Paragraph Structure: Making the Most of Your Ideas
A well-written paragraph can make a significant difference in the clarity and accessibility of your research manuscript as well as reduce unnecessary word count.
Updated on August 8, 2014
In this article, instead of a grammar tip, we're taking a closer look at a key part of any written text, the paragraph. Paragraphs should be more than just a collection of sentences, but what is the purpose of paragraph structure and how does it impact the paper as a whole?
Before considering how to structure a paragraph, it is helpful to understand the role that paragraphs play in a manuscript. In the broadest terms, a paragraph presents a complete thought. If a paragraph is written well, its main message can be understood without the need for preceding or following material. Paragraphs that are well designed can help a writer construct an argument in stages and can be thought of as signposts to guide a reader through the argument.
Scholars of English rhetoric have offered a number of definitions of the paragraph, but all of these definitions mention groups of sentences about a single topic. The number, length, and order of these sentences are frequently disputed among these scholars, but the unity of thought remains a constant. Maintaining a single idea per paragraph allows the writer to address that idea thoroughly, creating a firm foundation for the central argument of the paper.
Taking the time to prepare well-constructed paragraphs that are organized logically within the framework of your paper will be widely appreciated by both your readers and the reviewers. First, it makes your work more accessible. While a poorly-written paragraph can obscure the presented ideas and make it difficult for the reader to follow the author's logic and main points, a well-written paragraph presents the author's ideas in a clear and comprehensive manner. Second, good writing can contribute to the author's credibility in the eyes of the reader. A well-written paragraph can give readers the impression that the author is careful, methodical, and focused, which can make your readers more receptive to the ideas you present.
How are good paragraphs structured to make them effective?
Whether you are writing a short article or a book, the key to effectively communicating your ideas is to organize your thoughts into paragraphs. Like most papers, a good paragraph should have an introduction, evidence, and a conclusion. In addition, it should focus on a central theme, idea, or subject. Before starting to write, it is helpful to think about the point you wish to discuss in the paragraph and decide what type of paragraph it will be. There are many types of paragraphs (e.g., descriptive, expository, persuasive, comparative), and these differ according to how you intend to present the information in your paragraph to support your point. Here, however, we will discuss how to write a general paragraph based on its three main elements: (1) the topic sentence, (2) supporting evidence, and (3) the concluding statement.
We will demonstrate how these three elements are implemented in the following example, which is about the use of mouse models for biomedical research:
Throughout the years, mice have proven to be invaluable model organisms for biomedical research, allowing researchers to investigate disorders by manipulating the environment or the genome. Unlike their human counterparts, mice can be studied in a carefully controlled environment. It is also relatively easy for researchers to manipulate diet composition, food availability, exercise, and other environmental factors that can contribute to differences in physiological outcomes in mice. In addition to being relatively inexpensive, fast to reproduce, and easy to maintain compared to other mammalian models, mice are also remarkably similar to humans in terms of their physiology and genetics. Mice and humans share approximately the same number of genes and exhibit extensive synteny. Because of their genetic similarity to humans, mice have been used to pioneer genetic manipulation technologies, such as gene overexpression and gene knockout and knockdown models at the whole-organism level or in specific tissues. These technological breakthroughs in genetics research have fueled several decades of rapid discovery and knowledge expansion in many biomedical fields. The ability to manipulate both genetic and environmental variables with relative ease has made mice one of the most widely used in vivo models in biomedical research today.
1. Topic sentence
The topic sentence is typically the first sentence of a paragraph, and it should clearly state the main idea that you will develop throughout the paragraph. If a topic sentence is too general, the paragraph will often be lengthy and unfocused. In this situation, the paragraph can be organized into two (or sometimes more) paragraphs, each with a topic sentence that has a more reasonable scope based on the available supporting evidence. Ideally, your readers should be able to quickly identify the main ideas and scope of your paper simply by reading every topic sentence.
The example topic sentence (sentence 1, underlined) tells the reader that the paragraph is going to discuss why the mouse has become such an important model organism for biomedical research and how researchers can manipulate environmental and genetic factors in mice to answer important biomedical questions.
2. Supporting evidence
The supporting evidence composes the body of the paragraph. This element should consist of detailed information that is directly relevant to and further develops the main point presented in the topic sentence. It is standard to have anywhere from two to five concise supporting sentences, which is generally sufficient to develop the main point and keep the paragraph focused.
It is also important to keep in mind that a paragraph may come across as being disjointed (with no clear or logical progression of thought) when the conceptual connections within the paragraph are missing or poorly developed. This issue can be resolved by adding a sentence to lead into the following statement or by revising the existing sentences so that they lead from one into the next. The appropriate use of introductory words and phrases can also help to clarify conceptual connections within a paragraph. Readers appreciate when the authors make these conceptual connections clear rather than relying on the reader to make these connections on their own.
In our example, the information provided in the supporting sentences (sentences 2-6) explains to the reader why mice are good model organisms for studying biological processes and medical conditions. The supporting evidence includes information about why mice are easy to raise, how easy it is to control their living environments, and the genetic advantages to using mice as model organisms for translational studies of human disease processes. The use of introductory words and phrases (bolded text) helps the reader follow the author's argument from one sentence to the next.
3. Concluding statement
The concluding, or closing, sentence essentially restates the main idea of the paragraph in the context of the supporting evidence. However, it is important to note that the concluding statement should not simply repeat the topic sentence; care should be taken to minimize redundancy between the two. The concluding statement can also be used to transition into the main idea of the next paragraph, which improves the overall flow of the paper.
The concluding statement in our example paragraph (sentence 7, in italics) clearly summarizes the conclusion that the author would like you to draw from the supporting evidence presented in the body of the paragraph. Here, the author wants to convey that mice are invaluable in vivo models for human disease research because both environmental and genetic factors are relatively easy to manipulate. Restating the main point of the paragraph in the last sentence ensures that the reader has a clear understanding of the author's interpretation of the supporting evidence presented in the body of the paragraph.
Constructing effective paragraphs can be challenging due to the effort involved in planning the overall structure of each unit. However, the results of these efforts can greatly improve your chances for publication and allow you to reach your target audience.
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