Paragraphs are the building blocks of your writing.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths about paragraphs. For instance, your 4 th grade teacher may
have told you things like “all paragraphs must be 5-7 sentences long”, or “you should always have 3
body paragraphs”. But those “rules” aren’t really rules. Also: 4 th grade was the worst.
Paragraph construction is more complicated than these cookie-cutter templates you were given.
These templates aren’t really useful- unless you’re making cookies.
How your paragraphs should be constructed depends on the kind of writing you’re doing and what
your reader expects. For instance, newspaper readers expect short paragraphs, whereas readers of
a complicated philosophy text probably expect to see longer ones. Paragraph size can even very
within single works, depending on the nature of each paragraph and what it is trying to accomplish.
There are some general tips we can give you for most kinds of academic writing.
For this kind of writing, you’ll probably want your paragraph to have a topic sentence. These
sentences can help you establish a purpose for the paragraph and stay on track. They’ll also help
your reader follow your argument.
Usually this is the first sentence of the paragraph, but it doesn’t have to be. This sentence shouldn’t
be too broad. For instance, in a paper arguing for the importance of school spirit, a topic sentence like
“School mascots are the best!” is probably too general. But “Having a mascot can help establish a
school’s identity.” Might be just right. Also, we love you, Rev!
Note that the second example announces the topic and introduces a controlling idea related to that
This controlling idea establishes the purpose of the paragraph and how it relates back to the thesis.
If you’re thesis is something like: “Universities improve student success by finding different ways to
incite passion in their students for the school that they attend.”, then, the controlling idea that a school
mascot incites school spirit relates the topic of school mascots back to the thesis of inciting passion
from the students for their school.
Paragraphs should have unity.
This means that every sentence within the paragraph is linked to the topic sentence. If there are any
sentences out of place, they can be moved or become the focus of a new paragraph. For example, if
you’re writing a paragraph about horse anatomy, it wouldn’t make sense to stop in the middle to talk
Always review your writing to find any instances of unrelated thoughts or ideas, to see if they can be
moved to another section, changed, or removed.
Paragraphs should have coherence.
Every sentence in a paragraph must link the sentences before and after. The paragraph should flow
smoothly, one idea leading into the next; otherwise, it could come off as scattered to the reader, and
no longer effectively supports the main idea.
Let’s say you’re writing a paper on the use of credit cards to pay for living expenses. You may have a
For example: “Credit cards are a convenient way of making purchases.” Here, the convenience of
credit cards is the new information.
“People often use them to buy things without delay, but credit cards have their own element of risk in
interest rates.” The old information, credit cards as a convenient purchasing tool, was included here
along with new information on the risk of credit cards.
“If only minimum payments are made, the card will accrue interest, accumulating debt.” The
information in the previous sentence of interest rates was built upon, going on to examine the new
information of the potential for building up debt.
As you can see, each sentence concludes old and introduces new information. If the sentences do
not flow smoothly, it may be a good time to use transitional phrases to switch between ideas.
Just be sure that you use a transition that’s appropriate for the situation. Don’t use a “however” when
you really need an “In addition”.
If you find yourself still having trouble or just need another pair of eyes, make an appointment at the
University Writing Center at writingcenter.tamu.edu.