What are paragraphs for?

Paragraphs are the building blocks of your essays. Each paragraph, in fact, should contain a ‘chunk’ of thought which helps to build the overall argument of an essay. While inelegant, this idea of a ‘chunk’ of thought distinguishes the paragraph from a sentence, which can usually only contain a statement, or a point that requires elaboration. For example, the sentence ‘Paragraphs are the building blocks of your essays’ is a statement which requires elaboration, explanation, and perhaps quotation or description to prove the point. Paragraphs enable you to marshal sentences to carry out these functions and produce a fully developed, convincing and well thought out point, which can carry you further towards the goal of your essay.

To explain the philosophy of the paragraph, it is probably a good idea to go back a step and revise what we mean by a university level essay. An essay is a written argument to address a question. Even if you are asked to simply ‘discuss’, you are still expected to identify a question, set out your answer and make an argument. Perhaps unlike at A-level we now require you to take a side. If an essay does not make a coherent argument, it is not really an essay, just a collection of writing about the same topic. Paragraphs enable you to present your argument in a series of logical steps, convincing the reader point by point.

Paragraphs are not just a collection of sentences that appear to be about the same thing. Each sentence within the paragraph should carry out a function, as described above, to develop the thought: elaborating, explaining and providing examples or introducing quotations. A very basic sentence structure within a paragraph can be: statement sentence (or topic sentence), supporting sentences, and relating sentence (one which relates the point back to the point of the essay). Of course, sentences must be grammatically complete, which means that they must contain a verb, and are usually more effective if they are active sentences rather than passive. If you are unclear on these sorts of grammatical rules, do see the resources listed in the ‘language and expression’ section of the SED Scholarly Practice and Style page.

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How long should a paragraph be?

Paragraphs which only contain one or two sentences are unlikely to be able to take the weight of a complex thought. They often appear abrupt and out of place – the reader unable to connect the sentence with either the preceding or the succeeding paragraph. It is difficult for the reader therefore to place the information in this sort of paragraph into the logical argument which he has hopefully been following. On the other hand, paragraphs which contain too many sentences are likely to be attempting to cover too many points at once and it is easy for the reader to get lost or confused. Each paragraph should cover one point fully before moving the reader on to the next point in a new paragraph. Sometimes a paragraph becomes too long because the thought is too complex; usually such thoughts can be broken down into two or more stages and therefore two or more paragraphs.

Similarly, the number of paragraphs within an essay will reflect the complexity of the question being answered. Don’t try to do too much in an essay – if you only have 2,000 words remember that these have to be split between paragraphs which fully develop each point of your argument. You can only include as many points as can be properly developed, so make sure these are the key points of your argument – don’t waste paragraphs retelling the story of the novel or play as your teacher already knows this.

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Planning and evaluating your paragraphs

A practical exercise to check that your paragraphs do in fact build the argument you intended involves summarising each of your paragraphs in one sentence and placing each of these sentences in sequence to see if this skeleton plan of points reflects the essence of your argument. Asking a friend to do this with your essay, and to replay what they think your argument is to you, is even more effective. Creating a plan for your essay before you begin writing might also help you write successful paragraphs which progressively build your arguments, convince your readers and lead to better marks for your essays.

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  • An essay is made up of paragraphs
  • Each paragraph deals with one point and fully develops that point
  • Sentences within a paragraph carry out specific functions to develop the point
  • Paragraphs should build a logical argument, point by point.

Note: There is no need to leave a line separator between paragraphs. Indicate a new paragraph by indenting the first line. 

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Last modified: Thursday, 18 October 2012, 12:24 PM