Paragraphs are the basic elements of the work. Many students define paragraphs based on their length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a half-page paragraph, and so on. In reality, what constitutes a paragraph is the unity and coherence of ideas between sentences. A paragraph is defined as a group of sentences or a single sentence that forms a unit (Lunsford, 2018). La longitud y la apariencia no determinan si una sección de un documento es un párrafo. For example, in some writing styles, especially journalistic, a paragraph may have a single sentence. In short, a paragraph is a phrase or group of phrases that support a main idea.

How do I decide what to put in a paragraph?

Before you begin to determine what the composition of a particular paragraph will be, you must first decide on an argument and a working thesis statement for your work. What is the most important idea you want to convey to the reader? The information in each paragraph should be related to that idea. In other words, your paragraphs should remind your reader that there is a recurring relationship between your thesis and the information in each paragraph. A working thesis functions as a seed from which your work and ideas will grow. The whole process is organic: a natural progression from the seed to a complete article in which there are direct and familiar relationships between all the ideas in the article.

The decision about what to put in your paragraphs begins with the germination of a seed of ideas; this "germination process" is better known as brainstorming. There are many brainstorming techniques; whichever one you choose, this phase of paragraph development cannot be skipped. Building paragraphs can be like building a skyscraper: there must be a well-planned foundation that supports what you're building. Any crack, inconsistency or other alteration of the foundation can cause all the work to fall apart.

What should we keep in mind when we start creating paragraphs?

Let's say you've brainstormed to develop your thesis. According to Rosen and Behrens (2003), all paragraphs of a work should be

Unified: All sentences in the same paragraph must be related to a single control idea (often expressed in the paragraph's topic sentence).

Clearly related to the thesis: All sentences must refer to the central idea, or thesis, of the work.

Consistent: Sentences should be logically ordered and should follow a defined development plan.

Well developed: Each idea discussed in the paragraph must be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the controlling idea of the paragraph.

How is a paragraph organized?

There are many ways to organize a paragraph. The organization you choose will depend on the main idea of the paragraph. Here are some organizational possibilities:

Narration: Tell a story. Go chronologically, from start to finish.

Description: Provide specific details about the appearance, smell, taste, sound, or feel of something. Organize spatially, in order of appearance or by topic.

Process: Explain how something works, step by step. Perhaps a sequence follows: first, second, third.

Classification: Separate into groups or explain the different parts of a topic.

Illustration: Give examples and explain how those examples support your point of view.

5-step process for developing an illustrative paragraph

Let's go through a 5-step process to construct this type of paragraph. For each step there is an explanation and an example. Our example paragraph will deal with humans' misconceptions about piranhas.

Tips to Manage your Time Decide on a controlling idea and create a thematic phrase

The development of the paragraph begins with the formulation of the controlling idea. This idea directs the development of the paragraph. Often, the dominant idea of a paragraph will appear in the form of a thematic phrase. In some cases, more than one sentence may be needed to express the dominant idea of a paragraph.

Controlling idea and thematic prayer - Even though piranhas are relatively harmless, many people still believe the widespread myth that piranhas are dangerous to humans.

Step 2. Make a list of everything you need to do and add anything else you usually do. Craft the dominant idea

The development of the paragraph continues with the elaboration of the dominant idea, perhaps with an explanation, an implication or a statement about the meaning. Our example offers a possible explanation of the omnipresence of myth.

Elaboration - This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their poor characterization in the popular media.

Step 3. Apply the Eisenhower matrix Give an example (or multiple examples)

The development of the paragraph moves forward with an example (or more) that illustrates the statements made in the previous sentences.

Example - For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha prepared to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman.

Step 4. Make a prioritized plan Explain the example or examples

The next step in the development of the paragraph is an explanation of each example and its relevance to the thematic phrase. The explanation must demonstrate the value of the example as evidence to support the main claim, or approach, of your paragraph.

Continue the pattern of giving examples and explaining them until all the points/examples that the writer deems necessary have been made and explained. None of the examples should remain uns explained. You may be able to explain the relationship between the example and the thematic phrase in the same sentence that introduces the example. Most often, however, you have to explain that relationship in a separate sentence.

Explanation of example - Such a frightening representation easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear.

Step 5. Stick to the plan Complete the idea of the paragraph or transition to the next paragraph

The last move in the development of the paragraph is to tie up the loose strands of the paragraph. At this point, you can remind your reader of the relevance of the information to the larger document, or you can make a concluding point for this example. However, you can simply move on to the next paragraph.

Sentences to complete a paragraph - Although the trope of male-devouring piranhas gives excitement to adventure stories, it looks little like real-life piranhas. By paying more attention to facts than to fiction, human beings could finally put aside this inaccurate belief.

Final paragraph

Even though piranhas are relatively harmless, many people still believe the widespread myth that they are dangerous to humans. This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their mischaracterization in the popular media. For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha willing to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman. Such a terrifying depiction easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear. Although the trope of man-eating piranhas gives excitement to adventure stories, it looks little like real-life piranhas. By paying more attention to facts than to fiction, human beings could finally put aside this inaccurate belief.

Note that the steps in the example and the explanation of this 5-step process (steps 3 and 4) can be repeated as needed. The idea is that you continue to use this pattern until you have fully developed the main idea of the paragraph.

Troubled paragraphs

Problem: paragraph doesn't have a thematic sentence

Imagine that each paragraph is a sandwich. The true contents of the sandwich - the meat or other filling - are in the center. It includes all the evidence you need to prove the idea. But it's a little cumbersome to eat a sandwich without bread. Your readers don't know what to do with all the tests you've given them. So the top slice of bread (the first sentence of the paragraph) explains the topic (or main idea) of the paragraph. And, the bottom slice (the last sentence of the paragraph) tells the reader how the paragraph relates to the larger argument. In the original and revised paragraphs below, notice how a thematic phrase expressing the dominant idea indicates to the reader the meaning of all the evidence.

Original paragraph

Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. There are many more piranhas that eat people than those that eat piranhas. If the fish are well fed, they don't bite humans.

Revised paragraph

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, for the most part they are totally harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. There are many more piranhas that eat people than those that eat piranhas. If the fish are well fed, they will not bite humans.

Once you've mastered the use of topical sentences, you may decide that the topical sentence in a particular paragraph shouldn't be the first sentence in the paragraph. The important thing is that it is somewhere so that readers know what the main idea of the paragraph is and how it relates to the thesis of the work. Suppose we want to start the piranha paragraph with a transitional sentence -- something that reminds the reader of what happened in the previous paragraph -- rather than with the thematic sentence. Suppose the previous paragraph dealt with all sorts of animals that people are afraid of, such as sharks, snakes, and spiders. Our paragraph could be like this (the thematic sentence is in bold):

Like sharks, snakes and spiders, piranhas are much feared. Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, for the most part they are totally harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. There are many more piranhas that eat people than those that eat piranhas. If the fish are well fed, they will not bite humans.

Problem: Paragraph has more than one main idea

If a paragraph has more than one main idea, consider deleting the sentences that relate to the second idea, or split the paragraph into two or more paragraphs, each with a single main idea. Watch our short video on reverse outlining to learn a quick way to check if your paragraphs are unified. In the next paragraph, the final two sentences branch out into a different topic; therefore, the revised paragraph deletes them and concludes with a sentence reminding the reader of the main idea of the paragraph.

Original paragraph

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, for the most part they are totally harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. There are more piranhas that people eat than piranhas eat. Several South American groups eat piranhas. They fry or grill them and serve them with coconut milk or tucupi, a sauce made with fermented cassava juices.

Revised paragraph

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, for the most part they are totally harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. There are many more piranhas that eat people than those that eat piranhas. If the fish are well fed, they will not bite humans.

Problem: Transitions are needed within the paragraph

You're probably familiar with the idea that transitions may be necessary between paragraphs or sections of a job. Sometimes they are also useful within the body of the same paragraph. Within a paragraph, transitions are usually single words or short sentences that help establish relationships between ideas and create a logical progression of those ideas in a paragraph. This is especially likely within the paragraphs that discuss multiple examples. Let's look at a version of our paragraph on piranhas that uses transitions to guide the reader:

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, except in two main situations, totally harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, the piranhas' instinct is to flee, not attack. But there are two situations where a piranha is likely to bite. The first is when a frightened piranha is pulled out of the water, for example, if it has been caught in a fishing net. The second is when the water level in the ponds where the piranhas live drops too low. A large number of fish can get caught in a single pond and, if they are hungry, they can attack anything that enters the water.

In this example, you can see how the phrases "the first" and "the second" help the reader follow the organization of the ideas in the paragraph.

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You may also be interested in: Longitudinal Study

Bibliographic References

Lunsford, Andrea. 2008. The St. Martin's Handbook: Annotated Instructor's Edition, 6th ed. New York: St. Martin's.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook, 5th ed. New York: Longman.

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The Paragraph in the Investigation

The Paragraph in the Investigation. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Mimi Thian @mimithian

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