," "nation," and "communication" allows for clear flow throughout the paragraph.
While the deliberate repetition of a key word is a useful tool, you generally want to avoid repeating an entire idea. In particular, avoid ending a paragraph by making the same point you made in the topic sentence. This type of reiteration stalls or disrupts the development of ideas as well as the logical progression to the next paragraph.
Strategic use of pronouns such as it, they, and this keeps the focus on the ideas announced at the beginning of the paragraph—as long as they are clearly linked to specific nouns. In the following example the antecedent is underlined and its corresponding pronoun is in bold.
Specialized linking words can also be powerful tools for pulling ideas together. But don’t just sprinkle them into your sentences—use them to support your logic.
To signal a reinforcement of ideas:
To signal a change in ideas:
To signal a conclusion:
How long should a paragraph be?
Paragraphs vary in length depending on the needs of the paragraph. Usually, paragraphs are between one-third and two-thirds of a page double spaced.
A series of long paragraphs can make prose dense and unpleasant to read. Check any paragraph that is a page or longer to see whether it would work better as two or more paragraphs. Break it at a logical place (e.g., where your focus shifts), and see whether you need to create new topic sentences to make the shift clear.
Also look out for short paragraphs only two or three sentences long. They make academic writing seem disjointed or skimpy. Try combining short paragraphs with the preceding or following paragraph if they share the same topic. Short paragraphs might also need to be developed further. Make sure that nothing vital has been omitted.