Writers use words to compose sentences that develop ideas. A group of related sentences that develops a particular idea is organized in a unit called a paragraph. Understanding the basic concept of “paragraph” is easy enough, but applying that understanding—that is, writing strong, focused paragraphs—can pose challenges for writers of all levels of accomplishment. The discussion that follows will help you understand effective paragraphing and reinforce good writing habits. Keep in mind that writing is a process, and producing good writing, paragraph by paragraph, takes time. Learning to write effective paragraphs will help you communicate ideas clearly to an audience and help you achieve the purpose of the writing.
THE PURPOSE OF THE PARAGRAPH
Paragraphs are the basic units of a piece of writing. Whether informative, persuasive, expository/explanatory, or another mode of writing, paragraphs express the beginning, middle, and end of a discussion in the form of an introduction, body, and conclusion. Each of these parts can be one or more paragraphs long, and the paragraphs in each part have a different purpose. The focus of this tutorial is on body paragraphs. The purpose of body paragraphs is twofold: 1) body paragraphs work together to develop a discussion about a topic within the scope of the thesis or main idea about that topic, and 2) each body paragraph works individually to develop one point of the discussion with supporting details and language that connects the paragraph to the rest of the paper.
THE QUALITIES OF AN EFFECTIVE PARAGRAPH
Unity, Coherence, and Development
An effective paragraph will have unity, coherence, and development. Unity means that each sentence provides information that relates to the established focus of the paragraph. Coherence means each sentence logically leads to the next sentence, and the writer has provided transitions and guidewords to make the movement fluid for the reader and the different ideas come together cohesively. Lastly, development refers to sustaining and building the discussion by providing enough supporting details that the point of the paragraph is clearly communicated to an audience. While paragraph length can vary, effective paragraphs contain enough substantive content that readers do not have lingering questions.
One major contributor to the opioid epidemic has been the aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Perez-Pena (2017) concluded that while the healthcare industry was attempting to effectively and efficiently treat patients with chronic pain, pharmaceutical companies were providing funding to prominent doctors, medical societies, and patient advocacy groups in order to win support for a particular drug’s adoption and usage. In fact, pharmaceutical companies continue to spend millions on promotional activities and materials that deny or trivialize any risks of opioid use while at the same time overstating each drug’s benefit (Perez-Pina, 2017). Although aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies has played a large role in opioid addiction, patients also play a role in the problem when they take advantage of holes in the healthcare provider system in order to remedy their addiction.
Perez-Pina, R. (2017, May 31). Ohio sues drug makers, saying they aided opioid epidemic. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/us/ohio-sues-pharmaceuticaldrug-opioid-epidemic-mike-dewine.html?_r=1
The example paragraph is unified on one topic: the opioid epidemic. It is cohesive; the ideas move from fact to evidence to example and include guiding words such as “one,” “while,” “in order to,” “in fact,” and “although,” which lead the reader from one sentence to the next. The paragraph is well-developed as it sustains discussion on the opioid epidemic and builds it with a new point about a contributing factor, which is presented with evidence from research and supporting details. It also uses language (e.g. “although”) that connects the paragraph topic, the role that pharmaceutical companies play, to the topic that will be discussed in the next paragraph, the role that patients play.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE PARAGRAPH
Limit the Focus to One Distinct Idea
The sentences in a paragraph work together to develop one distinct idea by sharing the same focus. One way that writers establish this focus is with a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence not only expresses the topic of discussion for the paragraph but also asserts a controlling idea that limits the focus of that topic. To create this limited focus, writers provide facts, opinions, definitions, examples, anecdotes, and descriptions, for example, support or explain the controlling idea.
Develop Paragraphs With the Audience and Purpose in Mind
The information given in the paragraph will also depend on the audience and purpose of the writing. To develop a paragraph with the audience in mind, the writer needs to consider what the audience already knows. Discussions are generally developed by adding new information to known information. The same topic would be discussed differently to an audience that does not know anything about the topic versus an audience who are already very familiar with it. The writer must also consider the purpose of the writing. An informative paragraph, for example, seeks to enlighten or educate the reader about the topic whereas a persuasive paragraph seeks to change the reader’s mind or behavior through the discussion of the topic.
Critics have argued that technology will dehumanize education; in fact, technology can actually personalize education. For example, once a print textbook is adopted, schools will stay with the curriculum until the next textbook adoption cycle. However, as Minnesota’s Byron Independent School District (ISD) realized when they designed their own online curriculum, teachers can adapt an online curriculum as needed to individually personalize a student’s educational experience. For example, Byron’s teachers made real-time adjustments to a particular math unit if a particular student was struggling to master an intended learning objective (Fulton, 2013). The Byron ISD experiment suggested technology, combined with a thoughtful pedagogy, can have a lasting, personal and positive impact on student learning.
Fulton, K. (2013, September 1). Byron’s flipped classrooms. Education Digest, 79(1), 22-26. https://search.proquest.com/openview/49d7ee537168e132960671e4bef70582/1.pdf?pqorigsite=gscholar&cbl=25066
The example paragraph is limited in focus on one idea about the topic—that technology provides opportunities to personalize education. Each sentence works to support this idea in the form of facts, examples, and anecdotes. The paragraph is also tailored to a specific audience and purpose. The writer begins with an opposing viewpoint to appeal to readers who may be critical of educational technology. The purpose of this paragraph is to persuade, so by presenting the opposing viewpoint then counterarguing it with research-based examples, the reader is more likely to see the writer’s viewpoint as logical and change their own opinion about the topic.
Use Various Rhetorical Modes for Developing and Organizing Paragraphs
Rhetorical modes refer to the patterns of development available to the writer. In other words, modes are the particular manner in which writers develop their thoughts, and quite typically the mode comes to us naturally depending on what we are trying to accomplish. If someone is talking to an auto mechanic about a problem with their car, they are describing. If a person is telling a story about their seven-year-old daughter, they are narrating. If one is talking about the types of books they like to read, they use examples. Whatever a person is trying to convey, they will do so with one or more patterns of development or rhetorical modes.
Types of modes include description, narration, comparison and contrast, example, definition, cause and effect, analogy, and analysis. Usually, the focus of the paragraph lends itself to the use of one primary mode, but even so, most paragraphs utilize more than one pattern of development. For example, if a student is taking a United States history course, they may be asked to compare and contrast the South before and after the Civil War. While the predominant rhetorical mode used in paragraphs will be comparison and contrast, the student will also probably use examples, include description, and offer analysis as you compare the old South to the new South.
Rhetorical modes help writers think about their topic and organize their ideas. These rhetorical modes also show writers the options available to them when composing paragraphs.
When to Begin a New Paragraph
Paragraph length is dictated first by content and purpose. A new paragraph signals a pause in thought and a change in topic, directing readers to anticipate what is to follow or allowing them a moment to digest the material in the preceding paragraph. Reasons to begin a new paragraph include
- beginning a new idea,
- emphasizing a particular point,
- changing speakers in dialogue,
- allowing readers to pause, and
- breaking up lengthy text, usually moving to a subtopic.
Transitions and Signal Words
A paragraph needs to be developed in a logical manner, and readers need to be guided through that development. Writers need to help readers by using transitional expressions and other appropriate words to guide them through the development of the paragraph. Transitional expressions function like glue—they hold a piece of writing together and give it order.
Long paragraphs of as much as a page or more often lack a well-defined focus. They do not allow readers an opportunity to assimilate one point before another is made. Long paragraphs can be divided and reorganized into two or more focused paragraphs.
By contrast, short paragraphs can seem choppy and undeveloped. They often leave the reader craving more information. The writer must think carefully of the needs of their audience and the purpose for the writing, and develop each point accordingly. For example, a paper with a persuasive purpose, written for an audience that does not share the writer’s view may need more development in each paragraph in order to present a convincing case. Depending on the audience and purpose, a writer may need to include more or less information. Ideally, paragraph lengths should invite readers in, neither seeming too daunting to read through nor appearing incomplete.
PIE METHOD OF PARAGRAPH DEVELOPMENT
One good way to go about developing paragraphs is to use the PIE method: The writer makes a strong point as expressed in the topic sentence; illustrates the point with supporting details and evidence; then explains how the evidence supports the point of the paragraph and relates to the thesis. The bold and italic formatting in the following example shows the PIE method at work:
P – Point
I – Illustrate
E – Explain
Despite preservation efforts, barns are in jeopardy, a reflection not only of economics but also of the fading family farm. To make matters worse, razing an old barn is often easier than saving it. Many people who own an unused barn are reluctant to spend money on keeping the building standing, and if the barn is already in rough shape, they usually neglect it until it falls down or is taken down. Preservationists say that in the majority of cases, ailing barns simply need to be stabilized by replacing the sills around the perimeter of the structure. But even this is too costly for a structure that barn owners consider functionally obsolete. Despite using them as big garages, barns tend to be taken down rather than repaired. Even carpenters who make a livelihood in construction lack the skills and equipment required for barn preservation.
Take-Aways for Writing an Effective Paragraph
- Focus limited to one distinct idea
- Paragraphs developed with audience and purpose in mind
- Various rhetorical modes considered for developing and organizing paragraphs
- Transitions and guidewords connecting parts
- Content developed and organized by PIE
When Revising Paragraphs, Consider the Following Questions
- What is the topic and controlling idea?
- What should readers understand after reading the paragraph?
- Is the topic sentence clear and limited in focus?
- Are all of the supporting details unified on the controlling idea?
- Will readers understand the relationship of the supporting details to the point of the paragraph and the larger point of the essay?
- Is the content organized in a logical, easy-to-understand manner?
- Is the development sufficient for the audience and purpose?
- Does anything need to be added or deleted?