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
Parts of an Essay — Traditionally, it has been taught that a formal essay consists of three parts: the introductory paragraph or introduction, the body paragraphs, and the concluding paragraph. An essay does not need to be this simple, but it is a good starting point.
The introductory paragraph accomplishes three purposes: it captures the reader’s interest, it suggests the importance of the essay’s topic, and it ends with a thesis sentence. Often, the thesis sentence states a claim that consists of two or more related points. For example, a thesis might read:
- A college essay has an introductory paragraph, several body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.
You are telling the reader what you think are the most important points which need to be addressed in your essay. For this reason, you need to relate the introduction directly to the question or topic. A strong thesis is essential to a good essay, as each paragraph of your essay should be related back to your thesis or else deleted. Thus, the thesis establishes the key foundation for your essay. A strong thesis not only states an idea, but also uses solid examples to back it up. A weak thesis might be:
- Wikipedia is a powerful resource in many ways.
As an alternative, a strong thesis for the same topic would be:
- Wikipedia is a powerful resource because it allows users with knowledge in a specific area to share their knowledge, because it allows users to quickly find information about a vast array of topics, and because studies have confirmed that it is as accurate as any other encyclopedia.
Then, you could separate your body paragraphs into three sections: one explaining the open-source nature of the project, one explaining the variety and depth of information, and a final one using studies to confirm that Wikipedia is indeed as accurate as other encyclopedias.
Often, writing an introductory paragraph is the most difficult part of writing an essay. Facing a blank page can be daunting. Here are some suggestions for getting started. First, determine the context in which you want to place your topic. In other words, identify an overarching category in which you would place your topic, and then introduce your topic as a case-in-point.
For example, if you are writing about dogs, you may begin by speaking about friends, dogs being an example of a very good friend. Alternatively, you can begin with a sentence on selective breeding, dogs being an example of extensive selective breeding. You can also begin with a sentence on means of protection, dogs being an example of a good way to stay safe. The context is the starting point for your introductory paragraph. The topic or thesis sentence is the ending point. Once the starting point and ending point are determined, it will be much easier to connect these points with the narrative of the opening paragraph.
A good thesis statement, for example, if you are writing about dogs being very good friends, you could put:
- A dog is an example of a very good friend because X, Y, and Z.
Here, X, Y, and Z would be the topics explained in your body paragraphs. In the format of one such instance, X would be the topic of the second paragraph, Y would be the topic of the third paragraph, and Z would be the topic of the fourth paragraph, followed by a conclusion, in which you would summarize the thesis statement.
- As we tra, we will identify jsisisiw99929392929e837e7emany people as friends. In truth, most of these individuals are simply acquaintances. They will enter and depart from our existences as matters of mutual convenience. True friends will be there for you always. There is no friend truer than a dog.
Identifying a context can help shape the topic or thesis. Here, the writer decided to write about dogs. Then, the writer selected friends as the context, dogs being good examples of friends. This shaped the topic and narrowed the focus to dogs as friends. This would make writing the remainder of the essay much easier because it allows the writer to focus on aspects of dogs that make them good friends.
Each body paragraph begins with a topic sentence. If the thesis contains multiple points or assertions, each body paragraph should support or justify them, preferably in the order the assertions originally stated in the thesis. Thus, the topic sentence for the first body paragraph will refer to the first point in the thesis sentence and the topic sentence for the second body paragraph will refer to the second point in the thesis sentence. Generally, if the thesis sentence contains three related points, there should be three body paragraphs, though you should base the number of paragraphs on the number of supporting points needed.
If the core topic of the essay is the format of college essays, the thesis sentence might read:
- A college essay has an introductory paragraph, several body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.
The topic sentence for the first body paragraph might read:
- The first paragraph of an essay is the introductory paragraph.
Sequentially, the topic sentence for the second body paragraph might read:
- The introductory paragraph is followed by several body paragraphs.
And the topic sentence for the third body paragraph might read:
- The college essay’s final paragraph is its concluding paragraph.
Every body paragraphs uses specific details, such as anecdotes, comparisons and contrasts, definitions, examples, expert opinions, explanations, facts, and statistics to support and develop the claim that its topic sentence makes.
When writing an essay for a class assignment, make sure to follow your teacher or professor’s suggestions. Most teachers will reward creativity and thoughtful organization over dogmatic adherence to a prescribed structure. Many will not. If you are not sure how your teacher will respond to a specific structure, ask.
Organizing your essay around the thesis sentence should begin with arranging the supporting elements to justify the assertion put forth in the thesis sentence. Not all thesis sentences will, or should, lay out each of the points you will cover in your essay. In the example introductory paragraph on dogs, the thesis sentence reads, “There is no friend truer than a dog.” Here, it is the task of the body paragraphs to justify or prove the truth of this assertion, as the writer did not specify what points they would cover. The writer may next ask what characteristics dogs have that make them true friends. Each characteristic may be the topic of a body paragraph. Loyalty, companionship, protection, and assistance are all terms that the writer could apply to dogs as friends. Note that if the writer puts dogs in a different context, for example, working dogs, the thesis might be different, and they would be focusing on other aspects of dogs.
It is often effective to end a body paragraph with a sentence that rationalizes its presence in the essay. Ending a body paragraph without some sense of closure may cause the thought to sound incomplete.
Each body paragraph is something like a miniature essay in that they each need an introductory sentence that sounds important and interesting, and that they each need a good closing sentence in order to produce a smooth transition between one point and the next. Body paragraphs can be long or short. It depends on the idea you want to develop in your paragraph. Depending on the specific style of the essay, you may be able use very short paragraphs to signal a change of subject or to explain how the rest of the essay is organized.
Do not spend too long on any one point. Providing extensive background may interest some readers, but others would find it tiresome. Keep in mind that the main importance of an essay is to provide basic background on a subject and, hopefully, to spark enough interest to induce further reading.
- A true friend will be there for you whenever you need them. Any dog owner will say that there is nobody that will stick with you through thick and thin as much as a dog. My own dog can barely contain her joy when I come home from a hard day. Regardless of my mood, and my attitude towards her, she is always happy when I am home, and that is usually enough to make me feel better about everything.
- True friends will help you when you are in need. Whether it is to protect their owner against some sort of threat or to help a blind person walk across the street, dogs are the most reliable companion a person could have. Few villains would attack a person walking a dog at night, and statistics show that homes with dogs are among the least likely to be broken into.
The above example is a bit free-flowing and the writer intended it to be persuasive. The second paragraph combines various attributes of dogs including protection and companionship. Here is when doing a little research can also help. Imagine how much more effective the last statement would be if the writer cited some specific statistics and backed them up with a reliable reference.
The concluding paragraph usually restates the thesis and leaves the reader something about the topic to think about. If appropriate, it may also issue a call to act, inviting the reader to take a specific course of action with regard to the points that the essay presented.
Aristotle suggested that speakers and, by extension, writers should tell their audience what they are going to say, say it, and then tell them what they have said. The three-part essay model, consisting of an introductory paragraph, several body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph, follows this strategy.
As with all writing, it is important to know your audience. All writing is persuasive, and if you write with your audience in mind, it will make your argument much more persuasive to that particular audience. When writing for a class assignment, the audience is your teacher. Depending on the assignment, the point of the essay may have nothing to do with the assigned topic. In most class assignments, the purpose is to persuade your teacher that you have a good grasp of grammar and spelling, that you can organize your thoughts in a comprehensive manner, and, perhaps, that you are capable of following instructions and adhering to some dogmatic formula the teacher regards as an essay. It is much easier to persuade your teacher that you have these capabilities if you can make your essay interesting to read at the same time. Place yourself in your teacher’s position and try to imagine reading one formulaic essay after another. If you want yours to stand out, capture your teacher’s attention and make your essay interesting, funny,
- It is no accident that many people consider their dogs as part of their family. Just like every other member, dogs contribute to the happiness and well-being of the home, making the burdens of caring for them well worth the effort. Dogs deserve love and respect every bit as much as they love and respect us. After all, what more can a friend be?
In the above example, focus shifted slightly and talked about dogs as members of the family. Many would suggest it departs from the logical organization of the rest of the essay, and some teachers may consider it unrelated and take points away. However, contrary to the common wisdom of “tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you have said,” you may find it more interesting and persuasive to shift away from it as the writer did here, and then in the end, return to the core point of the essay. This gives additional effect to what an audience would otherwise consider a very boring conclusion.