2. Paragraphs

Take a look at the three “essays” shown in the margin. As you can see, they all have the same title, and we can suppose that they have the same subject matter too. Without having read them, we can’t say much about their quality as essays. Or can we?  

Which of them would you prefer to read, if you had to choose between them? Essay 1 looks a little daunting – one big, solid block of writing. Essay 2 looks demanding for a different reason. All those empty and half-empty lines make it look rather chaotic. Essay 3 looks the most tempting of the three, because it is divided into clear paragraphs. It gives the impression of having a structure and the text is served in “digestible” chunks.
 
Of course, this first impression might be quite wrong. Essay 3 might be a complete mess, and the other two might turn out to be well-structured text in terms of content. And it is, after all, the content that counts. But the layout of a text also has a role to play. It sends signals to the reader about how a text is organised, and where one idea starts and another finishes. So if essays 1 and 2 are good, they would be even better if they looked more like essay 3. Then the structure of the content would be reflected in the structure of the text and the reader would have an easier task.
 
The paragraph is an essential tool in an essay. It is not just a unit of text, it is a unit of thought. The general rule is that each paragraph should be about one main idea. We should be able to stop after each paragraph and answer the question: “What was that about?” Usually this main idea is actually formulated in one of the sentences in the paragraph. We call this the topic sentence, and it often comes first:
 
There is no doubt that the Wild West remains a potent myth for many modern Americans to explain who they are and where they have come from. The pioneer raising his first crop by the sweat of his brow and the boldness of his spirit is today’s entrepreneur starting out in business. The Indian-infested wilderness beyond the Frontier is a telling metaphor for the tough and dangerous environment of the capitalist market place. The grim sheriff standing his ground in the shoot-out with the outlaw band is today’s high-flying lawyer or hardnosed city cop.
 
We could write the same paragraph with the topic sentence at the end:
 
The pioneer raising his first crop by the sweat of his brow and the boldness of his spirit is today’s entrepreneur starting out in business. The Indian-infested wilderness beyond the Frontier is a telling metaphor for the tough and dangerous environment of the capitalist market place. The grim sheriff standing his ground in the shoot-out with the outlaw band is today’s high-flying lawyer or hardnosed city cop. There is no doubt that the Wild West remains a potent myth for many modern Americans to explain who they are and where they have come from.
 
The content is unchanged, but now the topic sentence functions as a summary of the sentences before it. The topic sentence can also be found in the middle of a paragraph, although this often gives it less emphasis:
 
The pioneer raising his first crop by the sweat of his brow and the boldness of his spirit is today’s entrepreneur starting out in business. There is no doubt that the Wild West remains a potent myth for many modern Americans to explain who they are and where they have come from. The Indian-infested wilderness beyond the Frontier is a telling metaphor for the tough and dangerous environment of the capitalist market place. The grim sheriff standing his ground in the shoot-out with the outlaw band is today’s high-flying lawyer or hardnosed city cop.
 
In all three paragraphs, the topic sentence tells us what the main idea of the paragraph is. The other sentences have the function of supporting this main idea, in this case by explaining and giving examples. This is the most common form of support, although there might also be other functions too: for example, to defend an opinion stated in the topic sentence, to discuss an idea set forth there, or to define a word or a concept.
 
Whatever their function, it is important to emphasise that the supporting sentences should not be “filler” or waffle. In fact, the difference between a good essay and a not so good one is often a matter of how well supported the topic sentence is.
 
How long should a paragraph be? Obviously there is no straight answer to this. It depends on how much there is to say on any particular point. As a general rule, though, we can say that it is worth taking an extra look at very long paragraphs to see that they are actually keeping to the point. Perhaps they actually contain more than one main point and should be divided up. At the other end of the scale, it is wise to avoid too many single-sentence paragraphs. This sort of writing, often used in tabloid newspapers (where it works very well), makes it difficult to reflect and analyse in the way an essay requires.
 

Not all paragraphs conform to the form we have described above. If you are narrating events or describing something, it may be difficult to pick out one sentence as being more important than the others. But when you are analysing, discussing or arguing a point – which is often what you have to do in an essay – thinking in terms of topic and supporting sentences is useful as a way of focussing attention and structuring content.

 

Activities

 
  1. Which of the sentence in the paragraphs below is the topic sentences, and how do the other sentences relate to it?
 
The relationship between sound and spelling in English is a nightmare. Our writing system is not phonetic to the point of being anti-phonetic. There are, for instance, at least seven ways of representing what to most people is the same vowel sound – “ee”: free, these, leaf, field, key, machine. What do we do? (From “The Adventure of English” by Melvyn Bragg)
 
Indeed, the value of individual freedom is so deeply engrained in us that we tend to take it for granted. It is easy to forget that at the time of our nation’s founding this idea was entirely radical in its implications, as radical as Martin Luther’s posting on the church door. It is an idea that some portion of the world still rejects – and for which an even larger portion of humanity finds scant evidence in their daily lives. (From “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama)
 
Of course, this first impression might be quite wrong. Essay 3 might be a complete mess, and the other two might turn out to be well-structured text in terms of content. And it is, after all, the content that counts. But the layout of a text also has a role to play. It sends signals to the reader about how a text is organised, and where one idea starts and another finishes. So if essays 1 and 2 are good, they would be even better if they looked more like essay 3. Then the structure of the content would be reflected in the structure of the text and the reader would have an easier task.
(Taken from the main text above)
 
  1. In the following paragraph which of the supporting sentences to you feel does not belong, and why?
 
The basis of American’s belief in their “Manifest Destiny” was a conviction that they were doing God’s will and that European culture was superior to all others. In the 19th century there was no notion of  idea of the rights of indigenous peoples to land and resources. It seems they had forgotten the kindness shown by natives to the Pilgrim Fathers. Forcing Native Americans from their homelands was simply a necessary means to a moral end – the creation of an “empire of freedom and civilization”.
 
  1. In the following paragraph the order of the sentences has been jumbled. Put them in a suitable order and decide which one is the topic sentence.
 
Indeed, it was the dominant thinking for the first two centuries of America’s existence. Conflict in the “old world” were best left well alone, it was felt. Even when Nazi Germany was picking off country after country in the first two years of the war, America chose to stand aside and let events unravel without their interference. In these days of the “War on Terror” it easy to forget that isolationism has strong traditions in American foreign policy. It was only when subjected to a direct attack at Pearl Harbor that she became actively involved.
 

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Sist oppdatert: 18.06.2008

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