Date published November 10, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: October 12, 2016
Paragraphs represent the basic building blocks of the arguments made in academic essays. This article looks at two essential elements of paragraphs, offers a general method for constructing paragraphs, drafts a general template for paragraph structure, and looks at some common paragraph pitfalls.
In an academic essay, the purpose of a paragraph is to support a single claim or idea that helps establish the overall argument or purpose of the paper. Paragraphs should be focused around this single idea or point, and they should be clearly related to what comes before them.
Two essentials: Topic sentences and transitions
One of the best ways to ensure that a paragraph is focused and clearly related to the thesis statement is to ensure that it has a good topic sentence. Each sentence in a paragraph should help support the topic sentence of that paragraph (in the same way that each paragraph should relate to the thesis statement), so each sentence should connect with the main point of the paragraph in some way. Sentences should also connect well with each other, and in forging sentence-to-sentence connections, good transitions are crucial.
Beyond of these two key features of good paragraphs (good topic sentences and transitions), there is a certain method of presenting information in a paragraph, and there are things to avoid in paragraphs.
Method: Introduce, provide, explain, (repeat), conclude
Following the topic sentence, a paragraph should introduce, provide, and explain its evidence. After this, it should either repeat, with new topic-sentence-related evidence, or take a sentence or two to close the paragraph.
While good topic sentences offer an idea of what the paragraph is going to be about and how that fits into the rest of the paper, at the heart of a paragraph are evidence and explanation that support the key claim of the paragraph. We can call these the heart of a paragraph both in the sense that they give purpose to the paragraph and in the sense that they appear (roughly) in the middle of the paragraph.
Diagram of paragraph structure
It’s useful to think of a paragraph’s structure by comparison to the structure of an essay. As the body of an essay needs a good introduction, so do the evidence and explanation given in a paragraph. Usually, this evidence will need to be contextualized, prefaced, or otherwise introduced before it is provided.
Provide and explain
To provide evidence is usually to state a fact that supports your paragraph’s claim, given in the topic sentence. After providing any evidence, you will have to explain how that evidence supports the paragraph’s claim. Paragraphs on any subject require that the primary evidence for any claim be clearly explained to support that claim, so don’t assume that your facts speak for themselves.
In a sociology paper, this might mean explaining the significance of a statistic; in literary studies, the most interesting element of a quotation from a poem or story; in history of technology, what the technical explanation of a process means in simple terms; and in philosophy, the assumptions and logical connections at work in an argument. Different fields deal with such explanation in different ways, but they all require it.
Finally, a paragraph requires a satisfying conclusion. To evaluate whether you’ve done a good job wrapping up your paragraph, ask yourself whether the final sentence or two sufficiently conveys the thrust of the paragraph. If not, consider adding a summary sentence.
This template presents a very simple paragraph structure. It is highly adaptable and can be used throughout an essay, although there are certainly other ways of forming good paragraphs.
A good, simple paragraph might look something like this:
- Topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that introduces or contextualizes evidence.
- Sentence (or more) that provides evidence in support of the topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that explains how the evidence just given relates to the topic sentence.
- Sentence (or more) that eitherintroduces new topic sentence-related evidence (go back to step 2) or closes the paragraph.
Consider an example to illustrate:
(1) George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has had an enduring impact on thought about the relationship between politics and language.(2) This impact is particularly obvious in light of the various critical review articles that have recently referenced the essay.(3) For example, consider Mark Falcoff’s 2009 article in The National Review Online, “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited,” in which he analyzes several common words (“activist,” “civil-rights leader,” “diversity,” and more).(4) Falcoff’s close analysis of the ambiguity built into political language intentionally mirrors Orwell’s own point-by-point analysis of the political language of his day.(5) Even 63 years after its publication, Orwell’s essay is emulated by contemporary thinkers.
This paragraph could be altered or expanded (and improved) in several ways, but the course of the paragraph would always need to maintain the general form of (1) through (5). Even if we added or removed some of the particular sentences, these basic functions would need to be fulfilled.
- Notice that on the above template the minimum length of a paragraph is five sentences. This can be slightly condensed, since we can, for example, introduce and provide evidence in the same sentence. We can only condense so much, though—normally you won’t be able to cover all of the basic functions of a paragraph in under three sentences.
- Short paragraphs (three sentences or so) are rare, and should be used only when special emphasis is needed or the point of the paragraph is very simple. One- or two-sentence paragraphs are almost unheard of and should be generally avoided.
- Size is a good indicator of whether a paragraph is too long. Generally speaking, with double-spaced, 12 point, standard font, and standard margins, a paragraph should not go much over 3/4s of a page. The reason a paragraph runs too long is only loosely related to size, though—rather, it’s a matter of how many topic or points are covered in a paragraph.
- Remember, each paragraph should be about just one thing, and each paragraph should be just long enough to fully explain or prove its point.
- Where there is a significant shift in topic matter, even while making one larger argument, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.
- Where there is a significant shift in argument, even while the topic remains the same, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.
Unfocused or “too listy”
- A paragraph is unfocused or “too listy” when it mentions many things but does not cover most (or, perhaps, any) of them in enough detail.
- If you find a paragraph with this problem, you can (1) eliminate some points to focus on just a few, (2) break the paragraph into more robust sub-paragraphs by giving more attention to each point, or (3) work on tightening the connections between each of these points and their collective relation to the topic sentence or thesis.
- Note that all of these strategies require additional information, either to explain connections or to deepen the discussion (or both).
- Focus is a more common problem in long paragraphs, but can afflict short ones too.
Constructing an Argument
When asked to give advice about writing political science papers, Professor Ellen Andersen explained that most papers written for political sciences classes are arguments. “However,” she said, “do not write a persuasive essay about your opinion on the subject. Instead, take evidence and use it to support an academic argument. Use this academic argument to show your learning. Do not decide on an argument you want to make and then make it, regardless of what the evidence says. Be sure to engage with the other side of the debate honestly. Rather than dismissing it, think about it. That is how real growth happens.” For most assignments, you can follow a very basic format for an academic argument. Begin the process by finding trustworthy information. Then explore your material and orgranize your thoughts in a manner that works best for you. You can then start to construct your thesis statement.
The basic format of a political science essay
- The Introduction should articulate a clear argument and outline the paper’s structure explicitly. It can be a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs, or even a couple of pages for a really long paper. Make sure that your thesis responds to all aspects of the assignment.
- To show how your argument builds on previous research on your topic, include a literature review. You can do this as part of your introduction, in a section immediately following your introduction, or within each of your body sections, whichever seems most appropriate for your paper.
- Body Sections
- You can have as many body sections as you need.
- Body sections just mean you’re making a point about one aspect of your topic. They can have just one paragraph or as many as you need to make your point. For example, if you’re talking about the process of a bill becoming a law, you’re going to have subtopics within those over-arching sections, like what happens in the House, what happens in the Senate, and then what happens when they both finally agree on a version of the bill-and that's okay. Just be aware of staying on-topic and transitioning smoothly from one to the next.
- How to set up your body paragraphs
- Small thesis: what is this paragraph about? It should be your starter sentence, and also tie neatly into the last sentence (flow is important)!
- Evidence and analysis. The important thing to remember here is that you're not going “Quote 1,” “Quote 2,” “Quote 3,” and then analysis of quote 2, analysis of quote 3. You should be giving your evidence and analyzing it as you go; tell us what it means that the House is mad about an amendment the Senate added to a bill before you assault us with a quote about how the President feels.
- Summarizing/transition sentence. Finish up what you're saying, and then in the same sentence or another sentence, explain the train of thought that leads to your next point/paragraph.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
- Before writing your conclusion, take this opportunity to review your essay. Does your essay follow your thesis statement? Have you created an argument and provided evidence that supports this thesis? If yes, then go on to write your conclusion. If no, consider changing your thesis (and revising as appropriate).
- Be careful that the restatement of the thesis doesn't seem like you're copying and pasting your thesis statement from the introduction. Your conclusion needs to be the summation of your entire essay; it’s your chance to state your point strongly and tie up any loose ends.
- Do not introduce new figures or statistics or evidence to prove your point. You should be done with introducing information. Now you're telling us what it means, why it's significant on a broader scale or in a bigger picture, and why we should care.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
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Outlining, Grouping, Mind mapping, Free writing… Organize your thoughts!
Conceptual and factual knowledge is essential in a political science paper–interesting metaphors, grand generalizations, and a lot of “BS” will not lead to a smart paper (and will be quickly recognized by your professor). The key is to develop a solid argument with supportive evidence. It is also essential that you understand your argument in order to convincingly and eloquently present it to the reader–if you're not sure, the reader won’t be either!
There are many different ways to go about organizing a paper. To perfect that crucial organization element, consider using one of the four common approaches illustrated below. Each example is for an essay exploring connections between political power and power over the media.
- Make an outline! Outlines can tell you how organized your paper is, where there are holes in your argument that require more research, or where information may need to be cut.
See Detailed Outline.
- If you don't like the strict formatting of an outline, try organizing your thoughts through bulleted lists.
See Bulleted List
- If you like diagrams, consider drawing a mind map or web that shows the connections between your ideas.
See Mind Map/Web
- If you're more of a puzzler, try writing your information on separate note cards and then rearranging them to physically build a picture of your argument. This can also be done electronically by typing up all of your information and then rearranging it on a computer.
See Notecard Puzzle
- If you don't yet know what sections to break your paper into, try starting with a free write that focuses on the prompt. You can see what ideas you have and start to find some connections between them.
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Write a Thesis Statement!
A thesis is…
- …an arguable statement that will serve as a condensed version of the argument that you make in the paper.
- …not a factual statement about your topic.
- …your opportunity to make an assertive claim that you will then back up using your collected evidence in your body paragraphs. In essence, it will provide a “roadmap” for the rest of the paper.
- …not necessarily just one sentence.
How do I construct my thesis statement?
- After having organized all of the information that you consider pertinent to the prompt, you will have likely noticed some form of argument that all your information is building to. Investigate this further and determine if there is some sort of claim that your evidence naturally points to.
- If you did not see a natural argument emerging, dig further, rearrange your information to see if something else emerges, or consider doing more research that would provide you with more information on the topic.
- Pull out the key ideas from the argument that you begin to see forming and write down what you think you could argue. Remember that a thesis can be rewritten many, many times and what you write down first is in no way set in stone. In fact, you should spend some time rewriting and reevaluating your thesis in order to see if the claim you are making is really what you want to say.
- You may feel more comfortable writing out your claims and information first and then seeing where the essay takes you. In this case, it may work better for you to come up with a simple thesis first, without tinkering heavily with the meaning or the wording. However, it is important to return to your preliminary thesis after having written the entire paper in order to refine it and ensure its essence is still true to the paper.
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Finding Trustworthy Information
Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.
- Start looking for information early - when you have an idea of your topic
- Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
- Use the librarys available resources - particularly the online databases - rather than Google
- These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
- Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
- Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
- Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
- Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
- The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
- For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations thus, we should make sure theyre being impartial in their research methods
- Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
- Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesnt leave you feeling unsure - implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
- Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
- This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
- The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity
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