Developing Coherent Paragraphs
Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support   

Paragraph structures provide a map for your ideas, guiding readers through your reasoning. Keep this simple set of principles in mind while you write, and use it as a checklist when you're revising

Use Topic Sentences

State the central idea of each paragraph explicitly in a topic sentence. That's one way to show that you have thought through your material.

In academic writing, the topic sentence nearly always works best at the beginning of a paragraph so that the reader knows what to expect. Don't count on your readers to guess what your paragraph is going to be about.

NOTE: The first and last paragraphs of an essay are exceptions to this rule. In both instances, readers already know you're leading up to something, and you can save the topic sentence to make a strong paragraph ending.

Expand on the Topic Sentences

The body of a paragraph develops and demonstrates what your topic sentences state. Here are some common patterns:

  • Explain more fully what you mean, giving definitions or indicating distinctions.
  • Offer details, examples, or relevant quotations (with your comments).
  • Follow through a logical sequence, showing the connections among your ideas in a recognizable pattern such as cause and effect or comparison and contrast.

(U of Ottawa's HyperGrammar provides strategies for developing paragraphs. To learn more about topic sentences, see our page on Using Topic Sentences.)

Show Connections

Be sure your intended logic is clear. Often the simplest words do the most to pull together ideas. Pronouns such as it and they and this keep the focus on the ideas announced at the beginning of the paragraph—as long as they are clearly linked to specific nouns (see the Purdue University file on pronoun reference). Deliberate repetition of key words also helps. This paragraph shows the interweaving of key nouns and pronouns to emphasize the point that Canadians share an interest in communication:

It's perhaps not surprising that Marshall McLuhan, the most influential communications expert of the twentieth century, was a Canadian. As a nation, we have been preoccupied with forging communication links among a sparse, widespread population. The old Canadian one-dollar bill, with its line of telephone poles receding to the distant horizon, illustrates this preoccupation. Year after year we strive to maintain a national radio and television broadcasting system in the face of foreign competition. We have been aggressive in entering the international high technology market with our telecommunications equipment.

(from Northey, Impact: A Guide to Business Communication. Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 1993, p. 3.)

Certain 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. Here are some examples

To signal a reinforcement of ideas:

also in other words in addition
for example moreover more importantly

To signal a change in ideas:

but on the other hand however
instead yet in contrast
although nevertheless in spite of [something]

To signal a conclusion:

thus therefore accordingly
in conclusion finally so [informal]

Choose Appropriate Paragraph Length

A series of long paragraphs can make prose dense and unpleasant to read. Check any paragraph that is longer than a page to see if 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 for paragraphs only two or three sentences long. They make academic writing seem disjointed or skimpy. Try combining a few short paragraphs into one, using a single topic sentence to hold them together.


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