Although it often seems that paragraphs can take an infinite number of forms, there are really only a few formats for paragraphing in formal, academic prose. What makes paragraphs seem unique to the reader is the style of the writer’s prose, not the actual format of the information. There are four main types of paragraphs in academic prose: the standard paragraph, the explanatory paragraph, the evidential paragraph, and the introductory paragraph (whose format is sometimes mirrored in the conclusion).
Note that the rules and formats described here apply to formal, academic prose, as opposed to paragraphing in newspapers, business, or electronic discourse. Each kind of writing has its own conventions, that is, rules and rhetorical strategies unique to a particular form of composition. In poetry, for example, line breaks contribute to the poem’s rhythm and overall message and mark the poem as a poem, not as another kind of writing. Conventions in paragraphing can vary from one kind of writing to another as well. In newspaper writing, paragraphs are one to three sentences because the narrow columns used in newspapers make even the shortest paragraph seem long. In electronic discourse, shorter paragraphs and more listing is used because it is more pleasing to the eye–taking advantage of the internet’s more visual features.
A. Standard Paragraph Format Standard paragraphs are the most frequently used paragraph format and most of your essay paragraphs should follow this format. Standard paragraphs contain the following elements in order:
1. Most begin with a topic sentence that makes the main point to be discussed, analyzed, or argued within that paragraph. On very rare occasions, the paragraph may begin with a transition from the last paragraph, followed by the topic sentence for the new paragraph. Paragraphs do not begin with quotations or other kinds of evidence. Evidence must be introduced after the point of the paragraph is made and explained.
2. Following the topic sentence, there is an explanation and/or further development of the point proposed in the topic sentence that clarifies and expands on this point. This explanation adds to the reader’s understanding of the point.
3. Following the explanation or development of the point, the writer introduces evidence. Introducing evidence includes informing the reader who the information comes from and where (i.e. author and article or book title or foundation, etc.). Such an introduction is an important part of source documentation and helps the reader understand where the evidence portion of the paragraph begins and how the evidence is being used. It is literally a signal to the reader that you have stopped talking and your source has started talking.
4. Once introduced, you provide the actual proof or evidence. This may come in the form of supporting evidence like statistics or quotations or other kinds of softer evidence like anecdotes or eye-witness accounts. Evidence is presented primarily as a paraphrase or summary, with only an occasional pithy, apt quote. It is limited to a few lines, so that the primary focus of the paragraph is on the writer’s point. Evidence must also be cited properly once given, using parenthetical documentation. (See your textbook for more information on citation.) This parenthetical documentation provides additional, helpful information that pinpoints even more accurately where the evidence can be found and signals the reader that you are going to resume speaking on the topic.
5. After providing proof, you must always explain the meaning of the evidence and tie its meaning to the point you are making so that the reader understands it the way you understand it. Never let evidence stand on its own merit; it must be interpreted for the reader, in light of the point being made, so that the reader understands the meaning and relevance of it. Otherwise, the reader may see the evidence in a different light or be completely lost as to its significance. Thus, evidence must always be explained, even if it seems self-evident to you. Working out the explanation of the evidence is also a helpful check on your own insights. If you can’t explain your evidence in light of your point, then it probably doesn’t support the point you are making.
6. The paragraph closes with either a summation of the main point or some kind of transition to the next point. This reminds the reader of the argument in progress, its essential points, and the connection between points.
B. Explanatory Paragraphs
Explanatory paragraphs are used to allow the writer to expand on and explain particularly complex points before providing the reader with a lot of examples or evidence. In particular fields, like the sciences or philosophy, such paragraphs are common in writings that attempt to explain or analyze difficult ideas, theories, or concepts. An explanatory paragraph can also be used to summarize someone else’s ideas or concepts that you plan to utilize in your own paper. Essay conclusions are often a kind of explanatory paragraphs because they summarize and reiterate the main ideas discussed in the paper. Explanatory paragraphs contain the following elements in order:
1. Begin with a topic sentence or a transition.
2. Following the topic sentence, there is an in-depth explanation without corroborating evidence, although if the explanation is of someone else’s ideas, you must cite this person.
3. The paragraph closes with either a summation.
C. Evidential Paragraphs
Evidential paragraphs are sometimes used to allow the writer to provide more evidence for a particular point made in a standard paragraph. These paragraphs act as an extension of the point made in the previous paragraph by supplementing the points with further, important evidence. In some fields, like in psychology where individual case studies are often used, there are occasions when there will be several evidential paragraphs for each sub point since the amount of evidence gathered is important to the proving of the point. Evidential paragraphs contain the following elements in order:
1. Begin with a topic sentence or a transition that reiterates the main point of the previous paragraph to remind the reader of the point under consideration. Paragraphs do not begin with quotations or other kinds of evidence.
2. Next, the writer introduces the next piece of evidence for the point as outlined for standard academic paragraphs above.
3. Then the writer provides the actual proof or evidence, followed by the necessary documentation as outlined above.
4. Next, writer must again explain the meaning of the evidence as outlined previously.
[Repeat steps 2, 3, and 4 as needed to provide additional, corroborating evidence. To avoid unwieldy paragraphs, keep in mind that a paragraph must have a sense of unity and that usually academic paragraphs run about 1/2 a double-spaced page in length. Therefore, put like evidence together in a paragraph, but use separate evidential paragraphs for items that defy categorization or if you have an overwhelming amount of evidence that you feel must be presented.]
5. The paragraph closes with either a summation of the point and, perhaps some kind of transition to the next point.
D. Introductory Paragraphs All essays contain some kind of introductory paragraph or paragraphs. Often, this is where we feel that we can be the most “creative” in our writing because there are so many ways to begin an essay. Introductory paragraphs usually begin with a hook to draw the reader into the paper and, most often, end with the overall thesis of the paper. Sometimes the thesis includes a forecast of the paper’s major points.
The hook might be a pithy quote, a brief anecdote, or hypothetical situation. Hooks can also be overviews of the problem or of current research on the subject. When using a hook, keep in mind that it should be handled like evidence; thus, it must be clearly introduced, documented, and explained. And, like evidence, it should be pithy–short and to the point. You don’t want the reader getting lost in the hook and never get to the point of the paper. In short papers, of 900-1200 words, introductions are usually one paragraph in length. In longer papers, they may run two to three paragraphs. In books, they could run to a whole chapter.
Stereotypically, the academic conclusion is merely a repeat of the essay’s main points and overall thesis. A truly innovative conclusion may repeat the essential point, but suggest other avenues to pursue with the topic–suggesting your awareness that you are only one voice in an on-going discussion of the topic.
E. Standard Paragraph Checklist Use the following checklist to analyze the format of your paper’s paragraphs. If a particular paragraph does not fit the standard format, re-evaluate it: does it at least fit the format of an explanatory, evidential, or introductory paragraph and is its format consistent with the purpose of the paragraph?