Build clear paragraphs

The paragraph is one of the key structural elements in most forms of writing. Like a building block, it is usually one of many which, when put together, form the whole. Yet it is also an entity in itself, with its own internal structure. The paragraph contains a topic sentence, supporting (or elaborating) sentences and a concluding (or linking) sentence.

A well-written paragraph will convey your ideas, the relationships between them, and your line of reasoning clearly, while a poorly structured paragraph can obscure your meaning and confuse your reader.

Six features of a paragraph

How to build a paragraph

Paragraph structure is important in ensuring that your meaning and thought processes are clear to the reader. A clear paragraph should contain the following:

  • the topic sentence, which introduces your point
  • the supporting sentences, which develop the point by providing evidence, explanation or examples
  • the concluding sentence (optional) which helps connect your point to your overall argument
  • every sentence should serve a clear purpose in relation to the topic sentence.

In any essay or assignment you are likely to have several points to make or ideas to discuss. You will present information and explain how your thinking developed to reach a particular conclusion. Paragraphs are used to organise this information so that your reader can easily follow your thought processes and the relationship of one topic to another.

Each paragraph therefore has a specific function within the overall aim of the piece of writing. It may serve to describe a topic, explain a concept, analyse findings, support or refute a contention, qualify a claim, evaluate a study, compare or contrast information.

When that purpose has been achieved and you move on to your next point, you generally begin a new paragraph.


Play the video below to learn more about paragraph structure and consolidate your understanding.

Note

Just as with a burger, you need the 'buns' (the topic and concluding sentences) of your paragraph to hold it together. You also need 'fillings' (supporting sentences) to develop the theme. But be careful; if you fill your paragraph with too many 'fillings' it may fall apart.

Most academic writing is structured in paragraphs. Paragraphs break up what could otherwise be very dense text, which is tiring to read, but their main function is to help the reader follow the development of ideas.

You were probably taught that a paragraph should contain one main idea, and that you should begin each new or contrasting idea in a new paragraph. This is a good rule of thumb, but it is not always straightforward to apply.

The following paragraph is from a student teacher’s reflection on her observations during a teaching placement.

I noticed that when poorer students worked in groups they seemed to be more enthusiastic and willing to contribute to finding a solution to the maths questions. In contrast, when they worked alone, they needed much encouragement. One student frequently turned to me for help, and was reluctant for me to leave her. She would ask me to give her the answers, rather than show her how to work through the problem. The confidence a student feels can be understood in terms of 'locus of control'.
According to Rotter (1966) motivation is increased when a person has an 'internal locus of control', that is, when the person perceives outcomes to be a result of their own abilities. However, he argues that when a person feels that outcomes are a result of external forces, or experiences an 'external locus of control', they will be less motivated. When working in groups, these students demonstrated an 'internal locus of control'. They were more willing to try and work through maths concepts in order to contribute when working in groups. They developed an understanding of maths concepts more easily and readily than when working alone. Good teaching then involves creating conditions where students can develop this 'internal locus of control'.

In one way, this paragraph works because it is all about the writer’s reflection on her observation; the students’ behaviour, the relevant theory, and the conclusion she drew. However, it could also have been presented like this:

Sample paragraphsComments
I noticed that when poorer students worked in groups they seemed to be more enthusiastic and willing to contribute to finding a solution to the maths questions. In contrast, when they worked alone, they needed much encouragement. One student frequently turned to me for help, and was reluctant for me to leave her. She would ask me to give her the answers, rather than show her how to work through the problem. This paragraph describes the students’ behaviour
The confidence a student feels can be understood in terms of 'locus of control'. According to Rotter (1966) motivation is increased when a person has an 'internal locus of control', that is, when the person perceives outcomes to be a result of their own abilities. However, he argues that when a person feels that outcomes are a result of external forces, or experiences an 'external locus of control', they will be less motivated. This paragraph explains the relevant theory
When working in groups, these students demonstrated an 'internal locus of control'. They were more willing to try and work through maths concepts in order to contribute when working in groups. They developed an understanding of maths concepts more easily and readily than when working alone. Good teaching then involves creating conditions where students can develop this 'internal locus of control'. This paragraph analyses the students’ behaviour in relation to the theory

Paragraph length

  • Whenever you feel you have ‘completed’ a point, begin a new paragraph.
  • If a paragraph fills most of the length of an A4 page it is likely covering more than one key point, and should be broken up. Look for a suitable place to create a break, such as a shift to another aspect of the topic.
  • If you really can’t find one, leave it as it is. In academic writing you may have the occasional very short paragraph, but if you have several in a row, you probably need to restructure your assignment.

The topic sentence is like a mini introduction: it tells the reader what the paragraph is about. In academic writing it is usually, though not always, the first sentence.

A simple topic sentence performs two essential functions:

  • It establishes the topic of the paragraph.
  • It sets up the reader’s expectations regarding the aspect of the topic to be developed in the paragraph.

Compare these two topic sentences:

A. Gold has long been valued for its beauty.

B. While gold is well-known for its decorative functions, it also has a range of industrial uses.

It is clear that ‘gold’ is the topic of both paragraphs. After reading sentence A we might expect the paragraph to review the history of gold as a decorative metal. After reading sentence B, we would expect to learn about its industrial uses.

In long pieces of writing, topic sentences can be quite complex as they also play a role in marking the transition from one aspect of a topic to another, or even to a completely new topic.

Look at the topic sentences below.

Topic sentencesPurposes
Jessop et al (2014), however, do not agree that such behaviour is related to trauma. introduces a contrasting view
Similarly, residents at a rural aged care facility also found that their concerns were taken more seriously when meetings with management were conducted formally. introduces supporting evidence
The 25 participants who had given negative feedback were then asked to reflect on what they themselves would have done differently given another opportunity. marks the move to the next step in a process
Biofiltration is increasingly being used to reduce nutrients in urban stormwater discharge to receiving waters. narrows the topic

A quick reading of the topic sentence of each paragraph should reveal the gist of the whole assignment.


Note

English readers expect to discover the point of a piece of writing soon after they begin reading. This is true also of paragraphs within a longer piece of writing. The topic sentence is therefore usually the first sentence in a paragraph.While there can be exceptions, for example, when the first sentence has a linking function, the topic sentence should always appear near the beginning, particularly in academic writing.


Supporting sentences develop or elaborate on the point introduced in the topic sentence. They can perform a variety of different functions, depending on the purpose of the paragraph.

Analyse The paragraph provides evidence to show how you have arrived at the claim made in the topic sentence.
Concur

The paragraph explains why you agree with another scholar’s idea.

Define

The paragraph defines a key term or concept introduced in the topic sentence.

Describe The paragraph builds up a detailed picture of the topic (concept, object, process, phenomenon, location etc).
Evaluate The paragraph assesses the strengths and weaknesses of a claim, argument, hypothesis or method.
Explain The paragraph may explain the topic in detail or provide the reasons for a claim.
Negate or refuse The paragraph argues that another scholar’s idea, or a previously held belief, is incorrect.
Qualify The paragraph indicates the scope of a claim or limitations to the evidence for it.
Summarise The paragraph draws together the key points previously discussed.

Note

When revising your drafts, for each sentence ask yourself:

  • How does this sentence contribute to the purpose of the paragraph as stated in the topic sentence?
  • If you cannot answer this question, you may have digressed from the point of the paragraph.

The cohesion of a paragraph depends largely on the order in which the ideas are presented. This is especially true in introductory paragraphs, which should begin with the broadest statement about the topic and narrow to the specific topic to be addressed. Look at this paragraph, which introduces an essay on the potential of garlic to treat cancer. Can you identify the topic sentence?

Garlic has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (Aboul-Enein and Aboul-Enein, 2005), and possess anti-microbial (Sivam, 2001) and antioxidant properties (Imai et al., 1994). This essay will explore research into garlic's potential roles in reducing cancer risk and in treating cancer. Garlic (Allium sativum L.) has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. Its use for healing purposes can be traced back as far as 1550BC when documentations of its therapeutic use first appear in Egypt (Hassan, 2003; Rivlin, 2001). In modern times belief in the beneficial effects of garlic on health has led to it being used for a number of conditions.

Just as the connection between the topic sentence and the supporting sentences in a paragraph must be clear, so must the connections between the sentences themselves be clear. Otherwise the paragraph can appear disjointed or even incoherent.

This is achieved by using:

Repetition

One way a writer can link sentences in a paragraph is by simply repeating a keyword, but it is important not to use this device too often. You could also use synonyms – however, ensure accuracy of meaning.

Pronouns and determiners

Writers often make links between sentences in a paragraph by replacing the repeated use of the main noun with pronouns such as 'it', ‘them’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’. These are reference pronouns. Determiners such as ‘the’, ‘this’ and ‘that’  are used for subject identification.

Synonyms

Another technique is to use words with similar meanings (synonyms) in the paragraph. This is a way of making links between sentences without using too much repetition.

Connected words and collocations

To make connections between sentences words do not have to be exact synonyms. Sometimes a writer will use words which belong together or have similar associations and connotations. Collocations are certain words that regularly occur together. There are many common collocations in academic English. For example, consider these common collocations for the word “account”: “brief account”, “comprehensive account”, “historical account”.

Signposting

Signposts such as 'for example', 'however' or 'alternatively' indicate the meaning relationship between (or within) sentences. They tell the reader how to interpret the information presented.

Note

Check your own paragraphs

  • Does each sentence support the purpose of the paragraph as expressed in the topic sentence?
  • Does the paragraph flow logically and coherently?

Not every paragraph needs a concluding sentence. When used, concluding sentences indicate that the topic - or an aspect of the topic - is complete. They can do this by performing one of the following functions:

  • summing up the key point/s of a long paragraph
  • drawing a conclusion based on the information presented in the paragraph
  • reinforcing the relationship of the paragraph content to the overall aim of the piece of writing
  • transitioning to the next paragraph

There are usually a variety of ways to conclude a paragraph. Your choice will depend on what you want the concluding sentence to do - its function.

Here is a paragraph with three possible concluding sentences, each of which performs a different function.

Despite the wide availability of information on the harmful effects of alcohol on the developing foetus, many western women continue to drink even after learning that they are pregnant. In the USA, approximately 7.6% of pregnant women admitted to drinking during pregnancy [12], while in Canada, approximately 15% of pregnant women consume alcohol [13]. French figures show that up to 47% of women drank alcohol while pregnant [14], and similar results have been seen in Australia [15].

Possible concluding sentences include:

Concluding sentencesPurposes
These figures suggest that factors other than knowledge are at play. Drawing a conclusion
While the proportions of women drinking during pregnancy vary widely from country to country, this is clearly not an isolated phenomenon. Summing up
However, the situation is noticeably different in Asia. Transitioning to next topic

The relationship between the concluding sentence and the topic sentence should always be clear. If you cannot trace the development of the theme between them, you may have digressed from the original purpose of the paragraph.