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The Paragraph
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Part V - Medieval Britain


What is a paragraph?

One of the central components of a paper is the paragraph. When most students think of a paragraph, they hold onto the old myths about length: a paragraph is at least 5 sentences, a paragraph is half a page, etc. A paragraph, however, is "a group of sentences or a single sentence that forms a unit" (Lunsford and Connors,116). Length or appearance is not a factor in determining whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. In fact, it is not the number of sentences that construct a paragraph, but it is the unity and coherence of ideas among those sentences that makes a paragraph a paragraph. Ultimately, strong paragraphs contain a sentence or sentences unified around one central, controlling idea. When the paragraph reaches completion it should serve to bring the reader into your paper and guide his/her understanding of what has been read.

How do I decide what to put in a paragraph?

Before you can begin to determine what the composition of your paragraphs will be, you must first understand what the controlling idea in your specific piece of writing is. What is the main point or expression that you are trying to convey to your reader? The information that comprises your paragraphs should always have a relationship to this controlling idea. In other words, your paragraphs should remind your reader, at every possible point, that there is a recurrent relationship between your controlling idea and the information in each paragraph. The controlling idea functions like a seed through which your paper, and your ideas, will grow. Once you have decided what your controlling idea will be, then you should choose information that will help to support and perpetuate that idea throughout the entire paper. That information takes the form of sentences that comprise each paragraph of your paper.

The decision about what to put into your paragraphs begins with the process of brainstorming. Whatever the topic of your paper may be, it is always a good idea to think about all of the issues that surround your topic and the ultimate goals that you want to express. This process can take on many forms. What form you choose will depend heavily on your style or approach to writing in the pre-writing stage of your writing process. For some writers, the key is writing down all of the relevant issues in a series of phrases or words that express some greater idea. For others, this process involves a collection of information in the form of sentences. Whatever your method for pre-writing, this part of paragraph development cannot be avoided. Often, these pre-writing efforts become the first signs of development. Every paragraph in a paper should be

  • Unified - The sentences should all refer to the main idea, or thesis, of the paper
  • Coherent-The sentences should be arranged in a logical manner and should follow a definite plan for development
  • Well-Developed - Every idea discussed in the paragraph should be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the paper's controlling idea .


1. CONTROLLING IDEA- Paragraph development begins with the formulation of the controlling idea. This idea directs the paragraph's development. Often, the controlling idea of a paragraph will appear in the form of a topic sentence. A topic sentence announces and controls the content of a paragraph. Topic sentences can occur at four major points in a paragraph: the beginning of the paragraph, the middle of the paragraph, the end of the paragraph, or at both the beginning and the end of the paragraph. Here's how you might begin a paragraph on handing in homework:

IDEA - Learning how to turn in homework assignments on time is one of the invaluable skills that college students can take with them into the working world.

2. EXPLANATION OF CONTROLLING IDEA Paragraph development continues with an expression of the rationale or the explanation that the writer gives for how the reader should interpret the information presented in the idea statement or topic sentence of the paragraph. Here's the sentence that would follow the controlling idea about homework deadlines:

3. EXAMPLE -- the example serves as a sign or representation of the relationship established in the idea and explanation portions of the paragraph

Paragraph development progresses with the expression of some type of support or evidence for the idea and the explanation that came before it


The next movement in paragraph development is an explanation of each example and its relevance to the topic sentence and rationale given at the beginning of the paragraph. This pattern continues until all points/examples that the reader deems necessary have been made and explained. NONE of your examples should be left unexplained; the relationship between the example and the idea should always be expressed. Look at these two explanations for examples in the homework deadline paragraph:

5. COMPLETION OF PARAGRAPH'S IDEA OR TRANSITION INTO NEXT PARAGRAPH. The final movement in paragraph development involves tying up the loose ends of the paragraph--and reminding the reader of the relevance of the information in this paragraph to the main or controlling idea of the paper. You might feel more comfortable, however, simply transitioning your reader to the next development in the next paragraph.

Now here is a look at an example paragraph:

Learning how to turn in homework assignments on time is one of the invaluable skills that college students can take with them into the working world. Though the workforce may not assign homework to its workers in the traditional sense, many of the objectives and jobs that need to be completed require that employees work with deadlines. The deadlines that students encounter in the classroom may be different in content when compared to the deadlines of the workforce, but the importance of meeting those deadlines is the same. In fact, failure to meet deadlines in both the classroom and the workforce can mean instant termination. For example, in the classroom, students form a contract with the teacher and the university when they enroll in a class. That contract requires that students complete the assignments and objectives set forth by the course's instructor in a specified time to receive a grade and credit for the course. Accordingly, just as a student risks termination in the classroom if he/she fails to meet the deadline for a homework assignment, so, too, does that student risk termination in the workforce. When a student fails to complete those assignments by the deadline, the student breaks her contract with the university and the teacher to complete the assignments and objectives of the course. This often leaves the teacher with no other recourse than to fail the student and leaves the university with no other recourse than to terminate the student's credit for the course. Developing good habits of turning in assignments in class now, as current students, will aid your performance and position as future participants in the working world.


Beneath the Formula for Paragraph Development

There are some other central components of paragraph development that help to make this formula work. These components are often overlooked, but developing the sentences that complete the steps of the paragraph development process is not possible without these two components:

1) Topic Sentences - A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main idea of a paragraph. It tells the reader what to expect about the information that will follow. Without the use of a topic sentence, developing a paragraph can be extremely difficult. Topic sentences can appear at several points in a paragraph:

the beginning of the paragraph

the middle of the paragraph

the end of the paragraph

the beginning and the end of the paragraph

2) Transitions - Transitions come in the form of single words, phrases, sentences, and even whole paragraphs. They help to establish relationships between ideas in a paragraph and to create a logical progression of those ideas in a paragraph. Without transitions, your paragraph will not be unified, coherent, or well developed.

In Review…

Paragraph development is more than just a few sentences that occupy the same space in a paper, it is an organic process that makes intricate links between various ideas. These links, ultimately, create one single idea that runs throughout the entire paper. There are many different components of the paragraph development model. All of your paragraphs should have one central idea, the idea should have a discussion of how it works, the explanation should be shown in an example, the example should be explained, and the final idea should be reiterated while preparing the reader for the development to come. Awareness and utilization of all of these components will help to make your paragraphs more unified, more coherent, and most importantly, better developed.

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