Academic writing is hard work. The advent of email and text messaging has only made academic writing harder because those mediums favour short choppy paragraphs to make a quick point. However, a paragraph in a published non-fiction context is a developed idea or theme rather than a single point. In this post I will explain what a paragraph should look like, provide examples of two different types of paragraphs, and provide some short directions on composing paragraphs.
Crews (1984, 491) defines a paragraph as “One or more sentences marked as a unit, usually by the indentation of the first line. A typical effective paragraph develops one central idea or theme, in a consistent manner.” The first part of this definition provides the technical definition of a paragraph. Using only a technical definition the typical one or two sentence sections of email messages are paragraphs. However, the second part of the definition points to why a published non-fiction paragraph is almost always multiple sentences. In published non-fiction generally and in academic writing specifically a paragraph needs to develop an particular idea or theme.
There are many different types of paragraphs. I am going to deal with two here: the descriptive paragraph and the argument paragraph. A descriptive paragraph develops a picture of one specific something. This something could be an idea, an organization, an individual or a location. The first sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph. The middle of the paragraph should delineate the relevant aspects of the something being described. An ending sentence should refer to what was just described and connect the paragraph with subsequent paragraphs. An argument paragraph has much the same structure with the difference being that the middle sentence(s) make a specific argument. Booth, Colomb and Williams (2003, 114) explain how to make an argument, “you make a claim, back it with reasons based on evidence, acknowledge and respond to other views, and sometimes explain your principles of reasoning” (boldface in the original). A complex argument could take multiple paragraphs because the argument has multiple parts. However, each part should be developed in a single paragraph with an introductory claim, some defence of the claim, and a summary of what this means (cf. Payne 1965, 70-80). These two examples illustrate that a paragraph must have at least three parts: a beginning that introduces the topic, a middle that develops the topic, and an end that summarizes the topic.
There is much flexibility in writing paragraphs but this three-part structure is common to all of them. To develop how to write a paragraph a bit more here are some short directions that can serve as a guide for paragraph writing:
- One topic should be in one paragraph. Change paragraphs only when the topic changes.
- Paragraphs must contain at least three sentences and must start with a topic sentence and end with a summary and/or connecting sentence.
- What works for short communication pieces does not work for longer documents because the short paragraphs distract from the flow of an argument.
- A paragraph should develop a particular idea or a self-contained part of an idea. Paragraphs should be mini-arguments that make a particular point that is directly related to the focus of the section and the overall objective of the document
These guidelines do not encompass all types of paragraphs but they should be sufficient to make your writing easier to follow and your arguments more convincing. If you want more detail a quick web search will point you to many valuable resources.
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. 2009. The craft of research. 3Rd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Crews, Frederick. 1984. The random house handbook. New York: Random House.
Payne, Lucile Vaughan. 1982. The lively art of writing. Chicago, Ill: Follett Pub. Co.