Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

How to Structure Paragraphs in an Essay

Do you watch the Super Bowl every year? If so, are you one of those fans who stays glued to the TV screen for the entire length of the game, hanging on to every play? Or do you have the game on in the background, kind of keeping up with what’s going on while you do your laundry? Maybe your significant other watches it, and you don’t understand football at all. It seems to go on forever, and you really just want to catch the commercials.

Your degree of interest in the big game every year probably depends on how well you understand how football is played, how exciting you find the sport and how much patience you have for following something that can get a bit complicated.

The basic principles of holding a viewer’s interest apply to readers, too. When you write an essay, you want your ideas to be easily understood and your points to be interesting. You want to maximize the impact of your paragraphs on your reader.

Make Your Paragraphs Clear

You’ll never catch me watching the Super Bowl for the simple fact that I don’t understand how football is played, so watching the game for hours would be really, really boring. If I had even a basic sense of the rules of the sport, I’d probably find the big event at least a little bit interesting.

You may have had the experience of reading something that you didn’t understand – maybe a technical instruction manual or the textbook for a subject that went over your head – and you no doubt found that experience frustrating and mind-numbingly boring. Something as seemingly straightforward as a student essay can come across badly to the reader, too, if the paragraphs are not structured to be clear and easily understood. There are two major fixes for this:

  1. Be sure that your body paragraphs feature a topic sentence near the start of the paragraph that conveys its main idea.
  2. Work on ensuring that each of your body paragraphs is coherent. In other words, each paragraph should be clear and logical with sentences that flow together well.

A good, clear topic sentence not only helps you keep each body paragraph unified and focused, but it also, quite simply, alerts your reader to what you’ll be talking about and potentially eliminates a lot of confusion. A reader who gets halfway through the paragraph and is still wondering what you’re getting at is a reader you’ve lost.

Your second quick fix for ensuring clarity and eliminating reader confusion is working on coherence in your essay paragraphs. Again, to achieve coherence, you’ll need to structure your sentences in a logical way so that your points are made clearly. So, you might relate a brief story in chronological order – being sure not to backtrack and add details that you forgot to mention earlier – or you might deduce a point by first stating a general principle and then proceed to prove that principle by offering supportive facts and details.

Capture Your Reader’s Interest

Think about the experience of a football fan who watches his or her favorite team execute complicated plays and break specific records with just the right line-up of players. Compare that with the experience of somebody who’s watching a bunch of interchangeable guys run around for four hours doing…something.

You’ve no doubt read boring essays in your life, and maybe some of them were written by you. A key to making your essay interesting and effective is to ensure that it’s fully developed. An essay is well-developed when it includes sufficient and appropriate supporting details and examples. A paper with paragraphs that aren’t well-developed is, simply put, vague and boring.

Let’s say that you’re writing a paper arguing that your city should make it illegal for drivers to use cell phones while behind the wheel. Your major persuasive points might be that cell phone use is clearly a distracting behavior and that distracted drivers cause a high number of car accidents. If you keep your points overly broad and general, without getting into specific examples, your paper will suffer from lack of thorough development. Not only will your reader wind up bored, but your instructor will deduct points because you haven’t supported your arguments.

So, to capture your reader’s interest – and ratchet up your grade – you’ll need to get specific. You could develop your body paragraphs by providing statistics of accident rates in other cities with cell phone bans for drivers before and after the laws were put in place. You could also make an emotional appeal to your reader by briefly relating the story of a family that has been affected by an accident caused by texting and driving. By doing this, you’ll engage your reader and provide evidence to support your argument.

Maximize Impact

So, in order for your essay to be clear and easily understood, you’ll include a topic sentence near the start of each body paragraph, and you’ll use a clear and logical order for your supporting sentences. In order to fully develop your paragraph and capture your reader’s interest, you’ll include plenty of supporting details and examples.

In order to maximize the impact of your paragraphs on your reader, you’ll want to think about your writing style and how you’ll present all of this information. One question that students often have when it comes to structuring paragraphs is how long they should be. We know we need a topic sentence, some supporting sentences in the middle and, sometimes, a concluding sentence that wraps up our points for the paragraph. But just how many sentences should go in the middle?

There’s not a hard and fast rule that tells us how many sentences a paragraph should have. If you’re working on a timed essay exam and you need to assess quickly whether your paragraphs are a reasonable length, a good rule of thumb is that each paragraph should be in the ballpark of around six or seven sentences (including your topic sentence and concluding sentence). Some effective paragraphs are quite short, though.

If you find that your paragraph is getting to around ten sentences or so, you should consider breaking it up into smaller paragraphs so that your reader can follow your ideas more easily. Think about the football viewer who gets lost in the complexities of the game as it drags on and on. A paragraph that takes up a full page can get confusing and may be hard for a reader to wade through. You don’t want your reader to be tempted to skip a long, unwieldy paragraph.

As you write your essay, think also about varying your sentence structure. In other words, don’t use the same pattern or structure for each sentence in a paragraph, and try to avoid using several overly short sentences. Let’s say you were to write the following sentences in one of your body paragraphs:

‘Drivers who use cell phones cause accidents. These accidents could be prevented. Our city should pass a law banning cell phone use by drivers. This law should be strictly enforced. This law would make our roads safer.’

You may notice that these sentences have the same rhythm and that they have a short subject-verb construction – meaning that they are all brief sentences that feature the subject first followed quickly by the verb. Teachers want to see that you can use more complex sentence structure. For example:

‘Drivers who use cell phones cause accidents that could be prevented. To reduce the number of car accidents, our city should pass a law banning cell phone use by drivers. If this law were strictly enforced, our roads would be safer.’

Avoiding short subject-verb sentences tends to make your writing a bit more interesting, and your reader may be more engaged with your paper.

Lesson Summary

Remember that you want to structure your essay paragraphs – and the sentences within those paragraphs – in such a way that your readers don’t end up with glazed-over expressions. Work on making your paragraphs clear and easily understood by employing topic sentences and a clear and logical order for your sentences to achieve coherence.

Try to capture your reader’s interest by writing well-developed paragraphs featuring vivid supporting details and examples. And maximize the impact of your paragraphs by ensuring that they don’t end up too long. Six or seven sentences is a reasonable rule of thumb. Work on varied sentence structure so that you don’t fall into a repetitive pattern of short, subject-verb sentences.

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