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Writing effective paragraphs

An important key to good essay writing is effective paragraphing. Basically, when you start a new idea, you should start a new paragraph. A paragraph is '…a self-contained expression of a single main idea.' (Higgs et al 2005:49)

A paragraph generally consists of 3 parts:

  1. topic sentence
    • not just mentioning the topic but presenting the controlling idea (what you are saying about the topic)
  2. supporting sentences
  3. concluding sentence ('clincher').

Paragraph length – not too long and not too short

Paragraphs that are overly long can be tedious to read, and reduce coherency in your writing. On the other hand, paragraphs that are overly short (consisting of only one or two sentences) can be distracting for the reader, making your writing appear disjointed and less cohesive. The following is an example of an essay with good content, but poorly constructed paragraphing.

Patient self care, lifestyle and stress

There are a number of lifestyle factors that have an effect on the health of an individual, particularly when suffering from a heart condition.

Following the onset of his heart condition, Eric became aware of the need to modify his lifestyle. In particular he realized that he had to reduce his consumption of alcohol, as he was previously a heavy drinker.

Eric did a very stressful job, so occupation was also a significant factor affecting his health. He worked long hours and describes his job at that time as extremely demanding.

Read the text below. Notice how the first paragraph introduces the broad theme for the section, and the topic sentence in the second paragraph continues that theme.

Patient self care, lifestyle and stress

There are a number of lifestyle factors that have an effect on the health of an individual, particularly when suffering from a heart condition. These include diet, exercise, social habits, occupation and stress levels. In Eric's case, his social habits were particularly significant, as prior to the onset of his condition he was accustomed to spending almost every night at his local hotel. In a typical night he would consume several alcoholic drinks and smoke a number of cigarettes. At his doctor's advice, he has now modified this behaviour, and only visits his local hotel once a week.

Another significant lifestyle factor affecting patients with heart conditions is occupation. Clearly problems can arise where an individual with a heart condition has a high pressure, stressful occupation. At the time of his first heart failure, Eric was working as an editor on a national newspaper. He worked long hours, did shift work, had irregular meal breaks and sometimes worked to very tight deadlines. In his own words, his job had 'an adverse effect' on his health – it was a significant cause of stress in his life at that time.

Although it is not possible to have a firm rule on the ideal length of a paragraph, what in your view is a reasonable range to aim for in terms of the number of sentences?

Exercise

Choose a text that you have written previously, and examine your writing, focusing on the paragraphing. Are your paragraphs of a reasonable length, or are they tending to be too long or too short? Do your paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Note your writing style and what modifications you need to make to produce more effective paragraphs.

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