Paragraphs & Topic Sentences
A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.
Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.
A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.
Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.
Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.
Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.
Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.
Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.
The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.
George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”
In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.
Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.
A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.
Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.
Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.
Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.
Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”
SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS
(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)
- To show addition:
- again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
- To give examples:
- for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
- To compare:
- also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
- To contrast:
- although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
- To summarize or conclude:
- all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
- To show time:
- after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
- To show place or direction:
- above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
- To indicate logical relationship:
- accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus
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This section should be read in parallel with that which looks at the production of introductions and conclusions (next module). Here the emphasis is on the writing which occurs between the two, the main body of the essay. It takes practice to manage the material you use in analysing and interpreting a work of literature. With this in mind it should be stressed that it is important to plan the essay in advance. Even in timed conditions such as exams you must take the time to think about the structure of the essay. Think about what points you want to make beforehand, and then think about the best way of arranging this material in sequence. The order in which you make the points will go a long way to determining how clear the arguments you put forward will be. You do not have to say everything there is to be said about a given subject and you should try to develop a feel for the most important elements.
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through an extended and flowing sequence of points and illustrations. This entails work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences, and develop your use of linking words by which the various sentences of a paragraph are bound together. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a new paragraph is needed and when it has run its course. Examine thegeneral guide to essay writingto get some sense of how the paragraphs, or 'idea units' as they have also been called, have been constructed, and how their 'natural' beginnings and ends appear.
The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a 'strong' one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a 'topic sentence', as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, and practised (examples are 'furthermore', 'moreover', 'in addition', 'to qualify the above', 'however', 'in order to', 'in this connection', 'having established that' etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students sometimes complain that the lengths demanded of essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or 'padding' the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one which follows. If you do leave one part of the essay to move onto another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by 'signposting', e.g. 'this point will be picked up later', 'this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...'. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout the whole process.
Strong sentences are essential in terms of the flow of your essay. When signalling the fact that they now want to begin a discussion about the imagery of the text in question, students often begin paragraphs with a sentence such as the following: 'I will now go on to discuss the imagery, which plays an important role in this story.' Whilst this would be fine in a first draft for more refined essay writing there are much better alternatives and methods. What is wrong with this particular sentence? To start with there is no real need to introduce the subject so mechanically: as you are writing about literature it will come as no great surprise to the reader that imagery is to be discussed at some point. Secondly, as the student has chosen to write about the imagery there is no need to state that it is important. If it was not important then the student should not have chosen to write about it. (Please note that there would be no objection to a sentence such as 'I will now go on to discuss the imagery, which is fundamental to a full understanding of the story', although it would be even better if the type of imagery was identified. This says something different. Do not repeat these phrases mechanically in your essays - the imagery will not always be absolutely key to understanding the story. Use your common sense.)
You can introduce the subject of imagery in a strong sentence, at the beginning of a paragraph, by simply starting to discuss it straightaway. If you have identified a number of images, metaphors, etc., but have decided that, in the end, they can be collected under two separate headings, then it is a good idea to say so. As an example, here is a paragraph which starts to deal with the literary language in Graham Greene's 'The Destructors'. This paragraph would ideally come about a third or half way into the essay, as it comes after the introduction and signals the fact that some analysis has already been carried out.
A discussion of the imagery can reinforce the general points made above; broadly speaking there are two main sets of images and metaphors, dealing firstly with the tensions between the individual and the community, to which I will turn later, and secondly focusing on Christian symbolism. A number of the images have religious connotations. It is significant that Old Misery's house was designed by Christopher Wren, who was the seventeenth century architect of St. Paul's cathedral. By mentioning Wren Greene is attempting to show the presence of the past in the present and how irrelevant it seems to the boys: 'Who's Wren?' asks Blackie, the initial leader of the gang. Their experience of massive destruction has eroded references and deprived them of values. Instead of the integration and shared common values illustrated by, among others, the fact that Wren designed both a public place of worship and a private home, the post-war period leaves them with fragmentation and mutual distrust: the gang are aware of rival gangs, there is distrust between the generations - shown by the gang's suspicion of Old Misery's gift of sweets - and T. rejects all values. For him 'All this hate and love [is]soft, it's hooey. There's only things.' For Greene, the ideological vacuum is reflected in the wasteland in which the gang organises its activities.
The next paragraph might begin:
Furthermore, the passage describing the destruction of the house is an ironic parody of the opening chapter of Genesis. The vocabulary is similar: Blackie notices that 'chaos had advanced', an ironic reversal of God's imposing of form on a void. Furthermore, the phrase 'streaks of light came in through the closed shutters where they worked with the seriousness of creators', used in the context of destruction, also parodies the creation of light and darkness in the early passages of the Biblical book.[...]
There might be another paragraph, or two, on religious metaphors, or the next paragraph might begin:
Images and metaphors concerning the individual and community are centred on Trevor, and are also linked to the theme of leadership. [...]
What are the advantages of such a sequence of paragraphs? Notice that the opening sentence in each paragraph is a strong one. There are several strong points about the first paragraph:
· The fact that literary language (metaphors, symbols, images) are now the focus is signalled efficiently and economically, through the strategy of launching the discussion directly. The main extended images are mentioned in the first sentence, which is preferable to 'I am now going to discuss the imagery of Graham Greene's story.'
· The first sentence, however complex, is clear and does a lot of work by clearly situating the reader in the overall structure of the essay .
· The paragraph refers back to analysis already done, thus emphasising the clear structure of the essay and enhancing the interrelationships of its parts. Importantly, whilst it is obvious that there is to be some reference to ideas already mentioned, it is also clear that there is to be no repetition. Instead, the analysis is to be deepened and extended.
· The paragraph also refers ahead to analysis still to come. The anxious reader, who might be wondering why the important theme of the individual and the community has not been mentioned, can relax and enjoy the analysis of the religious symbolism in the full knowledge that the former theme has not been neglected.
· The images are not merely identified, pointed out and listed.; there is active interpretation and analysis of what they actually mean. In other words the writer is actively engaging with Greene's story.
What of the second paragraph? Firstly one might ask why a second paragraph is needed, given that the theme is still that of religion. True, but the first paragraph is becoming quite long, it is reaching the 'natural' length of a paragraph. There are no hard or fast rules and regulations here - no writing committee has decreed that a paragraph should contain an ideal number of words or sentences or run a certain length over a page. Extended writing practice will give you a 'feel' and an instinct for realising that a paragraph is complete and it is time to start a new one. More importantly here there is a very strong sense that the first paragraph in the model is 'full'. The writer has identified a link between the house and the ideological vacuum in which the gang exist and has tried to interpret and explain it. Next s/he wants to highlight the links between Greene's vocabulary and that of the book of Genesis. The theme is still religion, but the writer is now going to approach a different aspect of it.
The third paragraph begins to produce what has been promised: an analysis of the theme of the individual and the community. Note how this is done. There is no need to state mechanically that this is the theme that is now to be discussed. It has already been anticipated and the 'full' nature of the first sentence makes clear what is being discussed. Again, the reader is being clearly led through the arguments in a well structured and thought out manner.
One further point, by way of providing another model. The analysis in the second paragraph could lead in the following direction. 'The Destructors' deals with, obviously, destruction, whilst the book of Genesis deals with creation. The vocabulary is similar: Blackie notices that 'chaos had advanced', an ironic reversal of God's imposing of form on a void. Furthermore, the phrase 'streaks of light came in through the closed shutters where they worked with the seriousness of creators', used in the context of destruction, also parodies the creation of light and darkness in the early passages of the Biblical book. Greene's ironic use of the vocabulary of the Bible might be making the point that, for him, the Second World War signalled the end of a particular Christian era. Now, it is perfectly arguable that the rise of fascism is linked to this, or that it is the cause. The cult of personality and secular leadership has, for Greene, taken over from the key role of the church in Western societies. In this way the two main themes identified above - the tension between individual and community, and religion - are linked. In terms of essay writing this link could well be made after the discussion of the theme of the individual and the community, and its links with the theme of leadership. This might be the general conclusion to the essay. After thoughtful consideration and interpretation a student may well decide that this is what 'The Destructors' boils down to: Greene is making a clear link between the rise of fascism and the decline of the Church's influence. Despite the fact that fascism has been recently defeated, Greene sees the lack of any contemporary values which could provide social cohesion as providing the potential for its reappearance. However, whilst this is the conclusion the student has come to, this should not be mentioned for the first time in the conclusion / concluding paragraph. This is the climax to the essay, but the concluding paragraph should generally be a brief paraphrase or summary of the essay. This also adheres to the generally held view that the conclusion should not introduce new ideas.
Paragraphs need to be coherent, which will be only achieved through the careful arrangement of the sentences within them. Staying with an analysis of Graham Greene's 'The Destructors', let us see how this can be achieved.
(1) The apple is compared to Old Misery's house and this house symbolises perhaps the Church. (2) Actually it may mean that the Church is losing its credibility, first from inside, and then, when everything will be lost, a single push could destroy it. (3) But why the Church? (4) We know that as well as the destruction of everything this house symbolises temptation too; hence the image of the apple: it refers to Adam and the temptation. (5) If Adam ate the apple, all his happiness would be destroyed. (6) For Trevor, the house is the only thing that tempts his urge to destroy.
This is by no means a terrible paragraph, but there are weaknesses within it, the chief of them being that whilst it demonstrates that the student is going beyond superficial summarising and interpreting the story, the ideas are struggling to make themselves heard. Some of the sentences lack detail or are a little ambiguous, and at times there is a lack of tight connection between several of the sentences. Various ideas are referred to and introduced without ever being fully explained or analysed. For example there is no explanation for the introduction of the notions of happiness and temptation. To some extent the reader has to guess what the writer is really trying to express. This is a crucial point: you must present your arguments clearly and unambiguously, and grades will we lost if the marker has to try to guess what is being said.
(1) In the first sentence there is a lack of detail and also inappropriate emphasis. First of all, no apple has been mentioned before in the essay and its introduction here is a little confusing. This is because in the story the apple is not compared to a house, but it is the house which is compared to an apple. Furthermore there is no evidence provided for the assertion that the house can be linked to a church. In addition, the 'perhaps' does not inspire confidence that the student is fully on top of the idea. (2) There are several problems with the second sentence. Most importantly there is no clear connection with the preceding and succeeding sentence. Also, the 'actually' is too informal and, equally importantly, it suggests that the idea to come has just popped into the student's mind. The first 'it' is ambiguous, and it is not exactly clear what it refers to. Finally, the overall idea - that weaknesses within the church make it vulnerable to attacks from the outside - is not very clearly expressed. (3) There is no problem with the third sentence, and a question can be a good way of introducing or emphasising a particular subject. The problem with this paragraph lies in the other sentences. (4) The fourth sentence does not really address the question just asked in any coherent way. 'The destruction of everything' is too sweeping and needs more detail. The phrase 'it refers to Adam and the temptation' is a poor one - it should be 'it refers to the tempting of Adam'. The main problem with this sentence is that it has become detached from the first sentence of the paragraph, and one of the problems of the paragraph is that the theme of temptation is referred to and hinted at without ever being fully interpreted and analysed. (5) The fifth sentence is far too vague and empty, and introduces a subject - Adam's happiness - which is not picked up on. Where in the story could the religious references suggest that this is a significant point? Why happiness? (6) The sixth sentence contains some of the problems of some of the other sentences. The writer shifts the emphasis from Adams's temptation - which has not been analysed - to Trevor's temptation, without explanation. There is some dislocation in that whilst there was an earlier suggestion or hint (again unclearly expressed) that the church was destroying itself, now there is a suggestion that Trevor is solely responsible for the destruction of the church, in the symbolic form of the house. Furthermore, there is a weakness in the comparison in that Trevor's destruction of the house is in no way punished.
The comparison of Old Misery's house to an apple may recall the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Adam, given the many religious images in the text and the fact that T. says 'We'd be like worms, don't you see, in an apple'. Perhaps not the house in itself but the prospect of completely destroying its beauty certainly represents a strong temptation for the new leader. An important difference is obviously the fact that whilst Adam fell from a state of grace following his transgression, T. escapes any punishment. This suggests that without a coherent and integrated system of values contemporary society has no way of deciding what is right and wrong.
Please note that there is a very large sense in which the student example cannot really be redeemed, given its contradictory arguments and lack of clarity. Students should learn how to interpret literary texts and go beyond a mere recounting of the plot or themes, for example, but they should avoid wild extrapolations.
The theme of impersonality is embedded in the story in complex, perhaps ambivalent, ways, reflected by the T.s own ambivalence towards the house. T. persuades the gang to destroy the house he paradoxically admires: he finds the interior of the house 'beautiful', and is particularly impressed by the old staircase and 'the opposite forces' which prevent it collapsing. It should be noted that his finding the house beautiful initially causes tension within the gang. Blackie is immediately suspicious and, whilst it is explicitly stated that this suspicion is related to class, implicitly it is the fact that T. is making a personal response that is the source of the tension. Evidence for this is found in the fact that 'it only needed a single use of his real name and the gang would be at his heels.' His personal response, symbolic of a set of values, is not permitted and it threatens the identity he has within the gang.
The power the gang has to name is also linked to impersonality: one's previous identity, symbolised by a 'real name', has to be sacrificed in order to join. The gang itself has the characteristics of a separate society; it has elaborate rules and punishes the breaking of them, it is disciplined, it elects leaders, and it is also self-policing, symbolised by the surveillance carried out during the game of stealing rides. In other words it is a very impersonal society which permits little individuality, symbolised by the description of it as 'a hive in swarm.' Blackie also refuses to take his loss of leadership personally, and stays because of the potential fame the impersonal gang might gain.
Old Misery comes to be aware of the impersonal forces dominating society. Locked in a toilet which has earlier been described as a 'tomb in a neglected graveyard', which symbolises a lack of respect and a brutal and callous world, his cries for help are ignored and he is instead 'rebuked by the silence', suggesting a lack of personal communication. At the end of the story the lorry driver insists that his laughter is 'nothing personal', echoing an earlier statement made by an unnamed member of the gang. Ironically the driver denies his own humanity and expresses the callousness and impersonality of world lacking values.
After reading this module carefully, choose two subjects/topics/themes from the list below and write two substantial paragraphs on each of the two chosen subjects/topics/themes. Each paragraph should consist of a minimum of five full, preferably rather complex sentences (see module 2, Sentences). Use clear links and transitions and make sure that the first sentence of each paragraph is a strong one (see above).
1. The theme of advertising in Larkin's 'Sunny Prestatyn'. How is it related to stereotyping?
2. The atmosphere evoked by the description of Mr Duffy's house . ('A Painful Case' by James Joyce.)
3. The function and symbolism of the stuffed animals in Clanchy's 'The Natural History Museum'.
4. The theme of challenging authority in 'The Conversion of the Jews' by P. Roth.
Feel free to write complete essays on any of the subjects, or ask your tutors to provide you with more subjects and themes to write about. Click here to go to Essay questions in Short Stories and Sample Essays.