Writing Effective Paragraphs

A paragraph can be thought of as a “miniature essay.” It consists of a group of sentences about a main idea. Paragraph breaks act like signposts. They tell your reader, “A new idea is coming. Get ready to move to another point.” Ideally, a paragraph should have unity, coherence, development, and relevance:

Unity: Does the paragraph have one main idea? Is it easy to identify?

Coherence: Are sentences in the paragraph arranged in logical order? Are events discussed in the order they occurred? Is a process discussed step-by-step? Is a general claim followed by specific details?
Are sentences in the paragraph linked to one another by pronouns that refer to antecedents in previous sentences? By transitional expressions? By parallel structures?

Development: Does the paragraph develop an idea adequately? Do sentences build on previous sentences? Do they offer additional facts, reasons, examples, or details related to the topic of the paragraph?

Relevance: Is the paragraph related to the main idea of the paper?

Pre-Writing: Planning ahead can help you write more effective paragraphs. Before you write a paragraph, sketch out a map of the paragraph. Start with one main idea. Then, think of all the facts, reasons, examples, details, experiences, illustrations, or analogies that relate to the main idea. Think of how those subordinate items could be organized to say something about the main idea. Then, use your map as a guide to write the paragraph.

Paragraph Length: A paragraph may be of any length, but they usually range between fifty and a few hundred words. A short paragraph may be easier to read than a long paragraph, but it may not develop an idea sufficiently. Short paragraphs often work best as introductions, conclusions, or transitions between two body paragraphs. In some cases, for example to explain a complex idea, a long paragraph may work better.

Topic Sentences: A topic sentence states the main idea of a paragraph, which the other sentences in the paragraph support. The topic sentence may appear anywhere in a paragraph, but usually it is either the first sentence or the very last sentence. Sometimes the main idea is implied and never written out. Generally, clearly stating a paragraph’s main idea in the first sentence lets readers know what to expect in the following sentences and thereby helps readers understand the paragraph more easily.

Transitional Words and Phrases: You help readers when you show relationships among sentences within a paragraph, and the relationship of one paragraph to another. Use transitional words and phrases to show how sentences and paragraphs are connected.

  • To Add More Detail: moreover, furthermore, besides, in addition
  • To Show Purpose: to that end, for this purpose, with this objective in mind
  • To Show a Result: hence, therefore, consequently, thus, accordingly
  • To Show Time Order: meanwhile, at the same time, before, during, after
  • To Compare: by the same token, in comparison, in a similar way, likewise, similarly
  • To Contrast: yet, nevertheless, in contrast, in spite of, on the contrary
  • To Give an Example: for example, in one instance, in one particular case, to illustrate, for instance
  • To Summarize or Conclude: in short, in other words, in sum, to conclude

Exercise: The following sentences, presented out of order, come from a paragraph written by a high school teacher. Rearrange them in a way that makes sense. Then, explain why you put them in that order.

  1. Rather, I take five minutes daily to present sentences that feature grammatical errors.
  2. These short, focused grammar lessons reinforce what students know but have forgotten and fill in gaps in prior instruction.
  3. In my classroom, I do not dedicate weeks of concentrated study to grammar.
  4. My students and I make the corrections, reminding ourselves of the rules that explain the corrections: parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, unclear pronoun references, split infinitives, and so forth.1

Exercise: Here is the topic sentence for a paragraph. Write a paragraph that starts with this sentence, or ends with this sentence:

To have a productive dialogue, people need to follow certain rules.

1Carol Jago, quoted in “What is Your Most Compelling Reason for Teaching Grammar?” English Journal, May 2006.