Effective paragraphs are important in all types of writing. Your paragraphs guide your reader through the paper by helping to explain, substantiate, and support your thesis statement or argument. Each paragraph should discuss one major point or idea. An effective paragraph has three parts: claim, evidence, and analysis.
This is also sometimes called a topic sentence. This will be your way of announcing the main focus of your paragraph; it should tell the reader what your paragraph will be about.
It may be helpful to think of your claims as mini arguments that support the paper’s main argument or thesis. Just as in the thesis statement, your topic sentences should be debatable. In other words, they should be arguable claims that you will try to "prove" with your evidence.
If you get stuck developing these claims, try to think of reasons why your thesis is true. Each claim should be a reason why the reader should believe your paper’s main idea. For example, perhaps you’re writing an essay about whether people should drink soy milk instead of cow’s milk. Your "reasons" for this might include health benefits, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness, and safety, so you would focus one paragraph on each of these topics.
One of the most common mistakes is to present a topic sentence that is actually an observation of facts or a description of events rather than an active argument. When you make a claim based on a fact or event in your topic sentence, you aren’t presenting an arguable claim that you can back up with your evidence in that paragraph.
Here are some sample claims for the "health benefits of soy" paragraph:
- Claim based on a fact or event (weak): Soy milk contains healthy isoflavones and nutrients.
- Claim based on an active argument (stronger): The isoflavones and nutrients in soy milk help to protect the body from disease and promote good health, so soy is a better choice.
- The first example is weak because it presents facts that cannot be disputed; the second example is stronger because it uses those facts to make an argument. As you can see, the second example not only tells the reader that soy contains healthy isoflavones and nutrients, but it also argues that these facts make soy milk a better choice.
To evaluate whether your paper contains effective claims in each paragraph, read only the first sentence of each paragraph. You should be able to follow the development of the paper’s thesis by reading only the claim sentences. These should tell you the main points that you are making throughout the paper. Your claims will also prepare the reader for the second section of your paragraph.
This is how you support, or back up, your claims. The evidence will help to "prove" each claim to the reader.
In a paper that incorporates research from secondary sources, your evidence may include information from articles, books, electronic sources, or any of the research you gathered. The evidence may take the form of a direct quotation, paraphrased material, statistical data, or any other information from one of your sources that helps to support your claim.
Try to incorporate information from several sources into each paragraph. Avoid just "retelling" the information from a single author or article. Aim to represent a variety of opinions and views. This way, you’re not just telling the reader what one expert says, but you’re explaining how your claim is supported by research from several experts in your field.
Here are some examples of weak and strong evidence sections:
Evidence that includes information from one source (weak evidence):
According to Collins, soy milk has more protein than cow’s milk, and doesn’t contain the saturated fat or cholesterol (1). Soybeans are "complete protein" because they contain all eight amino acids (Collins 1). Collins points out that "as little as 25 mg of soy protein a day may decrease levels of LDL cholesterol and Triglycerides" (1) and this may reduce the chance of heart disease. Since soy is a "low-glycemic index" food, it may help people trying to lose weight "feel more satisfied and less hungry until your next meal, which is beneficial for weight management and control" (1).
Evidence that includes information from a variety of sources (stronger evidence):
Scientists believe that soy milk has the potential to balance cholesterol levels in humans: "A diet with significant soy protein reduces Total Cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides" (Tsang 1). Since soy milk is one of the easiest ways to incorporate soy into the diet, this is a good choice for people seeking to lower their LDL and triglycerides. Soy milk also may reduce the potential for heart disease. Asian countries, which traditionally consume more soy protein, have a much lower incidence of heart disease and many types of cancer (Berkeley 4). The benefits of soy aren’t just limited to the heart, however. Soy milk and cheese made from soy milk may help with weight loss since they contain less saturated fat than regular dairy products, although they contain about the same amounts of fat as reduced-fat milk and cheese (Collins 1). Some researchers even believe that soy may help to stimulate the metabolism (Duke 4).
Note that the second example seems more "balanced," because the author demonstrates knowledge of the subject and incorporates several expert opinions to back up the claim.
Sometimes your assignment will not require you to conduct research into secondary sources, and you may need to use your own ideas or experiences as evidence to back up your claims. Try to be very specific. If you include detailed examples and explanations, your evidence will be more interesting and more persuasive to the reader, and you will seem like more of an authority on your topic:
Evidence that isn’t specific (weak evidence):
My mother’s cholesterol was bad, and the doctor said that soy might help with this. Our family started eating more soy and soy milk, and her levels eventually got much better. During this time, all of us also lost quite a bit of weight.
Evidence that is specific (stronger evidence):
Two years ago, my mother’s LDL ("bad") cholesterol level was 242, and her HDL ("good") cholesterol was 37, so she was considered "high risk." Since she was hesitant to take cholesterol-lowering medications, her internist suggested that she try to incorporate more soy into her diet. He believed that it was worthwhile to try this before placing her on medications. In order to support her, our entire family started drinking soy milk and walking in the evenings. After six months, her LDL dropped to 198 and her HDL rose to 45, which was a dramatic improvement. Our family all lost quite a bit of weight, as well: my mother lost fifteen pounds and my father lost more than twenty. Her doctor tells her that if she continues this lifestyle change, she will significantly reduce her chance of heart problems in the future.
The second example not only contains more information, but it presents it in a believable and interesting way. By including specific details, the author appears to be an "expert," so the evidence is more persuasive.
Your analysis or concluding observation is your way of "wrapping up" the information presented in your paragraph. It should explain why the evidence supports your claim and why this supports the main thesis in your paper.
It’s important to end with your own analysis of the information rather than with evidence. This keeps you "in control" of the paper; if you end with evidence, you’re emphasizing ideas from your sources rather than your own. The reader relies on you to analyze the evidence in the paragraph and explain why it matters to the claim and to the rest of the paper.
Here are some examples of weak and strong analysis/concluding observation sections:
Analysis that is really evidence (weak): Experts at Duke University’s School of Medicine agree that soy milk is a healthy choice.
Analysis that doesn’t relate evidence to claim and thesis statement (weak): Soy milk therefore prevents disease.
Analysis that explains why evidence supports the claim and why this is important to the paper’s thesis (strong): The disease-fighting and health-promoting components of soy milk have the potential to change people’s health and to improve their lives by affecting both cholesterol and weight. This makes soy milk an important factor in heart health, so people should consider switching to soy milk.
|A classic format for compositions is the five-paragraph essay. It is not the only format for writing an essay, of course, but it is a useful model for you to keep in mind, especially as you begin to develop your composition skills. The following material is adapted from a handout prepared by Harry Livermore for his high school English classes at Cook High School in Adel, Georgia. It is used here with his permission.|
See, first, Writing Introductory Paragraphs for different ways of getting your reader involved in your essay. The introductory paragraph should also include the thesis statement, a kind of mini-outline for the paper: it tells the reader what the essay is about. The last sentence of this paragraph must also contain a transitional "hook" which moves the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper.
Body First paragraph:
The first paragraph of the body should contain the strongest argument, most significant example, cleverest illustration, or an obvious beginning point. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the "reverse hook" which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the introductory paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the second paragraph of the body.
Body Second paragraph:
The second paragraph of the body should contain the second strongest argument, second most significant example, second cleverest illustration, or an obvious follow up the first paragraph in the body. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the reverse hook which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the first paragraph of the body. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the third paragraph of the body.
Body Third paragraph:
The third paragraph of the body should contain the weakest argument, weakest example, weakest illustration, or an obvious follow up to the second paragraph in the body. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the reverse hook which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the second paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional concluding hook that signals the reader that this is the final major point being made in this paper. This hook also leads into the last, or concluding, paragraph.
This paragraph should include the following:
- an allusion to the pattern used in the introductory paragraph,
- a restatement of the thesis statement, using some of the original language or language that "echoes" the original language. (The restatement, however, must not be a duplicate thesis statement.)
- a summary of the three main points from the body of the paper.
- a final statement that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end. (This final statement may be a "call to action" in an persuasive paper.)
A Sample Paper
|1Stephen King, creator of such stories as Carrie and Pet Sematary, stated that the Edgar Allan Poe stories he read as a child gave him the inspiration and instruction he needed to become the writer that he is. 2Poe, as does Stephen King, fills the reader's imagination with the images that he wishes the reader to see, hear, and feel. 3His use of vivid, concrete visual imagery to present both static and dynamic settings and to describe people is part of his technique. 4Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a story about a young man who kills an old man who cares for him, dismembers the corpse, then goes mad when he thinks he hears the old man's heart beating beneath the floor boards under his feet as he sits and discusses the old man's absence with the police. 5In "The Tell-Tale Heart," a careful reader can observe Poe's skillful manipulation of the senses.||The introductory paragraph includes a paraphrase of something said by a famous person in order to get the reader's attention. The second sentence leads up to the thesis statement which is the third sentence. The thesis statement (sentence 3) presents topic of the paper to the reader and provides a mini- outline. The topic is Poe's use of visual imagery. The mini- outline tells the reader that this paper will present Poe's use of imagery in three places in his writing: (1) description of static setting; (2) description of dynamic setting; and (3) description of a person. The last sentence of the paragraph uses the words "manipulation" and "senses" as transitional hooks.|
|1The sense of sight, the primary sense, is particularly susceptible to manipulation. 2In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe uses the following image to describe a static scene: "His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness . . ." Poe used the words "black," "pitch," and "thick darkness" not only to show the reader the condition of the old man's room, but also to make the reader feel the darkness." 3"Thick" is a word that is not usually associated with color (darkness), yet in using it, Poe stimulates the reader's sense of feeling as well as his sense of sight.||In the first sentence of the second paragraph (first paragraph of the body) the words "sense" and "manipulation" are used to hook into the end of the introductory paragraph. The first part of the second sentence provides the topic for this paragraph--imagery in a static scene. Then a quotation from "The Tell-Tale Heart" is presented and briefly discussed. The last sentence of this paragraph uses the expressions "sense of feeling" and "sense of sight" as hooks for leading into the third paragraph.|
|1Further on in the story, Poe uses a couple of words that cross not only the sense of sight but also the sense of feeling to describe a dynamic scene. 2The youth in the story has been standing in the open doorway of the old man's room for a long time, waiting for just the right moment to reveal himself to the old man in order to frighten him. 3Poe writes: "So I opened it [the lantern opening]--you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily--until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye." 4By using the metaphor of the thread of the spider (which we all know is a creepy creature) and the word "shot," Poe almost makes the reader gasp, as surely did the old man whose one blind eye the young man describes as "the vulture eye."||The first sentence of the third paragraph (second paragraph of the body) uses the words "sense of sight" and "sense of feeling" to hook back into the previous paragraph. Note that in the second paragraph "feeling" came first, and in this paragraph "sight" comes first. The first sentence also includes the topic for this paragraph--imagery in a dynamic scene. Again, a quotation is taken from the story, and it is briefly discussed. The last sentence uses the words "one blind eye" which was in the quotation. This expression provides the transitional hook for the last paragraph in the body of the paper.|
|1The reader does not know much about what the old man in this story looks like except that he has one blind eye. 2In the second paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe establishes the young man's obsession with that blind eye when he writes: "He had the eye of the vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it." 3This "vulture eye" is evoked over and over again in the story until the reader becomes as obsessed with it as does the young man. 4His use of the vivid, concrete word "vulture" establishes a specific image in the mind of the reader that is inescapable.||In the first sentence of the fourth paragraph (third paragraph in the body), "one blind eye" is used that hooks into the previous paragraph. This first sentence also lets the reader know that this paragraph will deal with descriptions of people: ". . . what the old man looks like . . .." Once again Poe is quoted and discussed. The last sentence uses the word "image" which hooks into the last paragraph. (It is less important that this paragraph has a hook since the last paragraph is going to include a summary of the body of the paper.)|
|1"Thick darkness," "thread of the spider," and "vulture eye" are three images that Poe used in "The Tell-Tale Heart" to stimulate a reader's senses. 2Poe wanted the reader to see and feel real life. 3He used concrete imagery rather than vague abstract words to describe settings and people. 4If Edgar Allan Poe was one of Stephen King's teachers, then readers of King owe a debt of gratitude to that nineteenth-century creator of horror stories.||The first sentence of the concluding paragraph uses the principal words from the quotations from each paragraph of the body of the paper. This summarizes those three paragraph. The second and third sentences provide observations which can also be considered a summary, not only of the content of the paper, but also offers personal opinion which was logically drawn as the result of this study. The last sentence returns to the Edgar Allan Poe-Stephen King relationship which began this paper. This sentence also provides a "wrap-up" and gives the paper a sense of finality.|