Say – what the heck is a paragraph anyway?

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Whether you’re writing a term paper in an undergraduate history course or a PhD thesis in biochemistry, you’re going to need to know how to write a proper paragraph.  Paragraphs are the fundamental building blocks in any formal document and yet most students haven’t got a clue how to put one together.  It’s not their fault – likely no one has ever explained it to them before.  Over the years, I’ve found that about 99% of university students adopt one of the following three (improper) strategies to decide when to start a new paragraph.  

  • One sentence = one paragraph: These students essentially write prose is in point form (without the bullets).  It’s just a string of ideas, each separated by a bit of white space.
  • Two inches = one paragraph – These students know that a paragraph should be comprised of a group of sentences. They just don’t know where the divisions should be, so they start a new paragraph every two inches or so, as they work their way down the page.  The idea is that – if it “looks” like the right length to be a paragraph – it must BE a paragraph.
  • One sentence + two inches = one paragraph – Some students employ a combination of these two approaches.  Troubled by the short appearance of a one sentence paragraph, they opt to write extraordinarily long sentences so that they can get a full two inches of text in before hitting the enter button to start that next paragraph.

Clearly all of these methods should be avoided – especially in consideration of your poor reader.  Fortunately, the correct approach is simple if you break the problem down into components.  (Hopefully you remember this modular writing concept from my last post – it’s going to come up a lot in the future, as well.)  As the figure on the left illustrates – every paragraph must have a topic sentence (usually at the beginning). The rest of the paragraph then presents evidence, facts, and/or discussion to support the idea put forth in that topic sentence.  This is why there is no such thing as a one sentence paragraph.  Frankly, if you don’t have at least four sentences, then you either have excessively long sentences (which is tedious) or incomplete paragraphs (which is unacceptable).

Now that you know what constitutes a proper paragraph, there is no excuse for not checking and fixing all of your own paragraphs in the future, always and forever.  It’s simple to do.

  1. Go through your thesis or report and highlight the topic sentence in every paragraph. You should then be able to read through all of the topic sentences and see a logical organization and development of ideas. (If not, then some reorganization is needed.) If you can’t find the topic sentence for a particular paragraph, then that paragraph obviously needs fixing.
  2. Next, critically examine every supporting sentence in every paragraph in terms of relevance. Does this supporting sentence belong with this topic sentence? If not, does it belong in another paragraph (sometimes one that is far away)? Will it require the construction of a new paragraph? (Don’t forget you’ll need a topic sentence for any new paragraph.) Should it just be thrown away?
  3. Finally go through every paragraph and organize the supporting sentences into a logical order. Get rid of any duplicate information now.

This will be the most time-consuming part of the writing process but it will have the most significant effect, in terms of improving your thesis or report.  It will also expose any vague content, since you will recognize this when you try to figure out where to place individual sentences. Vague ones will be hard to classify and you’ll see why you need to fix them. It will also expose redundancies.

As simple as this sounds – I find that most students vehemently resist my advice to do it, primarily because it is so time-consuming.  However, keep in mind this important rule of technical writing: never pass on any mess to your reviewer that you can fix yourself.  Every time you give a “draft” to your professor or supervisor – you should know that you have checked everything meticulously and you should honestly believe that it is absolutely perfect.  In the long run, this will save you both a lot of time and aggravation.  In the “real world” it will quickly get you recognized as a valuable asset to your employer, something that always pays off.


12 thoughts on “Say – what the heck is a paragraph anyway?

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    Paragraph problems | MVM learning said:
    March 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    […] In this post Fay Hicks provides a simplified explanation of how to decide when a paragraph should start and finish. Check it our here. […]

    Paragraph problems – Research Pointers said:
    March 11, 2017 at 10:07 pm

    […] In this post Fay Hicks provides a simplified explanation of how to decide when a paragraph should start and finish. Check it our here. […]

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