Writing good paragraphs

Writing good paragraphs is inevitably an essential element of all good essays, and one that you will spend a good deal of time developing throughout the course.  But what does it take to write them consistently and effectively?  The answer to that question is not straightforward, and of course there are many different kinds of paragraphs, and many different ways of writing them successfully.  Having said that, it probably is true to say that good paragraphs - however varied, and whatever their subject, often have similar technical characteristics.  Let's try to identify some of them...

Good paragraphs will typically:

1.  Identify one clear topic or subject and stick with it,  not meander through several or many.

2.  'Present' the subject of the paragraph in the first sentence - a 'topic sentence'

3.  Consist of other points that unpack the topic of the paragraph and explore the way it is presented or developed in the text.

4.  Make a variety of different kinds of statement, some descriptive, some analytical, some interpretive.

5.  Explore the main topic of the paragraph in and through supporting points, e.g. around 2-4

6.  Support each point with reference to the text, sometimes in the form of short quotation, at others in reference to particular moments, scenes or events.

7.  Develop:  a paragraph will make progression and overall present a development in the argument.  In this sense a paragraph can be like a mini essay, with an introductory statement, a main body of exploratory points and then a kind of conclusion which assesses how far the paragraph has developed the argument.

8.  Will be neither too long nor too short.  If your paragraph is only a coupe of sentences long then the chances are there is not enough material for a paragraph topic to be clearly identified or explored.  Equally, if the paragraph goes on for more than, say, half a side, it may well be a sign that it should be split into two (or more) topics instead.  Typically, an 'average' A4 page will consist of 2-3 paragraphs.

9.  Present points that develop from one into the other, either by finding similarities or points of contrast or opposition.

10.  Connect meaningfully with the topic (and the points raised) in the previous paragraph, as well as the one following.

Read through the following model paragraph (taken from an essay on Master Harold and the Boys, by Athol Fugard), with teacher notes alongside, to see how these characteristics can be realised.  (Teachers  - you could project this table in full screen for students to read).

The ballroom scene is important because it reinforces the idea of Sam in his role as mentor to Hally.1  At the start of the scene, Hally is reluctant to see the dance as anything more than 'simple' and declares that it has no more significance than "American sodas with ice cream".2 Through Sam's excited anticipation of the dance competition, however,3 he manages to convince Hally that it is more: "There's only standing room left.  We've got competitors coming from Kingwilliamstown, East London, Port Alfred", he remarks - portraying the extent of its importance throughout the whole of the region, as well as its significance as a voice for the black community.4 Furthermore, as the scene gains momentum, the dance begins to move towards something of more figurative importance.5  For Sam, it carries meaning in terms of the relationship between the three men.  He states, "Look at the three of us this afternoon:  I've bumped into Willy, the two of us have bumped into you..." and then he goes even further to announce its status as a metaphor for the conflict between people and nations. "America", he says, "has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man". Sam is therefore presented as a wise and mature man who possesses considerable insight, and Hal cannot help but be swayed by his persuasive rhetoric.  He comments, "You're right.  We mustn't despair".  However, it is ironic, or perhaps a fitting reminder of the futility of this idea, that the phone rings at precisely at this point.  This provides one further example of the play's modulation between hope and despondency.7

1.  The topic statement (first sentence of the paragraph) clearly states the one single issue with which the paragraph is going to be concerned.

2.  This is the first point of the paragraph (in support of the topic).  It is clearly articulated and notice the way two quotations have been embedded correctly.

3.  The use of the conjunction, 'however', here connects the point made in the previous sentence with this new one.

4.  Remembering that points are usually structured along the:

  • Point
  • Evidence
  • Explanation

...approach, this sentence gives a nice example of the way an 'explanation' of the point-evidence can be made.

5.  Here, the word 'furthermore' effectively connects previous points to this third main idea.

6.  Note the way that different lengths of quotation are represented here - singular words or phrases embedded, complete lines or sentences preceded with a colon.

7.  At the end of the paragraph, the student takes stock of the points s/he has made and moves them forward by coming up with a couple of interpretive ideas.  Firstly, what we can learn about the character of Sam in general through this exploration, and second, tying the topic to the play as a whole in the comment about its interest in the interplay between hope and despair.

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