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From: Writing Tips by Professor Elizabeth Outka
(printable version here)
Writer's Web

A good paragraph has three central elements:

1. A topic sentence

Topic sentences tell your reader what the paragraph will concern. They must do this, but they should also act as signposts through your paper, gently guiding your readers through your argument by letting them know where you are and where you are headed. A reader (including you) should be able to get the gist of your paper and its developing argument by reading the opening sentences of each paragraph.

Topic sentences should accomplish three things:

  • They should give the reader a sense of what the paper will cover, ideally not in a mechanical way.
  • They should give the reader a clear sense of how the over-all argument is progressing.
  • If necessary, they should orient the reader as to where in the text the elements in question take place (Are you discussing the opening chapter? The first section of the novel? The conclusion?)

Beware...

  • Broad openings: You can't hope to cover, for example the way Joyce uses imagery in one paragraph. Be sure you've chosen a topic that you can reasonably discuss in a short space.

2. Support

Once you've presented your topic, you can then offer evidence from the text in the form of quotations or brief descriptions of plot elements. If you are presenting a contrast, you'll need to offer evidence on both sides. It's not enough, of course, simply to muster a list of evidence; alongside this evidence, you have to offer your own analysis. How do these plot details support your point? How should a reader interpret the details you offer?

Beware...

  • No support: You need to support your argument with specific quotations and examples from the text.
  • Only support: Be sure your quotations don't overtake your paragraphs. In general, you should have at least one sentence of analysis for every sentence of quotation. It's your paper, and you should be in charge of the prose.
  • Wandering: Usually as a result of broad openings. This is a paragraph that jumps from topic to topic.

3. Conclusion

Concluding sentences to paragraphs are tricky. You don't want to be too mechanical, but you also don't want to leave your reader hanging. The best thing to aim for is a modest reflection on the significance of support. Now that you've shown your evidence, what can you conclude?


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