4.4: Forming Effective Paragraphs

Learning Objectives

Target icon3. ENL1813 Course Learning Requirement 1: Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences

v. Craft unified and coherent sentences and paragraphs (ENL1813A CLR 1.3)

As you expand your research material and outline notes into sentences, you will also begin to package those sentences into larger units—paragraphs—that follow a standard, familiar structure that enables readers to easily follow their content and locate key information at a glance. If a sentence communicates a complete thought, a paragraph communicates a topic comprised of a few thoughts coherently collected together in an organized sequence. (Paragraphs themselves assemble to form larger units of meaning such as sections in a report, as we shall see in §7.34 below, or chapters in a book as you can see in this one, so paragraphs represent an intermediate level of organization in larger documents.) Whether your message is a long one made of many paragraphs or just one paragraph fired off in an email, organizing paragraphs helps you clarify your thoughts to both yourself and your reader.

4.4.1: Paragraph Size and Structure

A well-organized paragraph follows the standard three-part message structure outlined in §4.1 above. In a paragraph, we call these three parts the:

  1. Topic sentence
  2. Body or development sentences
  3. Transitional or concluding sentence

At minimum, then, a paragraph should have at least three sentences, but ideally 4-5 to allow the development sentences in the body to explore the topic in detail. If a rule of thumb on sentence length is that sentences should vary in size but average about 25 words long (see §4.3.3 above), then a normal paragraph should be about ten lines on the page when the font is 12-pt. in a document with 1-inch margins. Like sentences, however, paragraphs should vary in length depending on audience needs and abilities, as well as the topics being covered. An audience with advanced literacy skills can handle longer paragraphs that would lose an audience reading at a more basic level, which takes us back to our earlier points about adjusting the message to the audience profile (see §2.2 above). Some topics need more development sentences than others and don’t easily divide in the middle, though a paragraph of ten sentences or more is really pushing it. “Wall-of-text” paragraphs longer than a page are out of the question in professional writing. No matter what the size, however, all paragraphs should follow the standard structure explained below so that readers at any level can easily find what they’re looking for.

1. Topic Sentence

The topic sentence states the main point or thesis of the paragraph and thus summarizes the small collection of sentences following it, so the reader can take in the whole before examining the parts. As we saw in §4.1 above, this direct-approach organization caters to the primacy effect in our psychology whereby first impressions are the strongest and most memorable. Readers should thus be able to see how every sentence in any well-organized paragraph expands on something said in the topic sentence. In this particular paragraph, for example, you will see how the second sentence expands on the part in the topic sentence about accommodating the reader. The third sentence extends that idea to expand on the part in the topic sentence about how topic sentences summarize all paragraph parts as a whole. The sentences that follow (including this one) illustrate how that system works with examples. The final sentence wraps up the topic as broached in the first sentence while bridging to the next topic sentence, which in this case is about how to come up with a topic sentence.

For many writers, drafting a topic sentence is typically a search for one while writing the rest of the paragraph first and then discovering it as a concluding summary exercise. When you are just putting ideas down in the drafting stage of the writing process, you may not know yet what your point is at the outset of writing a paragraph. You likely have a general sense of your topic and some points to cover, probably based on information you collected in your research earlier (see Ch. 3 on Stage 2 of the writing process). As you connect that evidence and build sentences around those information points, you begin to see where you’re going with the topic and the thesis suddenly comes into focus near the end. If you then say “In conclusion, …, ” summarize what you were getting at in a nutshell, and leave it there, however, you will do your reader a disservice by leaving your topic sentence buried under the pile of evidence that should be supporting it. In this case, delete “In conclusion,” highlight the final sentence, copy and cut it (ctrl. + c, ctrl. + x), and paste it (ctrl. + v) at the top of the paragraph so it does what a topic paragraph should do: preview what follows with an at-a-glance summary.

2. Body or Development Sentences

The development sentences expand on every component part of the topic sentence in a sequence of complete thoughts. The sentences that comprise this sequence explore the topic by following an organizing principle through detailed explanations, supporting evidence, illustrative examples, rhetorical counterpoints, and so on. The organizing principle could be any of those listed in Table 4.1.3 above such as chronology or comparison and contrast. As parts of a logical sequence of sentences, each sentence connects to those around it with pronouns that use effective repetition (referring to nearby points without repeating them word for word; see Table 4.4.2a below) and transitional expressions (see Table 4.4.2b) to drive the topic exploration forward. In the paragraph under “1. Topic Sentence” above, for instance, the pronoun “this” in the first development sentence (the second sentence in the paragraph) represents the topic sentence position referred to in the topic sentence preceding it. In the sentence above this one, the transitional phrase “for instance” signals an illustrative example offered as supporting evidence of the topic sentence thesis on the sentences’ path towards the transitional or concluding sentence.

3. Transitional or Concluding Sentence

The final sentence of a well-organized sentence wraps up the topic exploration by completing the main point stated in the topic sentence, as well as establishing a thematic bridge to the topic sentence of the next paragraph if indeed there is one. As a bridge, the final sentence looks forward to the following topic sentence by previewing some of its terminology, just as the paragraph preceding this one does. As a wrap-up, the final sentence should in no way merely paraphrase the topic sentence, as you were probably taught to do in middle school or junior high, because the repetition of a point read 20 seconds earlier would waste the reader’s time. Any topic summary belongs at the top where it can summarily preview the paragraph’s subject, not buried at the bottom. Rather, the final sentence concludes the topic in the sense that it completes the expansion of topic-sentence points carried by the development sentences, leaving no loose ends to confuse the reader.

Especially in cases of stand-alone paragraphs or final paragraphs in a document, concluding sentences that tie up those lose ends with a clever and memorable turn of phrase cater to the recency principle in psychology. Recall how “recency” means that final impressions have impact similar to first impressions (see §4.1 above), making the concluding/transitional sentence an important one to the overall success of a paragraph in ensuring that the main point broached in the topic sentence is fully understood. With every part of a paragraph fulfilling a purpose towards communicating a larger point, the double duty that the concluding/transitional sentence performs makes it the glue that binds together paragraphs and the documents they comprise.

4.4.2: Paragraph Coherence

Coherence is achieved by paragraphs sticking to the topic summarized in the opening sentence, as well as using pronouns and transitional expressions to link sentences together while developing that topic. Paragraphs that grow to the point where they exceed about a dozen lines on the page usually deserve to be broken up into a couple of topics as their internal transitions take them into territory far enough from the topic stated in the first sentence. Generally, a paragraph sticks to just one topic while the one following it covers a related but distinct topic.

Like the organizational principles we explored above, we have a repertoire of recognizable pronouns, transitional expressions, and particular words or phrases that connect ideas in our writing so readers can easily follow our trains of thought. Pronouns such as those in Table 4.4.2a below allow us to represent nouns, phrases, and even whole sentences that came before (called antecedents) without repeating them word for word—as long as the antecedents are clear (Pronouns, 2016; Darling, 2014; see also §5.2 on proof-editing for pronoun-antecedent disagreement or ambiguity).

Table 4.4.2a: Pronoun Types and Examples

Pronoun Type Singular Plural Examples in Sentences
1. Personal subject pronouns  1st person: I
2nd person: you
3rd person: she, he, it
we
you
they
I wrote the script so that we would be prepared. Would you all prefer if you, Jenny, went first? She said that he could do it first instead. The team members are really quite good at what they do.
2. Personal object pronouns 1st person: me
2nd person: you
3rd person: her, him, it
us
you
them
The committee awarded the contract to me but the credit goes to all of us. They could give one to you, as well. The committee sent her the news yesterday, sent it to him today, and wished them all good luck.
3. Personal possessive determiners 1st person: my
2nd person: your
3rd person: her, his, its
our
your
their
My advice is to deposit your payment in our account now. Indeed, all your payments are late. Her payment came through, but his didn’t. Their payment plan needs updating so that its bad timing doesn’t them in trouble.
4. Personal possessive pronouns  1st person: mine
2nd person: yours
3rd person: hers, his, its
ours
yours
theirs
Let’s figure out what’s mine and what’s ours. You’ll get yours. The house is hers, the car is his, but the account is theirs.
5. Reflexive and intensive pronouns 1st person: myself
2nd person: yourself
3rd person: herself, himself, itself Reflexive: when the subject(s) and object(s) are the same person or people. Intensive: when it can be deleted without being ungrammatical.
ourselves
yourselves
themselves
I gave myself a break and you gave yourself an ache when we threw ourselves in the lake. He perjured himself (reflexive) and she won herself a new car (intensive). Love itself was lost (intensive). Do yourselves a favour. They stopped themselves from falling.
6. Demonstrative pronouns close by: this
remote: that
these
those
This deal might take some time. Pass me that report over there. These are the kinds of things you can expect when those people get involved.
7. Relative pronouns subject: who
object: whom
restrictive: that
non-restrictive: which
The accountant who does our taxes asked whom he should send the funds to. The account that he set up is a trust fund, which can be accessed in five years.
8. Interrogative pronouns  personal: who
objective: what, which
possessive: whose
Who is going to call? What are they going to say? Which company do they represent? Whose number are they going to use?
9. Indefinite pronouns one, everyone, no one, none, someone, somebody, anybody, everybody, nobody, other, another, everything, either all, most, many, several, some, few, others, both, neither One of us cannot be wrong. Everybody knows somebody. No one can tell anyone else what to do. Everyone has a right to know everything, but many don’t know that. All or most came today. Anybody can play guitar. Some went on, but none came back. Neither showed up, but either could have called, so both are at fault. Someone sent several calls to the others. Few can say that the other sent another.

While pronouns often look back, transitional expressions drive a topic forward by establishing the relationships between the content of sentences. Table 4.4.2b below collects many such adverbs and conjunctive adverbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, infinitive phrases, interjections, and so on.

Table 4.4.2b: Transitional Expressions within and between Paragraphs

Transition Type Examples
1. Sequence First, …. Second, …. Third, …
Initially, …
From the start,
…Next, …
…, then …
Later,
…Ultimately, …
Finally, …
2. Addition, repetition Additionally, …
Again, …
Also …
Not only …, but also …
Furthermore, …
… and …
… or …
…, as well as …
Besides, …
Equally important …
Further …
Alternatively, …
In addition, …
Another …
Moreover, …
3. Time When … / Whenever …
Before …
Earlier, …
Recently, …
Meanwhile, …
While …
Now …
Currently, …
During …
Immediately …
Simultaneously,
Subsequently,
After …
Afterwards, …
At last, …
4. Place, position Above …
Below …
Near …
To the left/right of …
Opposite …
Close to …
Adjacent to …
Farther on …
Beyond …
In front of …
Behind …
Throughout …
5. Logic, cause & effect Therefore, …
Thus, …
For this reason, …
Consequently, …
Hence …
If …, then …
Clearly then, …
It follows that …
Accordingly, …
As a result, …
Because …
Since …
6. Similarity, comparison In the same way, …
Just as …, so too …
Likewise, …
Similarly, …
 … also …
7. Example For example, …
For instance, …
…, specifically …
… in particular …
To illustrate, …
In this way, …
8. Opposition, exception, contrast However, …
…, however, …
… notwithstanding, …
On the one/other hand, …
On the contrary, …
 …, but …
…, although …
Nevertheless, …
Nonetheless, …
… instead …
Still, …
…, yet …
In spite of …
In contrast, …
9. Emphasis Indeed, …
In fact, …
Even …
Of course, …
10. Paraphrase, summary In other words, …
…—that is, …
…—that is to say, …
To paraphrase, …
To summarize, …
In conclusion, …
In sum, …
in a nutshell,
In a word, …
In brief, …
Ultimately, …
in the end,

Source: Transitional Expressions (2003)

Key Takeaway

key iconCollect and connect your sentences into coherent paragraphs that use a three-part structure to provide readers with a means to skim when pressed for time, find appropriate detail otherwise, and follow your train of thought through the effective use of pronouns and transitions.

Exercises

1. Find a professionally written document that contains paragraphs. Copy and paste one paragraph (or transcribe it if it’s from a print source) into a document and separate the sentences so that you put the topic sentence under the heading “Topic Sentence,” development sentences under a heading of their own, and concluding/transitional sentence under a heading of its own, too. Under each development sentence, explain what part of the topic sentence it expands on. If the paragraph lacks coherence, rewrite (1) the topic sentence so it’s a more effective summary of the whole paragraph, and (2) each development sentence so its role in extending the topic sentence is clearer.
2. Write a coherent, well-organized paragraph on a topic you recently learned about in another course in your program. Don’t use the textbook or other text that you learned it from as a source to copy from; instead, write from memory and your understanding. Ensure that:

i. The topic sentence explains the whole thing in a nutshell
ii. Each of the development sentences expand on ideas in the topic sentence and flow from one to another using pronouns from Table 4.4.2a and transitions from Table 4.4.2b.
iii. The concluding sentence completes the reader’s understanding of the topic.

3. Write a paragraph on how to make coffee, tea, or another hot beverage. Begin the paragraph with a topic sentence, provide the details in the development sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Include at least two transitional expressions from the table above.

References

Darling, C. (2014). Pronouns. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3423

Pronouns. (2016, March 25). Grammarly. Retrieved from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/pronouns/

Transitional expressions. (2003). Iowa State University. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jeaune/Horticulture_LC_105/Web/Transitionalexpressions.htm

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4.4: Forming Effective Paragraphs by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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