Writing Good Paragraphs

So you’ve got a great argument, fantastic ideas, and solid evidence to back it all up, but your essay itself feels like it blathers on and on without a real sense of coherence.  Some of your best points aren’t shining out, and you felt like you had to pack your essay with meaningless generalizations in order to reach the requisite length.  You may be getting bogged down in the paragraphing.  On the one hand, writing a paragraph feels like one of the most basic elements of writing, right after learning how to string a sentence together, yet writing good paragraphs is far from natural and often requires good planning.  By way of reminder, here are the essential elements of a paragraph and how they fit together.

Topic Sentence—the topic sentence is more than a statement of what that particular paragraph is going to talk about:

“First I shall discuss carrots.”

A topic sentence is a mini-thesis that relates back to your main thesis.  As with all theses, it should present a potentially contestable argument plus a reason or two:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because of X, Y, and Z.” (my hypothetical paper is about nutrition)

Evidence—your evidence is essentially that X, Y, and Z.  Evidence can consist of:

  • Direct citations or summaries of an outside source.
  • Details from an object that you are analyzing.

I might go without saying, but all evidence presented in that particular paragraph should support the topic sentence or mini-thesis of that paragraph, not some other topic sentence.  If this paragraph in your nutrition paper is about carrots, don’t bring up blueberries.  Blueberries are another paragraph entirely.  Right now, you’ve asked your reader to concentrate on carrots, so don’t pull a bait and switch by shifting focus on them.

Commentary—your commentary is where you spell out how your evidence supports your topic sentence and ultimately the main thesis of your paper.  These are generally the most difficult sentences to write and are often neglected by undergraduate writers.  Most fear repeating themselves and feel that because they know how that evidence supports their thesis, everyone will be able to figure it out.  Here’s the thing though, your readers don’t have access to the specialized body of knowledge that qualified you to write this paper in the first place.  They are counting on you to educate them.

Here’s a paragraph without commentary:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  They also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.”

My reaction as a reader is, “So what Ms. Nutritionist.  What’s this beta carotene stuff and why the heck should I care about it?  And so what if they’re tastier than other vegetables.  That’s setting the bar pretty low.  You know what else is even tastier?  Cheese fries, that’s what.”

Commentary is where you persuade your reader to care about the evidence you are offering.  Even though hard data is important, commentary is where the bulk of persuasion actually occurs.  So here’s that paragraph with some commentary thrown in:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  Both nutrients are needed by the retina in order to process light.  The molecule formed by Vitamin A aids the eye in seeing colors and seeing in low light conditions; therefore, carrots are one of the best foods one can eat in order to keep the eyes healthy.  Carrots also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.  For that reason, raw baby carrots are an ideal snack food for both kids and adults.  Even when served with salad dressing or dips, carrots make for a tasty and much healthier snack than packaged foods high in processed sugars.”

Good commentary can even sneak in some additional evidence that helps explain why the major bit of evidence matters (such as the metabolic function of Vitamin A).

Editing your paragraphs:

If you think your paragraphs are in trouble, try doing the old high school highlighting trick.  Get a bunch of colored pencils, highlighters, pens, crayons, whatever, and mark each of these three elements in different colors.  Use another color for anything that might qualify as “filler,” stuff that doesn’t really contribute to the argument at all.  Once you’ve done that, look at how the paragraph is structured and note the ratios.

  • If you couldn’t find any real evidence to highlight, that’s a huge problem.  That means that your paragraph is essentially an assertion plus some sentences talking about why you like your assertion (“My thesis is my thesis because it’s my opinion and I’m entitled to my opinion”).
  • If your paragraph is mostly evidence, and you have a solid topic sentence that ties all of that evidence together, than you’ve at least got a skeleton to build on.  Try to work it out to a ratio of 2 sentences of commentary for every 1 sentence that lays out your major pieces of evidence.  This is precisely the ratio I used in my model carrot paragraph above.

Concluding sentences?

Don’t try to force yourself to write a concluding sentence, especially if it’s of the “and that’s my carrot paragraph” hand-waving variety.  What you should really be concerned about is how you transition into the next paragraph.  Since I ended my carrot paragraph by talking about why they are an idea snack, I might approach the next paragraph in a variety of ways:

  • Talk about another good snack food.
  • Talk about unhealthy snack foods and why they are bad.
  • Elaborate on how to create enticing but healthy snack options for children
  • Etc… (I’m sure you’re noticing the theme here).

Arranging paragraphs in this fashion gives the reader a sense that your major thesis is being fluidly developed.  The reader can chart your logic without feeling like the piece is jumping from one topic to another without any sense of connection.  Good arguments have a telescoping quality (Paragraph 2 builds on the info offered in Paragraph 1, and the implications of both are considered in Paragraph 3, which takes us to Paragraph 4 where we talk about solutions to the problems raised in Paragraph 3, etc.).  Staid or weak papers have an additive quality (Thing 1 + Thing 2 + Thing 3 + etc.)

2 thoughts on “Writing Good Paragraphs

  1. This is very useful – I just got through my first advanced writing class and really relate to the experiences you wrote about. Thank you for writing this!

  2. I love the examples you provided to illustrate your points. I’m going to have all of my Composition and Developmental Writing students read this post. Thanks for making my job just a little easier.

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