Use the paragraph effectively

The paragraph is one of the main building blocks of writing. Its effective use is key to good writing. If it is used badly - if paragraphs are either very long, or short, one sentence ones, or if there is a sudden break in sense between paragraphs - then the meaning is obsured. So, what is a paragraph?

What makes a paragraph
Topic sentences
Ensuring coherence
Paragraph length

What makes a paragraph

The paragraphs in this link are taken more or less at random from Emerald articles. What do they all have in common?

All the above paragraphs are concerned with a particular topic or theme, which they use the structure of the paragraph to develop. A key aspect of a good paragraph is this unity: there is one major point of discussion. All the sentences in this paragraph should be related to this one idea, and should flow from one another. The following example shows what happens when the flow is broken:

Within TAVAC a word is presented onscreen and the user is required to click on the translation that they think is correct, and on the correct gender (M = masculine, F = feminine) of the French word from a selection of several French words on the screen, some of which were deliberate mistakes (distractors). The correct word appears in a randomised position generated by the software amongst the other available words in the list.

A picture representing the word shown is also displayed onscreen. It is envisaged that in further developments of the program the displayed word will be pronounced for the user to listen to as and when required, but at the time of the trial it was considered an extra which might limit the use of the program, given that not all available machines for the students have sound cards. The user is required to click the correct word and gender. Immediate feedback is available, an incorrect answer is signalled to the user, and the user is asked to try again if the answer is an incorrect one. After 3 failed attempts (word and gender incorrect or either word or gender incorrect), the user is shown the correct answer onscreen. The incorrect word is saved in a users file on the hard disk and is displayed again the next time the program is used by the user provided that the user logs on with the same username. This facility can be ‘turned off’ by the user, but using the program in the default way was found to be ‘useful’ (35%), ‘very useful’ (21%) or ‘extremely useful’ (7%) in a series of questionnaires filled in by users after each session (after Phase III below). Staff reactions to the program varied from ‘simple’ to ‘very useful’.

The first sentence of the second paragraph really belongs to the first paragraph.

Topic sentences

A well-constructed paragraph should contain a sentence which states the theme of the paragraph, which subsequent sentences should develop and support.

Look back at the sentences described in the previous paragraph and identify the topic sentences. Click on this link to see if you agree with our view.

Ensuring coherence

A well-crafted paragraph should have a consistent and logical organisation of ideas, with points flowing from one another in a natural sequence. There are two main ways of doing this: implicitly by making the ideas develop from one another and explicitly by building bridges.

Implicit links: making ideas develop

Develop the idea set out in the topic sentence by adding information, providing explanation, giving examples, providing data, defining terms, comparing and contrasting. The example below shows how one of the above paragraphs does this (comments in bold and red).

Observation can be used as both a quantitative and a qualitative research methodology. Example: In the case described in this study, observation was mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature. Comparison: On the other hand, observation, if structured, can generate detailed quantitative findings. Example: Data, for example, generated via EPoS tracking (a machine-based observational tool) is highly statistical in nature. Explanation: Whether findings generated by observation are quantitative or qualitative in nature depends on whether the research is structured or unstructured - which, in turn, often depends on the stage of the research project.

Building bridges

The handout on paragraphs created by the Purdue University Online Writing Lab at http://owl.english.purdue.edu has this to say:

Coherence is the trait that makes the paragraph easily understandable to a reader. You can help create coherence in your paragraphs by creating logical bridges and verbal bridges.

logical bridges:

  • The same idea of a topic is carried over from sentence to sentence
  • Successive sentences can be constructed in parallel form

verbal bridges:

  • Key words can be repeated in several sentences
  • Synonymous words can be repeated in several sentences
  • Pronouns can refer to nouns in previous sentences
  • Transition words can be used to link ideas from different sentences

If you have ideas develop along a main theme, as we discussed above, that should help in building logical bridges. Verbal bridges however are also very useful, as you can see in the following example where the verbal bridges have been taken out:

Observation can be used as both a quantitative and a qualitative research methodology. In the case described in this study, observation was mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature. Observation, if structured, can generate detailed quantitative findings. Data generated via EPoS tracking (a machine-based observational tool) is highly statistical in nature.

There are a number of ways of providing verbal bridges:

  • Using linking words and phrases, as in the ones left out in the above example.
  • Referring back to key ideas, either repeating phrases or using pronouns.

Click on this link to see how the writers used verbal bridges in the examples quoted above.

You can also find out more about verbal link phrases by reading about how to make effective transitions.

Paragraph length

While in general it is best to avoid paragraphs that are too long, there is no hard and fast rule for their length other than to say that sense will dictate a new paragraph, when it is clear that you are dealing with another topic.

Look at the paragraphs quoted above: do you see any places where you could have a break?

Write clear sentences