Writing a paragraph

Constructing clearly defined paragraphs is the key to a good essay. Paragraphs can be seen as being rather like the bricks in a wall. They are all interdependent but they are also independent units. They support each other but they have their own character. Every paragraph will have its own focus and this will be different from that of any other paragraph in your essay. Each paragraph will be one element in your overall answer to the question that has been asked.

The topic of the paragraph must always be very clearly stated at the start. Not surprisingly, this first sentence is referred to as the topic sentence of the paragraph.

The topic sentence is very important for four reasons.

  • Writing the topic sentence of a paragraph requires you to think very carefully about the focus of that paragraph. In other words, you will not be able to go on to develop a well-constructed paragraph without thinking very carefully about the content of that paragraph. This helps to limit any drift in the paragraph and will help you to edit out vague, unfocused writing.
  • Having written the whole paragraph, you can return to the topic sentence and check whether the topic of the paragraph has in fact been clearly reflected in the writing. If you have drifted in a different direction during the paragraph, you will be able to see this very clearly.
  • The topic sentences will help you to check the logical flow of your essay. A very good way to see if your essay is well constructed is to cut and paste the introduction on to a separate page, together with each of the topic sentences. When you look at your introduction and your topic sentences, there should be clear logical progression. You should be able to see the direction and development of your essay. The focus of each paragraph should be obvious. If this is not the case, you will need to go back and reconsider the topic sentences, the wording of your paragraphs and perhaps the structure of your essay.
  • The topic sentence also guides the readers and enables them to follow your essay far more easily. (Very important when you want a good mark!) The topic sentences are rather like signposts leading the reader through the text.

Paragraphing is an important convention of written English. It has developed as a visual way of helping the reader to follow an extended piece of writing. Paragraphs help us to understand how the sentences are grouped together and in this way they are very useful. The sentences within a paragraph explore one specific theme while a new paragraph indicates that a new topic or idea is being addressed. Paragraphs may be long or short, but each one will develop a particular topic point. Paragraphs are not a unit of length. There is no specific length for a paragraph in an academic essay, although in general we can say that three lines is too short and one full page is too long. It is very important that your paragraphs are sequenced in a logical order because they will provide the major building blocks for the argument in the essay. In the same way that blocks are placed one on top of each other to construct a building, so your paragraphs will be placed in such a way that you gradually build up your argument. Many students make the mistake of thinking that an academic essay is merely a description, but this is not correct. It is an integration of facts and evidence that provides the reader with a coherent argument. Your paragraphs should be steps in the development of your argument.

A text that has been well planned has well-organised paragraphs, and the purpose of each paragraph will be clearly signposted by its layout as well as by the language. First, a new paragraph will be marked out in one of two ways: either a full line is left between the paragraphs or the first word of the new paragraph is indented. Today, the majority of writers leave an empty line between the paragraphs. Second, a paragraph is a series of sentences that develops one idea, and in academic writing that idea is usually stated in one sentence (although it may not be the first sentence) and this is called the topic sentence. This is the most important sentence in the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph will support and elaborate the idea, and perhaps provide examples to illustrate the topic sentence. In some ways this is similar to a newspaper article where you often find that the first sentence of each paragraph states clearly what it is about. You may have noticed that you can skim through a newspaper article by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

The paragraph topic statement can take several different forms.

  • It may tell the reader what to expect in the paragraph: The survey results indicate that banks are failing their customers.
  • It may be a statement that will be supported with evidence: The discovery indicates that the Bronze Age settlers built three types of houses.
  • It may make a clear statement of belief and then go on to elaborate: Humour is one of the best ways of combating disease.

The topic sentence cannot be:

  • a simple statement of fact: Paris is the capital of France.
  • a vague opinion or comment: I think that banks in Britain are overcharging.

After the topic sentence, the writer must provide illustrations or evidence to support the topic sentence. These are called topic points. There may be several topic points in a paragraph and each one will be supported by specific details. The framework of your first three paragraphs might look like this:

  • Topic sentence 1
  • Topic point A: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point B: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point C: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic sentence 2
  • Topic point A: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point B: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point C: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic sentence 3
  • Topic point A: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point B: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc
  • Topic point C: specific detail 1, 2, 3 etc

Specific detail under the various topic points can comprise anything from examples, statistics, dates or description, as well as support for your argument from other writers through quotations, paraphrase or summary.

Have a look at the activity below. These sentences comprise a short description made up of two paragraphs. Pinpoint the topic sentences of the two paragraphs and then decide on the order of the remaining sentences.

Title of the essay: Keeping fit

The rowing machines are always very popular and there are five different models.

The water is always very clean although the changing rooms are rather small.

In addition, it is well staffed and there is always someone there to give you assistance.

However, you will need to check the timetable carefully because sometimes there are special times set aside for children or families or club training.

It is open to swimmers from 8am in the morning until 10pm at night.

The Munrow Centre is in the campus of the University of Birmingham and it offers a wide range of different ways in which people can keep fit.

Finally, there are swimming lessons for people who cannot swim.

The gym provides an excellent centre for improving fitness.

Another very popular activity is using the cycling machines and these are also extremely popular with both men and women.

The 50metre swimming pool is extremely well used.

There are large changing rooms and showers for both men and women.

It is very well equipped and contains many different machines.

Keeping fit

The correct order is as follows:

The Munrow Centre is in the campus of the University of Birmingham and it offers a wide range of different ways in which people can keep fit. The 50metre swimming pool is extremely well used. It is open to swimmers from 8am in the morning until 10pm at night. However, you will need to check the timetable carefully because sometimes there are special times set aside for children or families or club training.

The water is always very clean although the changing rooms are rather small. Finally, there are swimming lessons for people who cannot swim.

The gym provides an excellent centre for improving fitness. It is very well equipped and contains many different machines. In addition, it is well staffed and there is always someone there to give you assistance. The rowing machines are always very popular and there are five different models. Another very popular activity is using the cycling machines and these are also extremely popular with both men and women.

There are large changing rooms and showers for both men and women.

Now look at the paragraph below and decide on the topic sentences and the note the different features. Write down the features of this paragraph in line with the framework of topic sentence, topic point and specific detail referred to above.

Trees

Trees are very important to us for many very practical reasons because of the uses to which the wood can be put. However, their value in economic terms is nothing compared to their role in helping to regulate the world's climate and providing fertile soil. The wholesale destruction of trees is a threat to us all because trees support life. A single tree can take up 1000-2000 litres of water from the ground every year, releasing most from the leaves as water vapour. This water vapour is then added to water vapour from other sources to form clouds. It eventually returns to the ground in the form of rain or possibly snow. This ability to move vast quantities of water vapour from one place to another has a significant effect on the regional climate and on local water table levels. Another factor is that the ground in a forest acts like an enormous sponge. It absorbs rainwater and holds it within the soil, releasing it gradually back into the atmosphere. Where trees have been cut down, the ground is unable to absorb water so easily and it runs off, rapidly causing flooding in other areas. A further factor is the degree to which most trees add to the fertility in the soil around them. Every year millions upon millions of leaves flutter down and rot into the soil, adding to the richness of the soil base in which other plants can grow. Insects thrive within this rich, damp environment and they are themselves a source of food for other animals up the food chain. All of them are threatened when trees are cut down in large numbers.

Comment on the passage Trees

Trees are very important to us for many very practical reasons because of the uses to which the wood can be put. [Topic sentence] However, their value in economic terms is nothing compared to their role in helping to regulate the world's climate and providing fertile soil. [Topic point 1] The wholesale destruction of trees is a threat to us all because trees support life. [Specific detail A] A single tree can take up 1000-2000 litres of water from the ground every year, releasing most from the leaves as water vapour. [B] This water vapour is then added to water vapour from other sources to form clouds.[C] It eventually returns to the ground in the form of rain or possibly snow. [D:] This ability to move vast quantities of water vapour from one place to another has a significant effect on the regional climate and on local water table levels. [Topic point 2] Another factor is that the ground in a forest acts like an enormous sponge. [Specific detail A] It absorbs rainwater and holds it within the soil, releasing it gradually back into the atmosphere. [B] Where trees have been cut down, the ground is unable to absorb water so easily and it runs off rapidly causing flooding in other areas. [Topic point 3] A further factor is the degree to which most trees add to the fertility of the soil around them. [Specific detail A] Every year millions upon millions of leaves flutter down and rot into the soil, adding to the richness of the soil base in which other plants can grow. [B] Insects thrive within this rich, damp environment and they are themselves a source of food for other animals up the food chain. [C] All of them are threatened when trees are cut down in large numbers.


 

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