Go The Distance: Academic Writing – Paragraphs

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1. Ever had problems with your paragraphs?

Welcome back to our Academic Writing course – bringing you the essential knowledge and skills you need to be an effective writer in your study life. This time we're looking at a crucial feature of academic writing: the paragraph!

One of the main features of good academic writing is effective use of paragraphs. Scroll down and do the activities to improve your paragraphs for better assignments.

2. Paragraph structure

When you are writing essays and assignments, you need to organise your writing into paragraphs.

What does a paragraph look like?

In the picture, which shows an extract from an essay, we can see four paragraphs: the end of one paragraph, followed by two complete paragraphs and finally, the beginning of another paragraph.

Basic paragraph structure

Good paragraphs usually follow a particular structure:

- Topic sentence

- Supporting sentence 1

- Supporting sentence 2

- Supporting sentence 3

- More supporting sentences (as required)

- Concluding sentence(s)

To do

Now we'll take a look at what makes a topic sentence different from a supporting or concluding sentence. Read on!

3. Challenge 1: Get on top of topic sentences

A good paragraph often starts with a topic sentence, which summarises the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence sometimes includes 'signposting' words and phrases to show how it is connected to the paragraphs before it in the text. Some examples of these are: 'As a result of this...', 'Another reason...' and 'However,...'

To do

Below is a paragraph from an assignment from an education management course. Read the assignment title and the and topic sentences 1- 3 below. Then read the paragraph and decide which topic sentence is the most suitable.

Assignment title

What strategies are available to educational leaders for managing institutional change?

Possible topic sentences

1. Before this question can be addressed, definitions of the terms ‘educational leader’ and ‘institutional change’ must be established.

2. When change is imminent, it is necessary for educational leaders to make appropriate preparations (Zimmerman, 2004).

3. According to Zimmerman (2004) there are four basic types of educational change.

Which topic sentence is best for this paragraph?

[Topic sentence] Firstly, leaders must ensure that their own understanding of the change process is clear and complete before they begin to implement change (Calabrese 2002). In particular, leaders must recognise that change almost inevitably results in some degree of resistance on the part of school staff, and must identify any issues which are likely to cause particular resistance. Having done this, leaders need to design communication strategies and any related CPD in order to minimize the effect of this resistance. Badely (2013) recommends that in any situation of major institutional change, educational leaders should always design and implement a series of dedicated training sessions.

Now check your answer by doing this quiz.

4. Challenge 1 answer: The best topic sentence

To do: Check your answer by clicking 'choose' on options 1, 2, or 3.

1. Before this question...

You selected

1. Before this question...

Sorry, that's wrong. This is not a good topic sentence, because the terms 'educational leader' and 'institutional change' are not defined in the paragraph.

2. When change is...

You selected

2. When change is...

That's right. This is an appropriate topic sentence because the paragraph describes the preparations leaders can make – the paragraph develops the topic.

3. According to...

You selected

3. According to...

Sorry, that's wrong. The paragraph is not about 'educational change' – it's actually about the changes leaders can make in their institutions.

5. Challenge 2: Good supporting sentences

After the topic sentence, good paragraphs contain one or more ‘supporting sentences’ which explain the topic sentence in more detail. The supporting sentences might include reasons for the reader to agree with the topic sentence, or examples that explain or develop the topic sentence.

Supporting sentences often include ‘signposting’ language, to show the relationship between the ideas in the paragraph. Examples include:

Firstly… Secondly… Thirdly…

The first… The second… The third…

Furthermore, … However, … On the other hand, …

To do

Read the assignment title from a course about music and culture. Then look at the paragraph from the assignment and see if you can spot the supporting sentence that SHOULDN'T be there.

Assignment title

Choose a musical instrument which has moved beyond its original geographical location. Who has adopted this instrument, how have they done so, and why?

Paragraph

The three-stringed harp has also had a role in popular protests aimed at defending the indigenous peoples’ equality. One example is the single ‘Meim Yet’tu’, released in 1993 in support of the Five Rivers land rights movement. This pushed the Five Rivers movement to the front of the international stage, dramatically raising awareness of the harp as a symbol of the indigenous peoples’ tradition, and their stance in the nation’s land-rights politics (Gardise and Warhust, 2011). It is very common for musical instruments to be adopted by different cultures, and used for different purposes. The instrument has since taken on a clear role as a symbol of the indigenous political struggle.

The sentence that shouldn't be there

The supporting sentence that is not appropriate in this paragraph is 'It is very common for musical instruments to be adopted by different cultures, and used for different purposes'. This is because the assignment and paragraph are only about one particular musical instrument and its use beyond its original geographical location - not the use of instruments in general.

6. An introduction to the conclusion

To do: Click on the image to see a paragraph from an assignment from a web design course. Click on the labels to see notes on model paragraph structure

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The conclusion of a paragraph is really important. It may: explain why the writer has included the paragraph; summarise the argument(s) made and evidence given; relate the paragraph to the theme of the essay. It may also signal to the reader what is coming next. There is more information and practice material about conclusions in the free, downloadable pdf that comes with this unit - scroll down to find and download it!

7. Review – and more practice

You're on the way to perfect paragraphs!

Let's recap what we've learned about paragraphs so far:

  • Good academic writing is made up of paragraphs with one clear idea per paragraph.
  • Paragraphs usually start with a topic sentence – a sentence that gives the main focus of the paragraph.
  • The topic sentence sometimes includes 'signposting' language to link the paragraph to the previous paragraph.
  • Supporting sentences follow the topic sentence. They develop the topic by giving reasons, evidence and/or examples.
  • The concluding sentence usually comes at the end. It explains why the paragraph is important and relates it to the theme of the essay.

Downloads

Are you ready for more paragraph practice? Download our free pdf worksheet to do more activities with a special focus on concluding sentences and advanced paragraph structure. Click on the 'Downloads' button to get the free pdf.