A paragraph’s length has no set limit. Some writers make their point quickly, which might be the case if you want to “cut to the chase.” Some writers take more space to make their point, which might be the case if you need to provide thorough detail. The bottom line: You’ll need the right amount of sentences (few or many) to make your point.
You should never approach a paragraph in terms of length; your vision of a paragraph should match your vision of the material you plan to discuss. Think of audience. For example, if you’re describing a process, a series of steps, how much information does the reader need? Should you use a lengthy list of careful details, or does what you’re describing only require a few simple steps? A long paragraph might offer too much information and make the reader lose focus. A short paragraph might not include everything you need to make your point clear. It’s a balancing act, one that only audience and subject matter determine.
Let’s consider the development of paragraphs:
The topic sentence of each paragraph should tell you what information to include. If you’re writing an essay about a character from a short story, for example, you don’t want to list all of his/her characteristics in a long rant. Divide these characteristics into categories. If you want to talk about the happy side of Joe Fiction’s personality, use one paragraph to list examples and analysis. To discuss Joe Fiction’s darker side, use another paragraph. To compare the similarities and differences using analysis, this will call for yet another paragraph.
Topic sentences, in most cases, are the first sentence of each paragraph. Typically, a reader should be able to look at the first sentence of each paragraph and know exactly what that paragraph will discuss.
After writing a paragraph, here’s a checklist of things to consider:
- Does my evidence support this paragraph's idea?
- Is the evidence overwhelming? Am I losing the reader by including too many or too little details?
- Am I worried about length? Is there any information that seems redundant? Am I repeating myself?
- If I am repeating myself, why? Is there any way to condense my information?
- Are the terms in my paragraph clear?
- Does my topic sentence properly introduce the paragraph?
All papers need a coherent structure, and this is usually determined by the order in which information is introduced. For example, if you are tracing the history of a particular subject, arranging your subject matter in chronological order would best suit your essay. If you are analyzing a piece of literature, then you might need to draw from the end of the story to explain and interpret sections or reasoning behind its beginning. If you are writing a paper for a sociology class, a behavioral study, for example, then you might arrange your paragraphs by categories of emotion or action.
In all cases, no matter how your paragraphs are arranged, you’ll need to work toward forming a conclusion. Think of your paragraphs as a way of tallying information for the final result. A lawyer can’t win a case without presenting all of his/her evidence; if something’s missing, even the smallest important detail, your essay might be guilty of structural fraud! Always work toward having a clear picture of your ending in mind, something that will tie up all loose ends. Make sure every paragraph you write serves the paper as a whole.
Once you’ve written your thesis, topic sentences, and organized your evidence, you might go back and read the essay and find that what you’re trying to say doesn’t make sense. All of your evidence is there. Your argument addresses counterpoints, but something about the language doesn’t make sense. It might not be a problem with your structure or arrangement. Sometimes a lack of coherence might stall your essay or cloud its purpose.
Typically you can spot this by reading your work aloud. If you come across a passage that doesn’t make any sense to you, it won’t make sense to someone else. The last thing you want is for your reader to have to go back over a sentence more than once and figure out its meaning.
1. Always start with grammar. Underline the subjects in all of your sentences. Can these subjects coexist with the actual subject of your paragraph? Is the subject at the beginning of the sentence or the end? Putting it in the beginning will give your reader an idea of what you’re talking about before you make your point. A reader will judge your idea and form conclusions about its importance based on where you placed a subject within any given sentence. Are your sentences overwhelmed by too many prepositions? Is there a way to cut back?
2. It’s a good idea to narrow the amount of sentence subjects in order to make your writing clear and concise. Too many subjects will often confuse readers. The best way to get an idea of how your subjects are working is to go through each paragraph and underline them. If you have many different subjects with no clear connections, you will need to revise.
3. Read your sentences front to back and back to front. What does sentence one say about sentence two? Does sentence three belong after sentence two? This will help you determine the relationship that sentences need within a paragraph to function.
4. Practice the concept of old to new. If you use older information at the beginning of the sentence, and new information at the end, this accomplishes two main things. First, it provides your reader with a balanced platform: you take the material from familiar and universal themes to the unexplored. Second, the newer information towards the end indicates emphasis on the most current developments. Readers will suspect the most current information is the most important, which is true in most cases.
5. Key words and phrases should be repeated to refresh the reader’s memory and put emphasis on certain terms, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to sound redundant.
6. Know your timeline. Transitional sentences will either make or break a shift in time. Make sure you’re clear when the switch happens.
Examples to show:
(place) -- above, below, here, there, etc.
(time) -- after, before, currently, during, earlier, later, etc.
(example) -- for example, for instance, etc.
(addition) -- additionally, also, and, furthermore, moreover, equally important, etc.
(similarity) -- also, likewise, in the same way, similarly, etc.
(exception) -- but, however, nevertheless, on the other hand, on the contrary, yet, etc.
(sequence) -- first, second, third, next, then, etc.
(emphasize) -- indeed, in fact, of course, etc.
(cause and effect) -- accordingly, consequently, therefore, thus, etc.
(conclude or repeat) -- finally, in conclusion, on the whole, in the end, etc.
Introductions and Conclusions
Introductions and conclusions are the most challenging paragraphs in any given essay, because they hold so much influence over the body of your text. They are the two main paragraphs that will leave impressions on your reader. They are the set-up and wrap-up, the life support. No essay will survive without them.
This is your chance to win the reader’s interest. The tone must be effective, informative, but not dull, so the reader will want to read the rest. Don’t be too vague or too specific—just enough to get things moving. It’s a good idea to try out your introduction on multiple readers and record their reactions, making changes where necessary. Identify a context in which your argument takes place. Without a context, an introduction has no legs, and the rest of the essay won’t walk unless we know the angle from which you approach a topic.
1. Declare your topic broadly and then announce your specific angle. For example, if you are interested in the multiple narrators in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, you might consider the following:
- Begin by saying that Faulkner’s characters have confused many of his critics.
- Offer a brief explanation of the problem, as other critics have explored it.
- State your thesis (your personal position on the subject).
2. Provide any additional information that serves your argument. In this Faulkner example, if critics were confused by his writing style, what were other writers publishing in Faulkner’s day. Who were the popular, praised writers of Faulkner’s day?
3. Explain any key words or phrases. Sticking with Faulkner, you might want to define style, rhetoric, aesthetic, etc. Start by defining these terms and use them as a springboard to explain the first components of your argument.
4. Sometimes a good quote or anecdote is a great place to begin a paper. It gives the reader something familiar and universal to latch onto before you describe an argument or similar process. Just make sure the ties and connections to this anecdote are clear.
Your introduction is your first impression. You need to secure a relationship with your reader by the end of the first paragraph. If a reader doesn’t know where you’re heading from the beginning, understanding where you’re coming from and why you’ve chosen this angle to illustrate an argument, you won’t win the reader’s interest. Keep practicing your introduction until it’s right. You’ll most likely go through multiple drafts. This is fine.
Conclusions are another challenge equally as important as introductions. Don’t limit your conclusion to a summary of events. Of course mention them, especially if you made a complicated argument throughout the essay, but the best conclusions do more than summarize. Conclusions should bring the reader back to that ongoing conversation generated in the introduction, but now with a feeling that the reader has learned something more.
Many of the same strategies that will help you with your introduction are relevant and directly related to helping you with your conclusion. Seek the answers to these questions:
1. Did I return to the ongoing conversation and highlight the importance of my own contribution?
2. Did I consider the background information I used in the beginning, and explain how my argument has built something on that information?
3. Did I return to the key terms and point out how my essay adds new dimensions to their meanings?
4. Did I use an anecdote or quotation to summarize or reflect my main idea?
5. Did I acknowledge my opponents?
6. Did I use concise language that leaves the reader with something to think about?
- Written by Patrick Williams