The Paragraph

What Is a Paragraph?

A paragraph is a complete unit that packages together a topic sentence and supporting sentences in the form of examples, evidence, logical argument, and other such elements. In other words, the paragraph contains ONE central idea—the topic sentence declares what this idea is, and the supporting sentences reinforce and develop this idea by providing “legs” for the idea to stand firmly on.

If we accept, then, that the purpose of a paragraph is to express a well-developed analysis of an idea, then the question of how long a paragraph should be is irrelevant. A paragraph could realistically be one sentence. Though this is not uncommon in journalistic writing, we will focus here on academic writing, in which case one-sentence paragraphs are somewhat rare. When looking at standardized test paragraphs however, we have to consider the necessary components of each paragraph separately and proceed with that knowledge in mind.


Paragraph Components

1. Topic Sentence

Let’s begin with a basic body paragraph. The most important factor to keep in mind when writing this paragraph is that it must relate and contribute to the development of the central thesis of the entire essay—no paragraph should stand alone as an isolated unit, or idea. Knowing this will make structuring the topic sentence not only easier, but it will make that sentence stronger, clearer, and more direct. In simpler terms, this suggests that a reader should have a clear idea about what he/she is about to read, or what ideas might be forthcoming as support for the essay’s thesis.

A topic sentence should not aim to provide too much detailed information. It should be specific enough to make its focus clear, yet general enough so as not to blur that focus by introducing other elements. Though there is no rule stating that a topic sentence should begin the paragraph, it is a good idea to practice this approach until you have a stronger grasp of the paragraph as a writing tool.

Look at these examples:

(from an essay whose thesis is an argument against free post-secondary education)

EX 1) A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers.

EX 2) If higher education is free, many students might attend classes.

EX 3) Free post-secondary education might lead to overly full classrooms where every student struggles to draw the teacher’s attention, which means that in the long run this type of education would not benefit anyone.

EX 4) While free post-secondary education may provide opportunities for those who would otherwise lack the means to attain advanced training, it would also lead to a situation in which classrooms are overcrowded and teachers’ productivity is limited.

Each of these sentences aims at introducing the same idea in the paragraph. However, only two of them can be considered successful topic sentences.

EX 1) This sentence is the most apt in its delivery of the main idea. It is general in that it does not provide details but does provide the scope of the paragraph, i.e., the paragraph will present arguments against free education by looking at one particular disadvantage: overcrowded classrooms.  A developed explanation for this argument will follow, with reasons and concrete examples to support it.

EX 2) This sentence does not serve its purpose well. Its length is not the problem per se; a short sentence can deliver a paragraph’s main message, although this one does not. It does not because it is too general. Remember, the thesis of this essay is an argument against free education. From this sentence we have no way of knowing if high attendance is a positive or negative outcome of free education. With the thesis in mind, we might guess that it is negative; however, it is dangerous to allow a reader to guess anything in the essay. Rather, the message should be clear and direct and given to the reader unambiguously.

EX 3) This sentence is also ineffective. It provides too much information and even reaches a conclusion before any development has taken place. Is the problem overcrowded classrooms themselves, or individual students’ struggles? How can we believe that in the long run it will be of no benefit if we haven’t yet understood why an overcrowded classroom is a problem?

EX 4) This sentence could be very effective if used as a concession paragraph. This type of paragraph gives a voice to the opposing view, which might argue against the writer’s thesis, yet is careful to turn the argument back around to support the essay’s thesis. The topic of this sentence is overcrowded classrooms and less effective teachers (keep in mind that while these may sound like two separate ideas, the writer will likely link them as complementary ideas, that is, ideas that support one another).

Sentence 1 would be a very good start to a first body paragraph, while sentence 4 should come later in the essay. Assuming we use a top-down approach to the essay, always begin with your strongest argument first, then lead to your weaker arguments. In that case, you would want to leave the concession until later.

2. Support

Once the topic has been made clear, it needs to be expanded, justified, and supported by real examples.

First, you must always remember that sentences must follow one another and lead into one another. This will be discussed in more detail when we look at cohesion; for now, look at the main idea that comes through in the topic sentence and begin to open that idea up to further scrutiny.

what is a paragraph



Let’s begin with our topic sentence from above:

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers.

We now want to stretch out this idea and begin to add reasons for this statement. We want to reintroduce the first idea, overcrowded classrooms, and say why this might happen. We will then go on to discuss the disadvantages that would arise from this:

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers. With no financial risk attached to enrolling in a college, for instance, more students who would otherwise enter the labour force after high school might postpone that transition to the workplace and attend college courses instead.

The second sentence directly addresses the first component of the topic sentence, as well as provides an example of who might take advantage of a free tuition—why would classrooms likely be overcrowded? Who would fill them?

Let’s move on:

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers. With no financial risk attached to enrolling in a college, for instance, more students who would otherwise enter the labour force after high school might postpone that transition to the workplace and attend college courses instead. Financial consideration, then, normally a method of “weeding out” the less serious students, would no longer be a barrier and would result in full classrooms.

This next sentence is a little tricky, as we are doing several things with it:

  • We are drawing a conclusion, namely that the cost of higher education is one way of keeping out the less serious students.
  • We are implying that the less serious students don’t bother going to college because the cost is too high. Without this obstacle (tuition), they would not have any reason to stay away.
  • We are creating a bridge to the next idea, the disadvantages caused by an overcrowded classroom.



Let’s continue:

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers. With no financial risk attached to enrolling in a college, for instance, more students who would otherwise enter the labour force after high school might postpone that transition to the workplace and attend college courses instead. Financial consideration, then, normally a method of “weeding out” the less serious students, would no longer be a barrier and would result in full classrooms. Consequently, those students who come for the free ride would simply be a burden for the professors and trainers as well as the other students.

In this sentence we also have more than one aim: firstly, we need to expand on the last idea by explaining why these full classrooms would be disadvantageous, (i.e., they are full because of the influx of non-serious students); secondly, we want to introduce the teachers and the other students, the second component of the topic. Right away we are told that there is a disadvantage to them in this situation.

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers. With no financial risk attached to enrolling in a college, for instance, more students who would otherwise enter the labour force after high school might postpone that transition to the workplace and attend college courses instead. Financial consideration, then, normally a method of “weeding out” the less serious students, would no longer be a barrier and would result in full classrooms. Consequently, those students who come for the free ride would simply be a burden for the professors and trainers as well as the other students. Not only would teachers have more assignments to grade, thereby leaving them less time for more productive activities, but the students themselves would have less access to the teachers.

This sentence provides a more detailed explanation of what the burden mentioned in the last sentence might amount to in real-life terms, such as extra, non-productive work for the teachers, and less attention for students.

3. Tie-off sentence

1) Thus, while instructors deal with the sheer number of students, those who would seek out help out of a sincere motivation, might be lost in the crowd.

2) Overall, this suggests that free education has the potential to significantly disrupt learning.

Now, we could go on to further expand on the last point, as expressed in sentence 1. Or we can simply draw the paragraph to its conclusion (2), which itself needs some thought. If we are worried about word count, we can add sentence one for that purpose. Be careful with this however. If the sentence does not add anything significant to the discussion, then it actually works against the overall effectiveness of the essay. Sentence 1 would be considered redundant, meaning that it simply explains to the reader what the reader should be able to understand from the sentence that came before it. Teachers will have more assignments to grade, and deal with the sheer number of students, essentially says the same thing. Students not having access, and lost in the crowd is similarly redundant.

In this case, when we have nothing more to add to the argument of the paragraph, we cannot simply leave it and move on to the next one. We have to tie up the paragraph we have just finished and prepare a bridge for the next. We do this to not only create flow, but also to alert the reader to a change of topic, so that it is easier for the reader to follow along.


Let’s look at the whole paragraph with sentence 2

A central argument to be made against free education in universities and colleges is the likelihood of overcrowded classrooms and the consequent disadvantages to both students and teachers. With no financial risk attached to enrolling in a college, for instance, more students who would otherwise enter the labour force after high school might postpone that transition to the workplace and attend college courses instead. Financial consideration, then, normally a method of “weeding out” the less serious students, would no longer be a barrier and would result in full classrooms. Consequently, those students who come for the free ride would simply be a burden for the professors and trainers as well as the other students. Not only would teachers have more assignments to grade, thereby leaving them less time for more productive activities, but the students themselves would have less access to the teachers. Overall, this suggests that free education has the potential to significantly disrupt learning.

There are several ways you can approach the final sentence of a paragraph. This of course depends on the position of the paragraph, in terms of its function (intro, body, conclusion). But even if we look at paragraphs within a body section, you can end it with a mind to what has come before, and what follows. In our example paragraph, we have reached a conclusion. In other words, we think we have made our point clear and are now ready to move on to the next argument. The sentence we have ended the paragraph with serves two functions: 1) it summarizes the overall aim of the paragraph and the essay, namely, by showing how free education is not a positive thing and can in fact be a disadvantage to learning. 2) it ties the paragraph into a complete whole. This is also a sign to the reader that the following paragraph will deal with something different. The next paragraph will continue to argue against free education, though it will do so from a different perspective.

Remember how the paragraph began (A central argument to be made…). With the last sentence of our example paragraph, we have left the door open for a straightforward opening to the next paragraph:

Another argument opposing tuition-free studies is…

If, however, we want to build on our example paragraph and join the next paragraph’s topic somehow to it, then we need to create a bridge. This means that the sentence with which we ended the paragraph is not suitable. We need something that leaves a door open to bridge one paragraph to the next using an element from the first.

The last thing we wrote about in our paragraph were the professors and students. We can use the next paragraph to develop a new argument based on these people, either professors or students or both. Either way, we need to prepare our reader. We can do this by leaving a more open-ended sentence at the end of our paragraph, or by using a transition to begin the next paragraph:

[…] less access to the teachers. After all, the purpose of education is to help students reach their maximum potential, and overworked teachers are less likely to be able to provide these students the best education possible.

4. Beginning the next paragraph with a transition

1) Moreover, overworked teachers tend to “burn out” much more quickly and need more time off to recover.

2) This naturally leads to the question of the quality of teaching that a free college would be able to afford.

We have now ended our paragraph differently; we have left the door open to consider more deeply the roles of the teachers and/or students in a free education system. The two sentences that are given as examples (1, 2) are possibilities for beginning the next paragraph. Both utilize a transition or transition phrase to return to a topic sentence, yet maintain the focus that we ended the last paragraph with. Sentence 1 allows us to now focus on the teachers, while sentence 2 allows us to focus on the teaching (which includes the teachers). Either way, the reader is prepared to look at this idea further.

NOTE: Transitions are an essential component of good writing. They create flow, maintain cohesion, and act as cues for the reader. Make sure you have a good handle on these.