What is a paragraph?
Essays are usually made up entirely of paragraphs; reports or other types of more technical writing will be written in sections, but within the sections there will be paragraphs as well as bullet points, lists, figures etc.
How long should a paragraph be?
As noted above, a paragraph needs to develop an idea or new aspect of an argument, and it is impossible to do this in just a sentence or two. It is usually recommended, therefore, that in typical student writing a paragraph should be a minimum of five or six sentences. It shouldn’t normally be shorter than this, but may be longer, depending on the overall length of the writing (the longer the writing, the longer the paragraphs can be: books may contain some very long paragraphs).
The most common mistake made in
student writing is to make paragraphs too short. If you just write a
sentence or two, two or three lines, and then start what looks like
a new paragraph, it leaves a bad impression. Your writing may tend to
look, and read, more like a series of notes or a list of simple points,
possibly indicating that you have not thought through the ideas and
have not developed them sufficiently. Alternatively, it may just mean
putting some of these fragments together to make one paragraph, as long
as they are linked. Don’t put unrelated ideas or information together
in a paragraph. A typical 1.5 or double spaced page would normally contain
just 2-3 paragraphs.
What is the structure of a paragraph?
It would be wrong to say that all paragraphs must follow a set structure; this would make your writing very mechanical, boring to read and would hinder your flexibility in answering the specific question. Instead, paragraphs need to contain some, or all, of the following components in order to sufficiently develop the point:
some sort of “topic sentence” or introduction stating what the paragraph is about. This would normally, but not always, come at the beginning of the paragraph.
explanation or definition of any terms which may be unclear.
evidence for any assertions you make: references to the sources you have used; examples, data, statistics, illustrations etc.
evaluation of this evidence or data; comparison or contrast with other information; analysis of causes and reasons; examination of effects and consequences; discussion of issues raised.
awareness of the implications of any of the above.
drawing of conclusions if appropriate
Your paragraphs should always be coherent, with the sentences linked together (see Guide 1.39). The end of the paragraph may link back to the introduction to show how the argument has developed, and may also link forward to the following paragraph. And particularly in shorter pieces, you may want to make regular reference to the specific question you are answering.
How to separate paragraphs
You must make it clear when one paragraph ends and a new one begins. Traditionally, you would “indent” the first line of the new paragraph, start it a few spaces in. Nowadays, most people leave a line space between paragraphs, without indenting the first line: this is probably the easiest thing to do. Remember that if you are double spacing your writing already, you’ll need to put in an extra space. Don’t mix the two possibilities.
[The topic sentence is sentence (1). The other sentences develop the topic by giving examples (2) and by setting out some of the implications of the topic (3) (4) (5).]
[This one is a bit more complicated. You could say that sentence (1) is the topic sentence, or that sentence (2) is. Both these sentences say roughly the same thing. Then sentences (3) and (4) give examples, and sentence (5) sums up. The whole paragraph develops the topic by setting out some of the complications in it.]
(1) It is evident that full and
effective use of all communication channels requires the physical, emotional
and intellectual capacity to send signals which convey their intended
meaning and to receive them, and also some common understanding with
those with whom it is sought to communicate. (2) But this is precisely
what most patients in intensive care units often do not have. (3) All
are restricted in their ability to express themselves by body movement
and personal appearance. (4) They are usually unfamiliar with being
in a situation where they are physically dependent on other people;
where bodily functions usually performed independently in private require
assistance and/or permission, and are matters for relatively public
discussion; and where they may not understand the physical objects,
activities and sounds (including much of the verbal interchange) around
them. (5) They need information about their own condition, and the environment
and expectations; yet in order to conform to the traditional expectations
of the 'good patient' (seen as passive and undemanding), and because
they do not feel confident of knowing the right words to use, they are
often unwilling or unable to pressure staff to provide it. (6) The patients'
self-esteem may be diminished by illness and dependency, thus making
them unwilling or unable to persist in their efforts to gain the information
Source of paragraphs B-D:
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