Writing better paragraphs
One of the key purposes of academic writing is to demonstrate that the writer has a clear understanding of complex ideas and this requires the ability to analyse, interpret and present information effectively. While topics within an assignment should flow from one paragraph to the next in a logical manner, the content and structure of each paragraph needs to tell its own story and allow the writer to demonstrate that they have a thorough, critically aware, level of knowledge.
The following content is intended to outline the most common structural elements of a paragraph in a good quality essay and also points the reader toward a number of useful resources. As your writing improves, you'll find alternative models and will need to rely less on templates such as this. If however, you keep being told that your writing needs to improve in order to raise your grade averages then read on.
Structure of a Paragraph
- What are you talking about? The first sentence of your paragraph should make it clear what area is under consideration in this paragraph - it's sometimes called the topic sentence.
- Just as an essay needs a good introduction, so does a paragraph. The main points of the paragraph need to be introduced or contextualised first.
- The paragraph should start with a statement that flows logically from the topic in the previous paragraph however direct backward links to the previous paragraph should be avoided/limited.
- Avoid starting paragraphs with the author’s name, for instance: “Williams (2016) argues that…”. This is often the start of a paragraph that is solely drawn from one source and can often be a precis of a single article rather than the consideration of a topic that is underpinned by several sources of evidence.
- Top tip: When reading the work of others you should be able to skim read the topic sentences of each paragraph and get a good idea of what the writer will cover in that piece of writing.
- Explanations/Definitions This should refine or elaborate on the general topic
- Include any necessary definitions but try and avoid taking a whole sentence to define a term and think about whether it really needs defining or if you are just using up your word count.
- Consider defining terms if there are alternative definitions or comparisons to be made that will lead into your critical analysis later.
- Evidence. You need to underpin the topic with reference to well chosen studies.
- This is where you offer the reader data or evidence that you will discuss or explain below.
- Consider the quality of studies chosen (i.e. are there any systematic reviews?)
- Identify a small number of studies but keep this concise as you’ll get more credit for moving on to critically evaluate the basic concepts rather than simply describing a handful of studies that support the main point.
- Discussion/Critical Point(s). This is where the higher grades are awarded. Explain what the evidence cited above means, put it into context, report different perspectives and try to outline the reason for these different perspectives.
- Key phrases commonly found here include however, although, despite this, otherwise, conversely, nonetheless, rather, and while. Review advice on the use of transition words or common academic phrases used when being critical.
- Spend some time reviewing guides on how to write critically. This is a good one from University of Birmingham.
- End it. Sum up, conclude or point out the implications of this knowledge, how might it be applied.
- Remind the reader why the point you have made is relevant to the main theme.
- Consider where you are going next and how the reader will be lead to that sub-topic
Examples of Good Paragraphs
Extract from Glanz, K., Rimer, B. K., & Viswanath, K. (Eds.). (2015). Health Behavior: Theory, Research, and Practice. (5th Ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Source: Year 2, Marjon University student
- Notice that in the examples shown above most of the paragraphs are at least four or five sentences long. Example 1 (para 1) is shorter, however this serves as an introduction paragraph for this section of the textbook. Regular paragraphs with less than about five sentences will usually lack appropriate depth and fail to fully consider the topic in question.
- Each paragraph should be about just one thing, and each paragraph should be just long enough to fully explain or explore its point.
- You should be able to explain the content of any particular paragraph by pencilling in a 3 or 4 word sub-title into the margin. If there is a significant shift in topic matter, conflated topics or rogue points being made in the middle of the paragraph then remove them leaving a focused stronger section of writing. It could be that you need to split it into two paragraphs and expand each argument separately.
- A reasonable guide is that in a double-spaced, 11/12 point font, any single paragraph should not take up more than about three-quarters of a page.
Unfocused or “too listy”
- A paragraph is unfocused when it tries to cover too many topics at once yet fails to do so in enough detail.
- A paragraph is "too listy" if it is simply describing every element of any particular theory or categorisation in order. Often these can be improved by introducing an overview of the topic in question and then drawing particular attention to one aspect in more detail.
- A slightly ironic point having just given so many rules for writing a paragraph!
- The structure outlined above is intended to help students raise their game (and hopefully grades). The danger is however, that adhering too tightly to them for every paragraph will end up with the writing seeming repetitive, predictable and disconnected from the points within it. It won’t look like the reader has engaged with the content enough.
- To prevent this, expand your toolbox of phrases and narrative signposts. Try a resource like the Academic Phrasebank to improve your range of stock phrases.
- Using a couple of textbooks and a handful of journal articles, examine the paragraph structure of as many paragraphs as you can.
- In any paragraph, identify the purpose of each sentence.
- Find paragraphs that take a different approach and consider their purpose.
- Spend time looking at how any paragraph is connected to the next one. What methods can be used?
- Choose 3 paragraphs that you consider to be examples of good practice.
- Revisit some of your own work (or review a current piece). Choose one paragraph and spend time examining it's structure and thinking about how it can be improved after reading this resource and reviewing a number of published texts.
Recommended reading and sources used to create this page
- Paragraphs, Flow and Connectivity from The University of Sheffield
- How to structure a paragraph in an academic essay by Shane Bryson
- A short guide to critical writing for Postgraduate Taught students by University of Birmingham
- Transition Words
- How to Write Paragraphs by Patrick Dunleavy
- How to Write a Good Paragraph by Ashford University