What makes a good paragraph in academic writing? What should you include in your paragraph to help your reader understand your ideas clearly?
These are all questions which every good academic writer should ask themselves, but it seems that few do – many rely on “instinct”, which even for native speakers, can be problematic. For non-native speakers – of English, for example – it can make the process of structuring paragraphs very difficult, especially when there are different “rules” for academic writing and other types of writing.
So what should academic paragraphs contain?
As a general rule, all paragraphs should contain topic sentences and supporting sentences. Some can contain a concluding sentence.
So let’s look at topic sentences and supporting sentences in a little more detail.
The topic sentence
The topic sentence tells your reader what the focus of your paragraph is, and often, how it links to previous ideas in your writing. It is usually at the start of the paragraph. Your reader should be able to read only all the topic sentences in your essay, and still be able to work out the overall content of the whole essay. Topic sentences should be relatively short and clear, and use lots of content words.
These support the topic sentence and develop the central theme. You will need to use linking language to show how the ideas are connected. This linking language may be phrase like: for example, moreover, furthermore, likewise, in addition, however (etc.). When using supporting evidence, always be clear. Avoid generalisation such as “many” or “most” if you can use a specific figure, e.g. “68%. Similarly, avoid generalisation regarding dates: “in recent times” can often be replaced with “since 2001”.
Coherence between the two types of sentence can be ensured by repeating your key terms. This is very different advice compared with what writers are often told to do in IELTS exams, where you need to use a range of synonyms. In academic writing, it is often better to repeat yourself, particularly when you are using complex, multiple-noun phrases or technical terms.
These aren’t always necessary but may be useful for your reader if your paragraph is very long, very complex, or comes at the end of the section. They should very briefly summarise your main points, and use an appropriate linking phrase to signal that they are a concluding sentence, for example Overall or To sum up, or even So.
Let’s have a look at some examples
A paragraph usually contains two key elements, and sometimes a third (1). (2) The first of these is a (4) topic sentence. A (4) topic sentence is a short, concise statement of the focus of the paragraph, to help guide the reader. (2) The second are the (4) supporting sentences. A (4) paragraph can have as many (4) supporting sentences as it needs, but these should always be relevant to the topic in question. (3) These often contain linking language. (3) For example, you may choose to use words and phrases such as however, moreover, in addition, and others with which you are familiar. (2) Finally, a (4) paragraph may have a (4) concluding sentence, though this is not necessary. (3) However, it may be useful for your readers to include one if your paragraph is very long or comes at the end of a long section. The (4) concluding sentence will very briefly summarise what you have discussed so far, and possibly provide a link to the coming content.
Look at the above paragraph. (1) marks the topic sentence. As you can see, it is short, clear and concise, and tells the reader the focus of the overall paragraph. (2) shows how the writer links each main supporting sentence back to the ideas in the topic sentence, to help the reader see the links between the information. The examples marked by (3) show the writer using linking language. Note that when we think of linking language, we often think about common words and phrases such as “however”, but words like “these” and “this” also help your writing to be coherent, as they refer back to previous concepts you’ve discussed. The examples marked with a (4) show the writer using repetition to make sure their ideas are clear. Note that with such key concepts, the writer avoids using synonyms.
We hope this has been a useful overview of topic sentences and supporting sentences!