9: Start essay writing by perfecting the paragraph model

As we progress deeper into the essay writing process, we are going to continue to look at the various components that go into writing the essay. As you know, an essay is made up of paragraphs. This chapter will help you understand the different types of paragraphs that exist, what to do and not do when it comes to paragraphs, how to structure paragraphs and how to maintain a flow and connection throughout all the paragraphs that eventually make up the essay.

Chapter 9 contents:

9.1: Defining paragraphs

Paragraphs are essentially a group of sentences that contain related ideas or thoughts that are intended to cover one specific argument or opinion across what is a much larger document. Paragraphs are found in essays, reports, letters and nearly every type of writing that has some length to it.  The most important part of creating a paragraph is making sure you have laid out the information in that paragraph so as to make sense or help to clarify what you are trying to say. It should not confuse the reader by introducing multiple ideas in one place. To better understand how to make sure paragraphs are logical or coherent, the next sections explain how to use the right type of paragraph and correct structure to ensure that logic and flow.

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9.1.1: Types of paragraphs

There are many kinds of paragraphs that each serves a specific purpose. These are described here:

  • Explaining paragraphs provide the why, how, and what.
  • Describing paragraphs use detail to offer a picture of what someone or something looks or acts like.
  • Defining paragraphs offer a framework of what an object or idea might include.
  • Evaluating paragraphs include some type of assessment or judgment.
  • Comparing and contrasting paragraphs show similarities and differences.
  • Classifying paragraphs put things in categories with other things that share traits or components.
  • Selecting paragraphs reach conclusions about the preferred or top selection from among many choices.

What type of paragraph you use often is decided by the type of essay you are asked to write, which was discussed in detail in a previous chapter. You would not use compare and contrast paragraphs in a descriptive essay; instead, compare and contrast paragraphs would work only in a compare/contrast essay assignment.

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9.1.2: Paragraph dos and don’ts

When it comes to creating any rules for paragraphs in essay writing, we have developed a 'dos and don'ts' list to help shape what you decide to do as you create paragraphs for your essay.

Do Don't
Segment each concept into a separate paragraph. Don't mix up many points or jump around with your ideas.
Only include relevant information that relates to or adds to that concept. Don't break up your paragraphs so that you end up with too many paragraphs that make the essay look like a bulleted list without the bullets. It will disrupt the reader's perspective.
Use examples and specifics that expand on and back up that concept. Don't end up with too few paragraphs where the reader is dazed by the amount of text that they believe they have to take in at one time. The space between paragraphs the reader the sense that they can take a mental break and then come back to the next point.
Balance the length of your paragraphs with the amount of information you have; while there is no hard and fast rule, anywhere between three and seven sentences is ideal. Don't generalise in your paragraphs and just fill them with words.

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9.2: Structuring a paragraph

To stick to the 'dos,' this next section offers a way to focus on structure within each paragraph regardless of the paragraph type. As you structure each paragraph, it is good to keep some things in mind to ensure your thoughts are organised and are segmented into key ideas or keywords that will form the basis for each paragraph. Try using this step-wise process for each paragraph you develop:

  • Create a question about that paragraph so you can answer it in a way that focuses your thoughts on one key concept, idea, or point of argument for that particular paragraph. As you do this, also think about how it relates to the broader idea that is the main point of your essay and that relates back to the essay title or essay prompt.
  • Write down notes as an answer to this question. These notes can work with your other notes from your research to help form the basis of the paragraphs in your essay.
  • Go to your research and locate the information in your essay writing plan and notes that goes with that particular question that you are asking in relation to that paragraph.
  • Take the time to reflect on your own perspective based on what you have learned in your reading and in lectures.  Be sure to focus on what aspect you think makes the most compelling case for that point as this is the information to include in that paragraph.
  • Start putting the information for that paragraph in order from general to specific. Focus on what examples fit that particular point; if you have other examples that are fitting for the essay but not that paragraph then save those for the paragraphs where they are most likely to fit logically.
  • After you structure each paragraph this way, then start putting the paragraphs together and finding out how you can write a sentence at the end of one or beginning of the next that links the paragraphs together.
  • Always read through everything you have written numerous times as well as even read it out loud so you can see if what you have down in the paragraphs makes sense. You may have to do this a few times to smooth out the writing and create the right flow.

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9.2.1: Topic sentence

To further describe the process of creating the sentences that make up a great paragraph, we first start with how to write a compelling topic sentence that grabs the reader's attention. The intent of your topic sentence is to help the reader understand what the paragraph is going to be about. Even if it is your tutor who has assigned the essay title, they still need to be told clearly what they are going to be reading. Here are some things to remember as you write the topic sentence for each essay paragraph:

  • The topic sentence should be the first sentence of each paragraph.
  • Keep it simple, clear, and focused on key point. It is what provides the direction for the reader so they know where they are going as they read each paragraph.
  • Stick to one idea in the topic sentence as the rest of the paragraph will be supporting evidence for that idea.
  • Make the topic into a subhead as you write so you can see what points you covered. This will also help when it comes time to create a transition between paragraphs. You will most likely need to delete these before submitting your essay.

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9.2.2: Supporting sentences

After you have your topic sentence, the rest of the sentences in that paragraph are to offer supporting evidence or factual information that makes that point credible to the reader. This is where you will become more specific in your essay writing and drive the idea home to the reader by doing the following:

  • Think about how you want to develop the ideas based on the type of essay you are writing. For example, you may need to present comparing and contrasting evidence or provide compelling evidence to influence the reader to see a certain perspective. You also may need to write these sentences from the angle of cause and effect or a definition standpoint.
  • Be sure to use details and facts, including statistics, figures, and real-life examples, which enrich the message you are sending to the reader in that particular paragraph. Of course, these must always be relevant!
  • Do not introduce any new ideas in the course of offering this detail in the supporting sentences.

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9.2.3: Concluding and transitional sentences

Each paragraph should have a concluding sentence, which often serves two functions: to summarise and to transition. Here are some tips on getting the concluding sentence of each paragraph right:

  • Keep it clear and simple in how you wrap up the idea and think about using part of the sentence as a means of moving to the next idea by noting a challenge or issue with the current idea. This will help you to then create a topic sentence for the next paragraph that carries that thought through and links the next idea to the one you were just finishing off.
  • Do not introduce any new ideas; save that idea for the next paragraph. Just set the idea up by providing a link and connection to summary of the current paragraph.

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9.3: Logic and flow

Part of logic and flow is to pay attention to sentence length as this impacts how the reader reacts to what you have put in your essay - make sentence too short and there is no point to retain; make it too long and your reader may become confused, disengaged, or just plain lost. However, you still need to have both short and long sentences to create balance and give the reader a change of pace. This also creates greater interest for the reader.

When you are looking to create the balance with sentence length, here are some of our top tips:

  • Don't use too many short sentences in a row because it takes away from any flow that you are trying to create within the essay.
  • Consider combining a couple of short sentences by joining them with a comma. Just make sure they are both complete sentences.
  • Keep sentences mostly declarative because the essay is all about sticking to the facts and the argument that you want to transmit within your writing.
  • Reduce the size of your sentences by minimising the use of words, such as "but," "and," "so" and "because."
  • When writing a longer sentence, keep the main idea at the beginning or end of the sentence. However, avoid putting the main idea in the middle of the sentence because it will get lost and also create an awkward sentence.
  • Add more verbs to a sentence if you want to make the sentence longer because these are easier for the reader to digest.
  • Reread what you are writing often and do so out loud so you can hear and feel how it sounds. This will help you revise and refine the sentences to create the right mix of short and long sentences.
  • Look at books and academic journal articles for best practices with long and short sentences.
  • Don't be afraid to ask your tutor for writing assistance in terms of improving your own writing style. They are often more than happy to show students who are eager to make improvements in their academic writing.

In addition to sentence size, logic and flow involves coherency - that is, does what you are saying actually make any sense? You do not want the reader to have to reread sections or search the essay for what will help them understand what you are trying to prove or argue. Here are some tips to keep it coherent and logical throughout your essay:

  • Have an order for your sentences. This means a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and then a concluding sentence that sets up the transition to the next paragraph. The topic sentence holds the main idea while the supporting sentences will have evidence, examples, or illustrations of that idea. Finally, that concluding sentence will wrap up the idea and show how it leads to the next idea.
  • Think about the whole essay and consider out how each paragraph is a building block where all the paragraphs fit together like puzzle pieces. For these to fit together, there has to be a common theme that runs through each. This is where you acknowledge the essay title in some way and show how that paragraph topic ties back to that main theme. Therefore, the linking is not just between paragraphs, but it is also on a level that ties the entire essay together.
  • Along the same idea of building blocks, it is better to take the reader from the easier to understand concepts and theories in the earlier paragraphs toward the more complex ideas later on. If you introduce the complicated ideas upfront, the reader may be confused and never fully engage or immerse themselves in the essay. You want to keep the reader involved rather than lost from the beginning!
  • Sometimes it is okay to be a little repetitive in terms of the essay keywords or theme. However, this does not mean simply restating the essay title or idea; it involves restating the idea and tying it to the topic of that particular paragraph so the reader can see why the puzzle piece is there and why it fits.

Another component of coherence is being concise and succinct in your writing. While it may seem daunting to fill three or six pages full of words, it does not mean you just put down any words just to meet the quota. Do this and you will most likely find that you have more fluff than substance and your reader will not be able to uncover any logic amongst all the filler words.

Here are some ways to trim the fat and create a lean essay that flows with logic and coherence:

  • Look at every word in every sentence. Do you really need that word? What does it contribute toward the argument? Can you find another word that could replace two or three words?
  • Have you used a variety of words? Even if you are repeating the keywords, there are synonyms that you can use where the reader can understand that you mean the same idea.
  • Also, do not repeat ideas or keywords just to fill space; only use this device to help create the thread that should tie your essay together in a nice bow.
  • Have you used a mix of long and short sentences to help keep your writing succinct?
  • Check your grammar and make sure you have not shifted tenses or lost verb agreement.
  • Stick to simple words rather than going for complex words that your tutor will know is not you. You can be academic in your essay writing without stuffing it with big words. No one is impressed.

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9.3.1: Directing the reader

The next step in keeping logic and flow throughout your essay is directing the reader like a map would do with signposts and landmarks. The best way that you can direct the reader is to use what is referred to as transitional language, which can be used in a number of ways:

  • Use words like "first," "second," and "third" to show order. You can also use words like "then" and "next" or "initially" and "ultimately."
  • To concede a point, you can use words like "of course" and "while" or "granted."
  • When you want to reinforce a main idea, you can use words like "also," "additionally," "furthermore" and "therefore."
  • If you are using specific examples in a supporting sentence, you can use "for example" or "for instance."
  • When you need to conclude a section, transitional language examples include "finally," "in conclusion," and "hence."
  • As you end a paragraph and start another one, you will need transitional language that will illustrate a shift in ideas, such as "yet," "in spite of," "nevertheless," "however" and "in contrast."
  • Select the transitional language that best fits with the existing language, tone, and style of your essay. Some of the language choices are a bit more formal than others and may not be words that a tutor would equate to you and your style of writing.

Each of these words is a signpost that tells the reader where you are headed with your essay whether it is to conclude an idea or shift to another one. While it might be obvious to you, it is not necessarily clear to the reader so it helps to provide these transitional words or phrases to help direct them.

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9.3.2: Staying on track

To stay on track with your essay writing in terms of the flow, you will need to constantly check how everything sounds and tweak things here and there until you have a compelling and cohesive essay. Here are some ideas to help you check your essay:

  • Put your essay in outline view or document map view. Most word processing software has options like these, which can change the perspective for you in how you read your essay. This could help to check that what you have done fits your initial essay writing plan or essay outline.
  • Ask yourself if the topic sentence would make a great headline or subhead. If not, then you need to rethink how you communicate that main idea from which the rest of the paragraph should flow.
  • Get feedback by having other students or your tutor read your work to see if they can understand it. If not, ask them to point out or mark the sections that are unclear and why so that you can revisit these and iron out the logic wrinkles. This is especially helpful if you have read your own essay numerous times and can no longer "see" things that others who have not read might spot.
  • Try the readability index on most word processing software, which measures the word count of your sentences and construct a readability score. This could help you quickly identify any sentences or sections of your essay where you have poorly constructed sentences or phrases that are too long.
  • Don't rely on these software tests to fix your essay; you must still read it through and get other feedback to get the final decision on whether or not the content makes sense and there is logic and flow.

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Chapter 9: In summary

Think about these questions when you are reflecting on what we have shown you in this chapter about paragraphs and logic and flow throughout your essay:

  • What makes the perfect paragraph?
  • What are the main sentences for a perfect paragraph?
  • What should you do to add flow to your paragraphs and essay?
  • What types of logic strategies can you employ to add coherence to your essay?
  • How can you check for logic, flow, and coherence?
  • How can you direct the reader with transitional language and signposting?

As you write your paragraphs and essay, you may still need to better understand exactly what the academic style of writing sounds and looks like. Check out our next chapter to learn more!

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