What is a paragraph?
A paragraph is much more than a collection of connected sentences. It is a building block of
essay development, and paragraphs provide the structure needed to develop the thesis of a paper.
In fact, a useful way to think about a paragraph is as a “mini-essay,” or an essay within an essay,
with its own mini-thesis (the topic sentence), middle or body (the supporting details) and end or
conclusion (the concluding sentence).
Basic Paragraph Structure
A paragraph has three basic parts:
A topic sentence states what the entire paragraph is about. A good topic sentence should be a
general sentence that presents the topic clearly. A topic sentence is the first sentence of the body
paragraph. The topic sentence introduces the topic of the paragraph. A good topic sentence will
be broad enough to allow for explication but narrow enough that it does not require a paragraph
that is too long.
The supporting sentences of a paragraph are the sentences between the topic sentence and the
concluding sentence. The supporting sentences “support” the topic sentence. That is, they
explain and elaborate on the point of the paragraph.
The concluding sentence is the last sentence in the paragraph. It should succinctly end the
paragraph and transition to the next paragraph, if appropriate.
A paragraph is a group of sentences which develop one central idea, usually stated in a topic
sentence. A paragraph usually begins with a topic sentence, which introduces the topic. The
supporting sentences that follow support the idea in the topic sentence with explanations,
reasons, and other details. Every sentence in the paragraph must help the development of the
topic sentence. Together, the sentences of the paragraph explain the writer’s main idea (most
important idea) about the topic. The paragraph is the basic unit of composition.
The Topic Sentence and Controlling Idea
The Topic Sentence is an important feature of a paragraph. It is the most general sentence in a
paragraph, and it has two parts:
1. A topic: the subject or issue being discussed, and 2. A controlling idea: a point, opinion, or
feeling about the topic.
In this example, the subject of the sentence, snow skiing is the topic, and the predicate of the
sentence expresses the point or opinion about the topic: that it is challenging and has important
As the controlling idea, the rest of the paragraph will serve to develop this point with supporting
details. The topic sentence is typically the first sentence in a paragraph.
Example: Snow skiing is a challenging sport with important requirements. Bending your knees
and putting your weight on the downhill ski during turns will help you control your speed as you
ski. If you do not adhere to these requirements, you may ski too fast and even fall.
The topic sentence can come later in a paragraph too.
Example: Bending your knees and putting your weight on the downhill ski during turns will help
you control your speed as you ski. Snow skiing is a challenging sport with important
requirements. If you do not adhere to these requirements, you may ski too fast and even fall.
Choose the best topic sentence for each group of supporting sentences.
1. I usually go skiing every weekend in the winter even though it is expensive. I love the feeling
of flying down a mountain. The views are beautiful from the top of a mountain and along the
trails. Even the danger of falling and getting hurt can’t keep me away from the slopes on a winter
a) Skiing is expensive.
b) Skiing is my favourite sport.
c) Skiing is dangerous
2. North Americans send cards for many occasions. They send cards to family and friends on
birthdays and holidays. They also send thank-you cards; get well cards, graduation cards, and
congratulation cards. It is very common to buy cards in stores and send them through the mail,
but turning on the computer and sending cards over the Internet is also popular.
a) Sending cards is very popular in North America.
b) Birthday cards are the most popular kind of card.
c) It is important to send thank-you cards.
3. One thing you must consider is the quality of the university’s educational program. You also
need to think about the school’s size and location. Finally, you must be sure to consider the
university’s tuition to make sure you can afford to go to school there.
a) It is expensive to attend a university in the United States.
b) There are several factors to consider when you choose a university to attend.
c) You should consider getting a good education.
4. First of all, we need money to repair old roads and build new roads. We also need more to pay
teachers’ salaries and to pay for services such as trash collection. Finally, more tax money is
needed to give financial help to the poor citizens of the city. It is clear that the city will have
serious problems if taxes are not raised soon.
a) We should raise city taxes.
b) City taxes are too high.
c) City taxes pay for new roads.
5. For example, a person can have breakfast in New York, board an airplane, and have dinner in
Paris. A businesswoman in London can instantly place an order with a factory in Hong Kong by
sending a fax. Furthermore, a schoolboy in Tokyo can turn on a TV and watch a baseball game
being played in Los Angeles.
a) Airplanes have changed our lives.
b) Advances in technology have made the world seem smaller.
c) The fax machine was an important invention.
The main idea expressed in the topic sentence should not be too general or too specific. If it is
too general, it will be difficult to develop it adequately in a single paragraph. If it is too specific,
there will be nothing left to say to develop the idea in the paragraph.
Look at the following topic sentences.
‘Everyone can benefit from exercise.’
This topic sentence is too general. There are many different kinds of exercise and different kinds
of exercise have different benefits. Not all of them can be developed within one paragraph.
‘Doing aerobics for thirty minutes a day will strengthen a person’s cardio- vascular system by
twenty five percent.’
This topic sentence is too specific. There is nothing else that can be said to support this statement
in the remainder of the paragraph. ‘There are three reasons why I exercise every day.’
This sentence is an adequate topic sentence. It limits the discussion of the paragraph to only
discussing the reasons that the writer exercises. Telling what those three reasons are and what
benefits the writer gains from exercise can be expanded upon in the paragraph.
The controlling idea limits the topic of the paragraph to one definite idea or one aspect of the
topic that represents a particular idea, feeling, or opinion. The controlling idea must not be too
broad, it must be specific enough for the subject to be discussed within one paragraph. Look at
these three topic sentences. Each has same topic, but contain different controlling ideas.
Naran Valley is a favorite vacation spot for travelers across Pakistan.
(Controlling idea: vacation spot)
Naran Valley is noted for its awe-inspiring panorama.
(Controlling idea: panorama)
Naran Valley is an ideal area to view the geologic history of the earth.
(Controlling idea: geologic history)
Analyzing the topic sentence
Identify the topic sentence in the sample paragraph along with the specific topic and controlling
idea. After identifying the topic and controlling idea on your own, proceed to the Analysis.
Toddlers have strong opinions about certain food. Broccoli (“trees”) and alphabet soup can bring
shrieks of delight. Happy eaters are not always skillful or neat eaters, however.
Toddlers still have much to learn about using a fork and spoon.
Analysis: In the sample paragraph, the topic sentence is “Toddlers have strong opinions about
certain food.” According to this topic sentence, the paragraph is largely about toddlers but the
controlling idea concerns their opinions about food or their eating preferences.
In a paragraph, the topic and controlling idea are developed with supporting details. Listed here
are some types of supporting details found in paragraphs along with an example of each in a
Facts: statistics or evidence from research that can be verified.
The office sold seven million dollars of real estate during the boom years (Stoff, 2011).
Opinions: statements, quotes, or paraphrases from subject matter experts (which maybe you!)
According to expert tea maker, Stoff (2010), there are three easy steps to making tea.
Definitions: explanations of what a term or concept means
A “crossover” is a family vehicle with the features of a sedan, mini-van, and an SUV.
Examples: illustrations that show how something is or how it is done Mario was a shy,
introverted young man.
For example, he had few friends and mostly kept to himself.
Descriptions: a visual or sensory depiction of a person, place, event, activity, or idea
Frostbit leaves crunched beneath our winter boots on the path through the snow frosted trees.
Concluding Sentences (How to end a paragraph)
The final sentence of a paragraph is called the concluding sentence. It sums up the main points or
restates the main idea in a different way. A sentence that sums up the paragraph reminds the
reader of what the writer's main idea and supporting points were. A sentence that restates the
main idea should give the same information in a slightly different way, perhaps by using
different words or by using different word order.
Paragraph organization refers to the way sentences are ordered and structured to create a unified
and cohesive body of text. It helps you understand various cohesive texts, articles and blogs and
you can increase your comprehension of the content and write more cohesively when you
understand paragraph organization.
The principal features to consider in paragraph organization are the topic sentence and
controlling idea, supporting details, organizational patterns, and signal words. Signal words
indicate a type of organizational pattern and reinforce or further the meaning of the content (the
information given in the body of the text) by way of that organization. For example, words such
as because, consequently or hence are the signal words to show cause and effect organizational
pattern and words like another, both, however, likewise are used to show compare and contrast
This resource explains these features by analysing paragraphs in order to deconstruct and see
paragraph organization in context.
Analysing the Paragraphs
There are many reasons why I enjoy walking tours when visiting new cities. For starters, walking
through a city allows the visitor to see the details of an area without having to hurry. This often
results in meeting locals and experiencing their lives and traditions first hand. Furthermore,
walking tours are flexible and inexpensive because there are no strict schedules or transportation
expenses. Travelers taking walking tours are rewarded with first-hand experiences of the places
they visit and the opportunity to personally interact with the people who live there.
Although the twin brothers shared many physical characteristics, they handled themselves
differently in social situations. Mohib was a shy introverted young man. He had few friends and
mostly kept to himself. On the other hand, Asad was outgoing and the life of the party. Unlike
Mohib, Asad had many friends and felt totally at ease among big crowds. The best way to tell
these identical twins apart is to invite both to a party and observe how differently they interact
with the other guests.
Practice Analysis 1: Identify the supporting details in the paragraph given below then proceed to
the Analysis. Hint: A paragraph may not have every type of detail in it, but it might have more
than one type as they develop the topic and main idea with more information and depth.
Hiking can be especially exhilarating during snowy, winter months. When my friend and I
visited North Carolina last January, we hiked in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the highest peak,
Mount Mitchell, which is 6,684 feet above sea level. We first crossed afoot bridge over a rapidly
moving, ice-cold river and then followed a wooded trail up to a waterfall. Frostbit leaves
crunched beneath our winter boots on the path through the snow frosted trees. We also saw deer
and rabbits as we trekked up the path. I assure you that nothing feels better than inhaling crisp,
fresh mountain air, but the neatest part of hiking in winter, besides the beauty of the mountain, is
exhaling and seeing your breath turn to frost when it hits the cold air!
Practice Analysis 2: Identify the topic then proceed to the Analysis of the following paragraph.
Making a great cup of tea is easy if you follow these three steps. First, heat a cup of water to a
boiling point. Then put the tea bag in the hot water, and let it seep into the hot water for at least
three minutes. Finally, add creamer and sugar to taste. There is nothing tastier than a strong cup
of tea early in the morning.
Features of Paragraph
The ideas in a paragraph should logically fit together. Furthermore, they should flow from one
idea to the next. A paragraph should be organized in a way that it builds appropriately. This
could be by a sequence of ideas or events. Additionally, transitions should be used from one
sentence to the next that connect the ideas and concepts. In a dis-unified one, a writer’s purpose
and the connections between the sentences can be unclear, as in this one:
(1) Firstly, the Olympic Games provide an outlet for competition. (2) Friendly competition
among many countries occurs around the world. (3) Regardless of each country’s financial
situation, the competition is in the field of sports and not in politics. (4) It provides to people who
have trained very hard a form or basis of comparison to others around the world, giving these
competitors the opportunity to find out if they are the very best. (5) Also, along with providing
an outlet for the competition, the Olympic Games create a sense of nationalism. (6) Nationalist
pride is always a component of the Olympics, each country having its representatives. (7) The
Olympics unifies a country, giving its citizens something in common-- a victory—that brings
them together. (8) For example, the acquisition of a gold medal or a number of gold medals can
be a source of national pride. (Adapted from a student paper, used with permission.)
Here, the topic sentence is about how the Olympic Games provide an outlet for competition, and
in sentences (2), (3) and (4) the writer sticks to that idea. However, in sentence (5), she shifts
focus to how the Olympic Games create a sense of nationalism. It’s possible that this second idea
is connected to the key concept in the topic sentence, but the writer doesn’t make that
connection, and as a result, the paragraph ends weakly with an example supporting the shift in
topic. The writer never makes her point about how the Games provide a competitive outlet.
To achieve unity, begin with a clear topic sentence. This doesn’t mean that it has to appear at the
beginning of the paragraph, although a topic sentence usually does in academic writing. What is
important, however, is that, the main idea or purpose, stated in the topic sentence, sets the agenda
for the rest of the paragraph.
You’ve achieved coherence in a paragraph when a reader (usually an instructor) congratulates
you on good “flow.” A paragraph that is coherent flows because it is arranged according to a
definite plan, and as a result, all the sentences are not just about the same main topic, but they
also “stick together” and lead readers smoothly from the topic sentence to the concluding one.
This “stickiness” results from sentences that follow, one from the other, in a way that makes
sense. Each sentence takes a logical step forward. There are a number of ways to achieve
coherence: through the use of ordering principles, pronouns, transitional words, and repetition.
Using an ordering principle to achieve coherence… One way to achieve the flow of coherence
is to decide on an ordering principle for the ideas in your paragraph. This means that there is a
pattern of development that creates a logical flow between the sentences.
Using pronouns to achieve coherence
Another way to help achieve coherence is to use pronouns to refer to nouns in previous sentences
in the paragraph, thus “sticking” the sentences together. For example, if you refer to people in
one sentence you can “point back” to that noun in the next sentence by using the pronoun them.
In this case, people is the antecedent of the pronoun them.
Using transitional words and phrases to achieve coherence
Transitional words and phrases also help to create coherence by providing bridges between
sentences within the paragraph and between paragraphs. For example, words and phrases like
“also,” “in addition to,” “additionally” and “furthermore” signal your readers that the
relationship between two sentences is one of addition.
Using repetition to achieve coherence
Most developing writers are taught to avoid repetition, and this is good advice to a point.
However, judicious repetition of keywords and phrases and synonyms throughout a paper can
provide your readers with necessary signposts and strengthen the flow of the essay.
For a paragraph to be considered “adequate” or “sufficient,” the paragraph should be well
developed. The reader should not be left wanting more information. Similarly, the paragraph
should include enough evidence to support its topic sentence. There are three ways to ensure that
your paragraphs are fully developed: by providing the right level of supporting detail, choosing
the right kind of evidence and choosing the right pattern of development for your purpose.
Developing paragraphs with the right level of detail
To fully develop the sub-topic of the essay’s main idea in a paragraph, you must provide your
readers with details. It is not enough to make assertions. Your readers must understand fully how
you reached your conclusion.
Developing paragraphs with the right kind of detail
Not only is it important to provide enough detail for your readers, it’s important to provide the
right kind of detail, and that will depend on the purpose of your essay. The kind of detail will
also depend on the demands of the assignment and the discipline you are writing in. For
example, if you are asked to write a personal essay, your details might be examples of personal
experiences. If you are asked to write a history paper, the “right” kind of details might come
from your analysis of a historical text, and support in an argumentative essay might come from
both analysis and reasoning.
In the example below, a writer explains how classical ideas of pathos can be used to enhance the
persuasiveness of a message. As you read, consider the details the writer has chosen, and why
she might have chosen those and not others:
Appeals to pathos, or what modern rhetoricians call emotional appeals, begin by making an
audience more open to the message. Aristotle himself suggested this approach to persuasion in
the Rhetoric when he stated that “(o)ur judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the
same as when we are pained and hostile” (as cited in Horner, 1988, p.57). In other words,
Aristotle proposed that writers persuade, in part, by affecting the mood of their audience and by
making them better disposed towards the message. To maximize this effect, writers need to know
and identify with their audience. Are audience members all the same age, or a mixed group?
What socio-economic group are they likely to be part of? What is their level of education?
Asking questions like these will help writers to know their audience’s hopes and fears, and
prepare the audience to be more sympathetic to the message (Horner, 1987).
In this paragraph, the writer has selected details from a text in the form of quotations and
summary because she is trying to support her explanation of pathos.
Developing paragraphs with the right pattern of development
The particular kind of support you provide will depend largely on the pattern of development
you use for your paragraph, which, in turn, depends on its purpose. If you are trying to make a
point by telling a story, then you might use narrative. If the purpose is to explain, step by step,
how something is done, then a process pattern might be better.
Although we were close, Samantha managed to hide her problem throughout Grade 11. I
remember her saying that she had to watch what she ate to maintain her figure, but that wasn’t
unusual; almost everyone we knew was constantly on a diet, so when she’d bring only apiece of
lettuce and a slice of tomato for lunch, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t find it unusual either
that she spent a lot of time in the girl’s washroom that year. Like any good friend, I accepted her
explanation that she had picked up a flu that she couldn’t shake. It wasn’t until the beginning of
Grade 12 that I began to suspect that something more serious might be wrong. I noticed that she
looked gaunter each week, and she complained of feeling weak and tired all the time. Even more
disturbing, though, was the way she made excuses not to walk home with Kath and me.
Eventually, she even stopped meeting us for lunch at Wu’s Cafe. At first, I thought maybe she
was on something, but when I stole peeks into her locker and her big saddle-bag purse, I never
saw anything suspicious. Then, one day, we were in the girl’s room, repairing our lipstick and I
asked her, straight out what the problem was. She leaned on the sink with both hands, and hung
her head, until her blonde hair shielded her face, and in a shaky voice she told all: the
uncontrollable urges to eat anything, and the vomiting that always followed. With that simple
statement, the wall of secrets Samantha had built between us over last year collapsed and once
again, we were friends. (Adapted from a student essay with permission.)
Even though this paragraph does not start with a formal topic sentence, it is not difficult to find
the theme—it’s in the last sentence, which is a common pattern in narration.
Good paragraphs have transitions between preceding and proceeding paragraphs. These
transitions are logical and verbal. One paragraph should logically flow to the next. The ideas in a
body of work should be organized so each paragraph transitions well to the next. It should not be
choppy. Additionally, verbal transitions within and between paragraphs should help the reader
move seamlessly through the piece of writing.
You might be wondering, “How do I know when to start a new paragraph?” or “how long should
a paragraph be?” Usually, these questions are related to how well paragraphs are developed and
unified, and essentially, there is no one, right answer. In extreme cases, you might find a
paragraph as short as one sentence or as long as a page if it achieves the writer’s purpose.
However, most paragraphs fall somewhere between these two extremes, and while there are no
hard and fast rules, there are a few principles you can use to determine proper paragraph length:
• The paragraph should be long enough to fully develop your topic.
• The paragraph should focus on one topic
• The paragraph length should support the effect you are trying to create. Keep in mind that
longer paragraphs slow readers down and shorter paragraphs are easier and quicker to read.
• A paragraph of over 12 sentences in an academic essay probably needs to be divided.
• A paragraph of 5 or fewer sentences in an academic essay probably needs to be developed
further or combined with another paragraph.
• Paragraph length can vary greatly from discipline to discipline.
How to Write a Good Paragraph:
A Step-by-Step Guide
The following is a guide on how to draft, expand, refine, and explain your ideas so that you write
clear, well-developed paragraphs and discussion posts:
Step 1: Decide the Topic of Your Paragraph before you can begin writing, you need to know
what you are writing about. First, look at the writing prompt or assignment topic. As you look at
the prompt, note any key terms or repeated phrases because you will want to use those words in
Then ask yourself:
• On what topic am I supposed to be writing?
• What do I know about this topic already?
• If I don’t know how to respond to this assignment, where can I go to find some answers?
• What does this assignment mean to me?
• How do I relate to it? After looking at the prompt and doing some additional reading and
research, you should better understand your topic and what you need to discuss.
Step 2: Develop a topic sentence before writing a paragraph. It is important to think first about
the topic and then what you want to say about the topic. Most often, the topic is easy, but the
question then turns to what you want to say about the topic. This concept is sometimes called the
controlling idea. Strong paragraphs are typically about one main idea or topic, which is often
explicitly stated in a topic sentence. Good topic sentences should always contain both
(1) a topic and
(2) a controlling idea.
The topic – The main subject matter or idea covered in the paragraph.
The controlling idea – This idea focuses the topic by providing direction to the composition.
Read the following topic sentences. They all contain a topic and a controlling idea. When your
paragraphs contain a clearly stated topic sentence such as one of the following, your reader will
know what to expect and, therefore, understand your ideas better.
Examples of topic sentences:
• People can avoid plagiarizing by taking certain precautions.
• There are several advantages to online education.
• Effective leadership requires specific qualities that anyone can develop.
Step 3: Demonstrate your point after stating your topic sentence, you need to provide
information to prove, illustrate, clarify, and/or exemplify your point.
• What examples can I use to support my point?
• What information can I provide to help clarify my thoughts?
• How can I support my point with specific data, experiences, or other factual material?
• What information does the reader need to know in order to see my point?
Here is a list of the kinds of information you can add to your paragraph:
• Facts, details, reasons, examples
• Information from the readings or class discussions
• Paraphrases or short quotations
• Statistics, polls, percentages, data from research studies
• Personal experience, stories, anecdotes, examples from your life.
Sometimes, adding transitional or introductory phrases like: for example, for instance, first,
second, or last can help guide the reader. Also, make sure you are citing your sources
Step 4: Give Your Paragraph Meaning After you have given the reader enough information to
see and understand your point, you need to explain why this information is relevant, meaningful,
or interesting. Ask yourself:
• What does the provided information mean?
• How does it relate to your overall point, argument, or thesis?
• Why is this information important/significant/meaningful?
• How does this information relate to the assignment or course I am taking?
Step 5: Conclude after illustrating your point with relevant information, add a concluding
Concluding sentences link one paragraph to the next and provide another device for helping you
ensure your paragraph is unified. While not all paragraphs include a concluding sentence, you
should always consider whether one is appropriate. Concluding sentences have two crucial roles
in paragraph writing: First, they draw together the information you have presented to elaborate
your controlling idea by:
• Summarizing the point, you have made.
• Repeating words or phrases from the topic sentence.
• Using linking words which indicate that conclusions are being drawn (e.g., therefore, thus,
resulting). Second, they often link the current paragraph to the following paragraph. They may
anticipate the topic sentence of the next paragraph by:
• Introducing a word/phrase or new concept, this will then be picked up in the topic sentence of
the next paragraph.
• Using words or phrases that point ahead (e.g., the following, another, other).
Step 6: Look Over and Proofread. The last step in good paragraph writing is proofreading and
revision. Before you submit your writing, look over your work at least one more time. Try
reading your paragraph out loud to make sure it makes sense. Also, ask yourself these questions:
• Does my paragraph answer the prompt and support my thesis?
• Does it make sense?
• Does it use the appropriate academic voice?