Writing clear paragraphs

Introduction

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, put together, form the whole. Yet it is also an entity in itself, with its own internal structure.

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.

This tutorial introduces the elements of a paragraph and shows how they contribute to the construction of a coherent piece of writing.

The tutorial will cover:

Paragraph purpose

In any essay or assignment you are likely to have several points to make or ideas to discuss. You will both 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.

Activity

Read the following paragraphs and Identify the key purpose of each from the options given.

Paragraph structure

Play the video below to learn about paragraph structure.


Tip

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 paragraphs Comments

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'.

This paragraph describes the students’ behaviour

This paragraph explains the relevant theory

This paragraph analyses the students’ behaviour in relation to the theory


Tips

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 a 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.

Activity

The following paragraph is from an essay comparing and contrasting two eighteenth century artistic periods. Identify where a paragraph break is needed.

Topic sentences

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:

  1. It establishes the topic of the paragraph.
  2. 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.

Activity

Below are the topic sentences from a first year Criminology essay. Read them in order then answer the question below.

  1. Police culture has often been described as the biggest impediment to police accountability.  
  2. Police culture is passed down from senior to junior officers, based not on policing theory but first-hand experience.
  3. Perhaps the most criticised aspect of police culture is the ‘Code of Silence’.   
  4. Further contributing to the hindrance of accountability is the culture of cynicism and pessimism.  
  5. Australia has several rigid and independent accountability and integrity mechanisms in place that act to reduce the influence of police culture on accountability (Hoque et al., 2004).  
  6. These bodies are part of a ‘new accountability’ favouring ‘external oversight’ over ‘centralised control’ (Chan, 1999, p. 251).  
  7. Another accountability mechanism is seen in the form of inquests and inquiries.
  8. A major reform aimed at enhancing police accountability has been the introduction of community-based policing.  
  9. While some progress has been made, it can be concluded that police culture remains a major impediment to police accountability.

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.

Now that you have seen what a topic sentence looks like, locate the topic sentences in the following paragraphs.

Activity

Click on the topic sentence in the following paragraphs.

Supporting sentences

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. Click on the headings below to learn more.

The paragraph below describes and explains a type of behaviour observed by an education student on a teaching placement.

The writer:

  1. describes the students’ behaviour
  2. analyses the behaviour with reference to the relevant literature
  3. draws a conclusion about the reason for the behaviour.

Click on each tab and follow the instruction.


Activity

Read the paragraph. Click on the supporting sentences that describe the students’ behaviour.

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'.

Sentences found: 0 of 4


Activity

This time click on the supporting sentences that explain concepts from the literature.

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'.

Sentences found: 0 of 3


Activity

This time, click on the supporting sentences that analyse the students’ behaviour with reference to the literature.

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'.

Sentences found: 0 of 3

The final sentence sums up the conclusion drawn by the writer.

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'.

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If you are writing about observed experiment results, you might need to:

  • Explain the expected outcome
  • Compare the existing theory with your results
  • Explain the cause of the difference
  • Specify experiment conditions
  • Offer an alternative explanation

Activity

The following paragraph reports on the unexpected results of a biology experiment.

  1. Read the paragraph and click on the supporting sentences that attempt to explain the outcome of the experiment.
  2. Read the paragraph again and click on the supporting sentences that qualify the claims made.

It was expected that our study would show a far higher rate of decomposition in the shore zone, where there are more chances for sediments to rub against the leaves. However the two zones show no significant difference in leaf breakdown, although these results are non-conclusive due to the limitations of this experiment. The two zones of leaf decomposition were physically too close and over the incubation period, reeds were observed growing close to the limnetic zone. This may have negatively affected the accuracy of the results by reducing the differences in habitat at these sites as seen in other experiments (Jones et al. 1981). Our results also had large standard deviations, possibly due to these physical constraints or human error in weighing leaves. Further studies with more diverse zones and precise procedures should be undertaken in order to explore leaf decomposition and rates of energy transfer more effectively.


Tip

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.

Paragraph cohesion

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.

Activity

The topic sentence has now been placed at the beginning of the paragraph (sentence 1). Rearrange the order of the other sentences to improve the cohesion of the paragraph. Drag and drop each sentence into position.

Hint: Make sure the paragraphs flow from general to specific, and distant to recent.

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 use of the following:

Activity

Click on the linking methods listed to see examples of how they are used to maintain cohesion in this paragraph.

The artworks discussed in this essay share obvious similarities. Both works are full-length portraits of performers in their performing environments. In Watteau's L'Indifferent, there is a sense of the dancer posing for the portrait in the festive manner characteristic of the Rococo period. In contrast, in Delacroix's Paganini the violinist seems to carry himself with more intrinsic purpose, perhaps enacting a more truthful value typical of the Romantic ideal. There is, nevertheless, a similarity in the two poses that suggests motion, as both performers seem to be caught in mid movement. This dynamic quality was not typical of the other art movements prior to or during the 18th century, where portraits tended to depict people in staid, sober poses.

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?

Concluding sentence

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 is 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:

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

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.

Activity

When a concluding sentence performs a linking function, it is important to ensure that it creates a semantic link to each of the paragraphs it connects. Look at the paragraph below. Which of the two concluding sentence options forms the better link to the next paragraph, which is about media influence in remote areas?

Paragraph structure is important in ensuring that your meaning and thought processes are clear to the reader. The topic sentence introduces your point, the supporting sentences develop the point by providing evidence, explanation or examples, and the concluding sentence, where used, helps connect your point to your overall argument. Every sentence should serve a clear purpose in relation to the topic sentence.