Paragraphs and Topic Sentences Help (page 2)
What Are Paragraphs?
By definition, a paragraph is one or more sentences about a single idea. They're also one of a writer's most important tools. They divide the text into manageable pieces of information, and lead the reader by signaling the introduction of new ideas.
Like essays, paragraphs generally have three parts:
- a beginning that introduces the topic of the paragraph and often expresses the main idea of that paragraph in a topic sentence
- a body that develops and supports the main idea
- a conclusion that expresses the main idea, if it was expressed in the introduction; offers concluding thoughts about that topic; and/or offers a transition to the next paragraph
Here's an example of a complete paragraph:
The African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo has had a turbulent past. It was colonized by Belgium in the late nineteenth century and officially declared a Belgian territory by King Leopold in 1895. The country, called the Belgian Congo after 1908, was under Belgian rule for 65 years. Then, in 1960, after several years of unrest, Congo was granted independence from Belgium. The country was unstable for several years. Two presidents were elected and deposed, and there was much arguing over who should run the country and how. Finally, in 1965, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko rose to power. Though the country was remarkably rich in resources such as diamonds, under Sese Seko's rule, the people lived in complete squalor. Still, Sese Seko brought some stability to the region. He ruled for 32 years, until the people finally rebelled in 1997.
The first sentence in the paragraph introduced the topic and expressed its main idea; it is the paragraph's topic sentence. The next seven sentences develop and support that idea. Then, the last two sentences conclude the paragraph well. They remind readers of the main idea (the country's unstable past) and lead them into the next paragraph by introducing the 1997 rebellion that removed Sese Seko from power.
Developing Strong Paragraphs
Paragraphs are the essay in microcosm. Just as an essay is driven by one main idea (its thesis), a good paragraph is also held together by one controlling idea. This idea is usually stated in a topic sentence.
Topic sentences are like mini thesis statements. Just as your thesis statement expressed the main idea of your essay, topic sentences express the main idea of each paragraph. Like a thesis, the main idea must:
- make an assertion about the subject. This assertion can be fact or opinion. Here are examples of each:
- Fact: Another strategy plants and animals use to protect themselves is mimicry.
- Opinion: The most interesting strategy plants and animals have developed for protection is mimicry.
- be general enough to encompass all of the ideas in the paragraph. If it isn't, you're probably trying to cover too much material in the paragraph.
It's logical to begin a paragraph with the topic sentence, but there's no rule compelling you to place it there. There are different ways to lay out an argument within a paragraph, and depending on the one you use, your topic sentence might be better as the last line, rather than the first.
Deductive and Inductive Formats
The two most common ways to organize paragraphs are based on logical reasoning strategies. Does it make more sense, given your subject, to present a general idea first, and then support it with specific supporting evidence and examples? Or would it be better to begin with the evidence and examples, and come to a conclusion that's drawn from it?
A deductive paragraph follows the former example: It begins with the main argument or claim being made about the subject, and concludes with the supporting evidence and details. Here's an example:
I could tell the test results just by the look on his face. He couldn't bring himself to look at me. The blood had drained from his face and he was pale as china. He tried to smile, but the corners of his mouth refused to cooperate. His shoulders dropped and his whole body seemed to buckle under the weight of the news, as if he'd already given up his fight against the disease.
Notice how the paragraph begins with a topic sentence that expresses the main idea—that his look revealed the test result. The rest of the paragraph gives specific details and his expression and body language "prove" that main idea. This general structure also works well for an entire essay.
Inductively organized paragraphs begin with the specifics and lead to a general idea. That's why the topic sentence in this type of paragraph comes last—it expresses the conclusion or argument that's been proven by the build up of evidence. For example:
All day, he emptied cartons of CDs. Disc after disc, he sorted them by category, and then by artist. After loading them on a cart, he wheeled them to the racks, and refilled the store's stock in alphabetical order. He knew no one would easily find the music they were looking for without him doing his job, but that satisfaction did little to relieve his boredom.
This paragraph starts with evidence. Then, in a topic sentence at the end, the writer offers the conclusion she has drawn from that evidence.
Of course, not all paragraphs will fit so neatly into the general → specific or specific → general formats and not all paragraphs will have the topic sentence first or last. But the inductive and deductive formats work for most paragraphs, and form the backbone of paragraphing strategy.
Appropriate Paragraph Lengths
There's no specific rule about how long a paragraph should be, but you can follow some guidelines to make your writing easier to read and understand. Long paragraphs are hard on the eye. If you've written a page or more without a paragraph break, take a careful look at your ideas. Can they be broken up logically into two or more paragraphs? To be reader friendly, a typical typed page should have at least one, but preferably, two to four paragraph breaks.
Very short paragraphs look undeveloped, like incomplete thoughts. They should only be used if you have a sentence (or two) that is important enough to be on its own. A one-sentence paragraph has impact. It stands out visually, and the pauses before and after the sentence give more time for it to sink in and take hold. However, oneor two-sentence paragraphs should be used sparingly—no more than one per page, if that often.
Here's the Congo paragraph again, revised to include a very short paragraph:
The African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo has had a turbulent past. It was colonized by Belgium in the late nineteenth century and officially declared a Belgian territory by King Leopold in 1895. The country, called the Belgian Congo after 1908, was under Belgian rule for 65 years. Then, in 1960, after several years of unrest, Congo was granted independence from Belgium.
But independence came at a price.
For the next five years, the Congo experienced political and social turmoil. Two presidents were elected and deposed, and there was much arguing over who should run the country and how. Finally, in 1965, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko rose to power. Though the country was remarkably rich in resources such as diamonds, under Sese Seko's rule, the people lived in complete squalor. Still, Sese Seko brought some stability to the region. He ruled for 32 years, until the people finally rebelled in 1997.
Notice how conspicuous the second paragraph is. By allowing it to stand alone, the writer has made even clearer her emphasis on the cost of independence for the Republic of Congo.
A paragraph is a group of sentences about one idea. That idea is typically expressed in a topic sentence. Deductive paragraphs begin with the topic sentence and then provide specific examples and evidence as support. Inductive paragraphs begin with the examples and evidence and then state the main idea in a topic sentence. Avoid long paragraphs, which are hard on the eye and often difficult to follow. Use one- or two-sentence paragraphs sparingly, to make an important idea stand out.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Paragraphs and Topic Sentences Practice.
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