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Paragraph Development

English 127
Research Writing


Paragraphs are the building blocks of your essay, so you can see your various paragraphs, including the introduction and conclusion, as providing an architecture for your reader's experience of your writing. 

Topic Sentences:  Each of  your paragraphs should have a topic sentence, which you can see as a mini-thesis statement just for that paragraph.  This helps you to stay focused and coherent in your paragraph so that you're not trying to cover too many subissues or straying from your main purpose in that paragraph.  A topic sentence most often appears as the first sentence of a paragraph, but occasionally it might be a second sentence (for example, if the first sentence was transitional) or the last sentence of the paragraph.  In some writing, topic sentences are not explicit but remain implied; however, in academic writing, it is best if the topic sentence is explicit. Avoid using quotations as a substitute for a topic sentence, though it might on rare occasions be appropriate to begin a paragraph with a quotation. 

Length:  Academic paragraphs should be between 1/2 - 3/4 of a double-spaced typed page (journalistic paragraphs, e.g., those you might find in a newspaper, are shorter).  This length allows you to develop your ideas with some depth and complexity without exhausting your reader's patience and attention span.  Of course, this length is only a general guideline, so there may be legitimate exceptions in the body of your essay. 

Too Long?:  If a paragraph is ending up being too long, consider where you might split it into two or three paragraphs; this might require you to add a new topic sentence or transition or reconsider your organization of ideas.  Although most of us hesitate to cut what we have managed to write so painstakingly, you should in fact assess whether everything in your paragraph is necessary to illustrate and develop the idea you are discussing; perhaps your wording and selection of details can be made more efficient.

Too Short?:  If a paragraph in an academic essay is shorter than this guideline, that may be intentional on your part, which may be okay as long as you are not only relying on short paragraphs.  Consider the following strategies for expanding a short paragraph: 
- develop your idea or subtopic further (you can brainstorm or freewrite on a separate piece of paper on just that subtopic and see if additional ideas emerge);
- do some new, quick research on just that subtopic;
- if your paragraph is too broad and general, make your claims or information more specific, perhaps by adding an example or two;
- if your paragraph is too specific, i.e., it only lists an idea, story or example, help the reader understand its broader meaning or implication;
- elaborate your explanation, describe the significance of the issue, or connect the paragraph more explicitly to the thesis statement or overall purpose of your essay. 

Introduction:  Introductory paragraphs are of course unique in that there is just one first paragraph that your reader encounters.  Here is your opportunity to grab the reader's attention (though academic writing frowns upon sensationalism or cheap tricks to get the reader's attention), to give a sense of the significance of the topic at hand, to be specific about what piece or pieces of the puzzle your paper will tackle, to provide as specific and concise an overview of the various subtopics you will cover in the body of your essay, and to provide a thesis statement (your main claim or purpose).  Although introductions sometimes have pithy quotations, save substantive, long quotations from the authors you have consulted for the body of your essay. 

Conclusion:  There is no blueprint for what a conclusion should look like; just like the introduction, you have choices to make, based on your purpose and your sense of the reader.  Here are some guidelines to consider: 
- A conclusion should not merely summarize the paper, nor should it repeat the exact phrasing from elsewhere in the paper.  For example, even if you decide to restate your thesis statement (which isn't always necessary or appropriate), don't use the exact same wording. 
- A conclusion should suggest the significance of the paper and its findings.  One way to think about significance is by posing the "So what?" question to your paper.  Even if the reader were to accept all that you have written, so what?  How might it change their thinking or understanding of what needs to be done, etc.?  Significance can also be about linking the thesis statement to larger questions or frameworks. 
- Conclusions sometimes suggest next steps or possibilities for further research.  Given the work you have done in your paper, where do we go from here (either you or your reader or a team of researchers or policymakers, etc.)?  In English 127, for example, I do not allow students to base their papers on trying to solve a problem; however, the conclusion of the Final Research Article might suggest a possible solution that is directly linked to the new knowledge that the essay presented. 
- A conclusion, like the introduction, might also include a quotation.  However, keep in mind that the reader is reading your voice, analysis, viewpoints and framework; therefore, be careful not to unnecessarily turn over the authority you have claimed in writing the paper to another writer. 
- Never begin your concluding paragraph with "In conclusion,...."  It is far too generic; be more creative!

Principle of Organization:  You can choose from many options when deciding how to organize the information, evidence, questions, issues and arguments in your essay.  For example, if you were writing on the mass media, you might choose to have different paragraphs on each of the media, e.g., radio, TV, internet, etc.  However, you might also organize your paragraphs in a number of different ways, depending on the issues and various subtopics you are investigating.  For example, you might organize your paragraphs to take on the subtopics of corporate ownership, advertising influence, independent production of content or the democratization of the media, etc.

Quotations and Paraphrases:  Most academic writing will include quotations and paraphrases from published materials you have consulted.  This is especially true of research writing.  Use quotations and paraphrases from other authors very purposefully and judiciously.  Do not rely so heavily on other writers that the reader won't know why they are reading your paper rather than one of your experts' published articles.  Do not simply throw in quotations, whether to convey information or viewpoints.  You must incorporate quotations and paraphrases into your own purpose within any given paragraph.  Incorporate quotations with such setup statements or signal phrases as "According to..." or "The judge in the case offered the following explanation for the harsh penalty," etc.  You also must comment on any quoted materials; this does not mean that you have to pass judgment on a particular quotation, but you do have to help your reader understand why you have included it, and how it relates to the purpose of the paragraph or the thesis statement or the paper as a whole.  See In-text Citations for further discussion. 

Revising & the Reader:  When revising your paragraphs during the writing process and deciding what to add, subtract, expand, condense, move or reword, think of your paragraphs as guiding your readers through a carefully constructed sequence and presentation of ideas, information, evidence, claims, counterarguments, conclusions, etc. 

Temporary Labeling:  Come up with a short label (one to three words) for each paragraph, much as I have done for this section on Paragraph Development itself.  This label will correspond to the paragraph's topic sentence, and will help you stay focused while giving you a visual reminder of how the paragraph fits into the overall architecture of the paper.  You can always remove the labels as you get ready to submit your full draft. 

Section Headings:  For longer papers, you can group paragraphs together into sections.  For example, the Final Research Article in English 127 requires a literature review section, so all of the paragraphs that comprise the literature review can fall under a labeled section heading.  The temporary labels are excellent tools for coming up with possible section headings, all of which you may or may not end up retaining for your final draft.