Paragraph Structure: The Basics

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A paragraph is a group of related sentences on a specific topic. The paragraph you are reading right now is the introductory paragraph to an essay explaining the basic rules of paragraph structure. Each paragraph following after this will also relate to the main essay topic of paragraph structure, but each paragraph will discuss its own topic related to paragraph structure, such as topic sentences, body, conclusions, and development.

Just as an essay must be focused on one main idea or topic, each individual paragraph will have one topic unto itself. Each paragraph should have its own structure and purpose. Those individual paragraphs work as building blocks to your essay, each focused on one topic relating to the main topic – or thesis – of the essay.

The main question regarding paragraphs is usually, how do I know when to start a new one? The rule is, when you need to discuss a new idea or are transitioning to new information, you’ll need a new paragraph. Just as your essay should only cover one main theme or thesis, each paragraph should only cover one idea.

What goes in?

Just like an essay will include an intro, body, and conclusion, a single paragraph will also have its own intro, body and conclusion.

The intro or first sentence of a paragraph is referred to as the topic sentence, though depending on the purpose of the essay, the topic sentences can be placed anywhere in the paragraph. For our purposes, we’ll suggest to place them as the first sentence. The topic sentence communicates the controlling idea of the paragraph. This topic sentence works to focus the information, making it easier to know what should go in and what should be left out, and perhaps go in another paragraph.

The body of a paragraph will offer specific details of the controlling idea, which will work to demonstrate, illustrate, describe, or analyze some aspect of the paragraph’s topic. In a research essay, you might also integrate sources into each paragraph. A well-written paragraph should be focused specifically on the paragraph’s topic, and offer more information and details to adequately develop the topic. A good test to determine if your paragraphs are adequately developed is to do a visual scan of your paper; if you see 2 or 3 sentence-long paragraph, it is likely they are not fully developed and you will need to develop them a bit more fully.

The conclusion of a paragraph works to summarize the main idea of the paragraph and smooths the way into the next paragraph. One way to understand  how the conclusion works is to think of a hamburger. A hamburger has a top bun, meat, tomato, lettuce, pickles, with a bottom bun. The top bun and the bottom bun work together to hold everything else in between. The top bun is like a topic sentence and the bottom bun is like the concluding sentence. In the following example, see how the first and final sentences work together to create the whole:

In my home state of Nebraska, the people are known for their love of sports. On game day, the Husker football stadium holds over eighty thousand fans and has the NCAA’s longest record of sellouts at 325. Every June, Omaha hosts the NCAA Men’s College World Series of Baseball. Baseball fans travel from all over the country for a chance to see their favorite college teams play. Omaha also has hosted the Olympic Swim Trials and the US Figure Skating Championship to large crowds. In addition, for the first time ever, Omaha will host the PGA Senior Golf Tour this year, with tickets sold out as soon as they were available. With the popularity of these major sporting events, Nebraskans are becoming known as the most devoted sports fans in the US.

In the example above, the topic sentence, In my home state of Nebraska, the people are known for their love of sports, and the concluding sentence, With the popularity of these major sporting events, Nebraskans are becoming known as the most devoted sports fans in the US, work together to hold all of the details in between – or all of the hamburger between the bun. Notice, however, the concluding sentence does not indicate what is coming in the next paragraph. The concluding sentence works to wrap things up, but does not signpost what is coming next. Use a topic sentence in the following paragraph to indicate that paragraph’s main idea or topic.

Structuring paragraphs is easy once you understand the basics building blocks. Keep in mind longer essays require longer paragraphs, just as shorter essays require shorter paragraphs.

The most important thing to remember is to fully develop each paragraph so the reader isn’t left with any questions or a need for more information. You don’t want a hamburger with no meat, right?

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For more help with paragraph structure, visit

 http://lrs.ed.uiuc.edu/students/fwalters/para.html

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/606/01/

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