Paragraph Basics

I’ve noticed a lot of interest in the Review of Sentence Basics recently, so I thought this topic might be a logical addition to my collection.  For the purposes of today’s blog, I’m focusing on rhetorical writing instead of fiction.  Fiction is a different animal all together.

Paragraphs are made up of three basic parts: a topic sentence, body sentences, and a concluding sentence.  When the paragraph is designed to stand alone, the information is complete within that unit.  If it is part of a longer essay, then the information is complete, but there is some form of transition that leads from that unit to the next one.

You might want to begin with a little brainstorming session to generate ideas for your paragraph. Pick two or three possible topics for your paragraph and spend five to ten minutes brainstorming. There are dozens of different brainstorming activities and you’ll find your favorites over time.  I happen to like the chaining or clustering style, and I also like word association.  Whichever you chose, just be sure to generate more information than you’ll actually need. From there, select the topic that appeals to you most and look over the ideas you’ve written down.

Next, let’s develop the topic sentence.  A topic sentence has two parts: the main subject and the controlling idea. The main subject is the general idea that you’ll be looking at in your paragraph.  It is sort of the generic information.

The generic subject doesn’t give the reader enough information to know what you’re referring to.  For example, your subject might be Dogs, Cars, Gardening, or Naked Sky Diving.  These are pretty broad topics, and there are a lot of different things that could be said about each of them, especially that last one.

The second half of the topic sentence is the controlling idea.  This is where the specifics come in.  The controlling idea tells the reader what you intend to say about your subject. It gives the reader an opinion, or at least some direction on the subject you’ve chosen. You might take the subject Dogs, and then add one of the following controlling ideas:

. . . aren’t always man’s best friend.

. . . make a great first pet.

. . . are more than just companions.

Each of these would be a very different paragraph because the controlling idea is unique. The subject stays the same – dogs – but the controlling idea steers the information in the paragraph in a different direction depending on which way you want to go. Take a few minutes to consider what you want to say about your subject and develop your topic sentence.  For now, I’m going to work with this one:

          A good education means a more successful future.

The topic sentence controls what information goes into your paragraph. Each of the body sentences in your paragraph must support that topic sentence, so they work together to form a coherent set of information.  If I look over the information I brainstormed on for this topic, I see comments like:


competitive edge


problem solving and critical thinking

school of useful information vs. school of hard knocks

cutting edge information

resources for jobs

I want to focus on the information that best supports my topic sentence and begin developing support sentences for my paragraph.  An average paragraph will have from five to eight sentences.  They can be as long as 10 sentences, but should not be longer than that or the reader will feel a bit overwhelmed by the information being presented.  Based on those ideas, I might develop sentences that support my topic sentence like this:

     A good education trains students to use the latest technology and exposes them to cutting edge ideas and information in their field.

     Many courses teach students to use critical thinking and problem solving skills that can’t be learned in the “school of hard knocks.”

     Students learn interpersonal and communication skills that make them more valuable employees.

The next step is to determine how to close your paragraph with a reasonable conclusion. There are many techniques that you can choose from, but you never want to simply repeat your topic sentence.  That might have worked in junior high school, but once you get beyond eighth grade, that technique doesn’t work any longer.  Your conclusion should tie to your topic sentence, and it should flow logically from the rest of the information. 

You don’t want to present new information or add anything off the subject in this sentence, so look over what you’ve drafted so far and look for a logical statement that wraps the information up for the reader.

     A good education is an investment in yourself and your future.

Now you’ve created an outline for your paragraph, and all that is missing are a few transitional words and phrases to connect it all together:

     In a difficult job market, a good education means a more successful future. Because colleges and universities train students to use the latest technology and exposes them to cutting edge ideas and information in their field, these students have an advantage over workers who have to be trained on the job.  Many courses also teach students to use critical thinking and problem solving skills that can’t be learned in the “school of hard knocks.”    Additionally, students learn interpersonal and communication skills; something that many business experts say is more important than technical skills. The advantages gained through a college degree make it clear that a good education is an investment in yourself and your future.

With the first draft of your paragraph written, you can now go back and revise your word choices, sentence structures, and other elements until you feel that the paragraph says exactly what you want it to say.

Remember, the first draft is never the final draft. Revision is an integral part of the writing process.

Good luck and enjoy!


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