Human Dimensions of Global Warming

Lesson 2 Writing Symposium: Paragraph Basics


We will be focusing on writing good paragraphs this semester. The motivation for this choice is that we can learn many writing skills without writing volumes. In addition, writing, rewriting, and rewriting one paragraph means that we can develop the important habit of revising our work.

In this lesson, we are going to start with fundamental, related topics: paragraph structure and paragraph development. This material comes from two sources: Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services (2004), “Paragraphs and Topic Sentences,” and Sheboygan Falls School District (2002-2008), “Falcon Skills & Style Handbook: Language Arts Across the Curriculum."

Paragraph Structure

Most paragraphs have three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Each part is essential in communicating an idea to the reader.

The introduction forms the beginning of a paragraph and contains the topic sentence. The topic sentence is the foundation of the paragraph and has at least four roles. First, it presents the paragraph’s subject. A well-developed topic sentence should clearly convey what the paragraph is about. Second, the topic sentence unifies the paragraph’s content by specifying what is in the paragraph. The implication here is that if the content of any sentence or clause in the paragraph does not convey information stipulated in the topic sentence, then that sentence or clause is off-topic and does not belong in the paragraph. Third, a topic sentence can direct the order of the sentences, either explicitly or by implying a logical order. Paragraphs must flow logically and, like a traffic cop, the topic sentence can help guide that flow. Finally, if the paragraph is part of a longer document, the topic sentence must substantiate or support the document’s thesis statement. Similar to the sentences in a paragraph, the topic sentences in a multi-paragraph document need to be on-topic.

Best practice in paragraph writing involves putting the topic sentence at the start of the paragraph. Although topic sentences are often the first sentence in a paragraph, it is acceptable to place one or two sentences before the topic sentence under certain conditions. One condition occurs when a sentence provides a transition that links to the previous paragraph. Another condition happens when a sentence provides background information that helps make sense of the topic sentence and the remainder of the paragraph. It is not unusual for both conditions to be present so the topic sentence becomes the paragraph’s third sentence.

Most paragraphs have a topic sentence, but not always. A topic sentence is unnecessary when the paragraph narrates a series of events. For example, if the paragraph recounts a person’s day, it is obvious from the context what the topic is and what the order of events are. No topic sentence is needed when the paragraph continues with an idea from the previous paragraph. For instance, if an essay recounts a person’s day and each paragraph covers a single event, it should be clear from the context what the topic is.

Following the introduction is the body of the paragraph. The body discusses the subject introduced by the topic sentence. It uses facts, arguments, examples, and analysis to explain, expand, and clarify this subject. The body is usually the longest part of the paragraph and, again, it is essential that it stay on-topic, with no superfluous information.

The conclusion follows the body. It summarizes connections between the paragraph’s topic sentence and information contained in the body. Often the conclusion forms a transition to the following paragraph. Most paragraphs have a conclusion, but they do not require one when the following paragraph continues the same idea and has no topic sentence.

Paragraph Development

There are several things to keep in mind when developing a paragraph. Some of these ideas were stated in the discussion about paragraph structure, but bear repeating.

First, always limit paragraphs to one main idea and put that idea in the topic sentence. Eliminate all sentences that do not support that idea.

Second, develop the paragraph’s body with facts, reasons, examples, statistics, details, or whatever argues for, supports, or explains the topic sentence. Depending on the audience of the paragraph, a story or an incident that illustrates the main idea can be a good way to deliver your message.

Third, make sure the paragraph is well organized and flows logically. There are many ways to organize a paragraph, depending on whether the information presented to the reader involves dates, locations, importance, cause and effect, or similarities and differences. Dates should almost always be put in chronological order. If the paragraph names locations, placing that information into a geographical framework –– say, moving from south to north or from inland to the coast –– makes more sense than jumping randomly from place to place. An exception might exist if those places also have a temporal element. For instance, if the paragraph describes the dates and places of Civil War battles, it might be better to present the battles chronologically rather than geographically. Another way to organize a paragraph is to present the information in order of importance, either from most important to least important or vice versa. Still another way to organize ideas is to present cause and effect, first explaining the cause of a phenomenon and then describing its effect. Finally, a common way to address similarities and differences is to compare and contrast things: comparing things means telling how they are alike; contrasting things means describing how they are different.

In summary, when developing a paragraph, always remember: do not stray from the main idea and do eliminate all straying sentences; do not be wordy and do eliminate all extra words, phrases, clauses, and sentences; do use transitions; and do use parallel structure. Keeping these simple rules in mind can improve a paragraph significantly.