The main body of your assignment should present a clear and logical response to the question. You should discuss and evidence a few key points in detail, rather than including lots of points that are dealt with in a superficial way.
You should use focussed and connected paragraphs to develop your argument.
Paragraphs are an important part of how we structure writing. They form distinct sections of text, usually on one topic or theme and are made up of several sentences. Without paragraphs it would be difficult to follow the argument in an essay or the evidence presented in a report.
Whatever type of writing you undertake at university and beyond, well-constructed paragraphs will enhance the readability and presentation of your work.
What makes a good paragraph?
In academic work, paragraphs should have:
- a purpose
- an appropriate writing style for your discipline
You may be asked to produce different types of writing at university. Essays are one of the most common types of writing, but you might also need to write reports, reflections, summaries, reviews or blogs. Paragraphs in different forms of writing can have different characteristics.
For example, in essay writing it is important to be balanced and represent the voice of the writer. In a report, you still need purpose, clarity, accuracy and criticality, but the extent to which every paragraph within that report needs balance and a writer’s voice, might vary.
Explore our Examples of paragraphs in academic writing resource to learn more about how paragraphs work in different subject disciplines and contexts. Each example has a commentary, showing how each part works together to create an effective paragraph.
You can also find your own examples by analysing the texts recommended in your reading lists. Use these to try to identify what works and how you could use the same techniques in your writing.
Find out about each of the characteristics of paragraphs in more detail below or skip to a particular section with these links:
Every paragraph should have a unique purpose, so that each one is an essential part of the wider argument or discussion.
The main idea
Focus on one argument, idea or theme in detail in each paragraph.
Make sure that your reader understands the purpose of your paragraphs by setting out the main idea clearly (usually in the first one or two sentences).
“Developments in food technology have led to an increase in the availability of convenience foods in the UK over the last 30 years.”
More than one paragraph on a theme
You might have more than one paragraph on a similar theme. If so, make sure that they don’t repeat the same point. Ensure that each paragraph contributes logically and coherently to the overall purpose or argument of your piece of writing. One way to check this is to highlight the first and last sentences of every paragraph and look at whether they represent a fair overview of the points that you want to make.
Show the reader how the key idea of a paragraph contributes towards the overall argument by including sentences which guide or lead the reader through this part of the argument, idea or theme. Your paragraphs should connect to each other and follow on in a logical order.
For example, as part of a theme in an essay about the role of sugar in convenience foods, this sentence at the end of a paragraph on how sugar affects tooth decay moves the reader onto the next paragraph about sugar tax:
“The connection between a diet high in sugar and tooth decay is clear, but the impact of a tax on sugar is less well researched.”
This sentence moves the argument forward by advancing the discussion.
Writing good paragraphs takes practice and the commitment to actively respond to feedback to improve your work. The overall style and use of language differs between disciplines, but there are two basic aspects of writing style that are common to many disciplines: paragraph length and when to start a new paragraph.
Length of paragraphs
There is no perfect length for a paragraph because this will vary between disciplines and types of assessments.
Long paragraphs can be difficult for a reader to follow and may prevent them from fully grasping the points that you want to make. To identify whether your paragraphs are too long, read through them and notice whether you are sticking to the original point as set out in the first one or two sentences. If you find that the content is deviating from the point, then you may need to re-think.
Very short paragraphs of less than three or four sentences might look as though you don’t have enough to say about that topic. Ask yourself whether the point that you want to make is genuinely important, which may indicate that you need to do more research to understand it and therefore explore it in more depth. Remember that the person reading your work is expecting each paragraph to be directly relevant to the overall piece.
When to start a new paragraph
One way to look at paragraphs is to think of them as a mini exploration of one aspect of a topic. If you were writing about how to build a house for example, you might include individual paragraphs about designing the building, choosing materials, considering outside space etc. A new paragraph is needed for each new aspect of the topic.
Generally, you should not start a paragraph by reiterating what you have just talked about. Your first sentence of a paragraph should alert the reader to a change of focus, and each paragraph should build to show how your ideas are progressing.
Most of your written work needs to show much more than just the ability to repeat information and facts. Critical writing is important to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge and understanding of different arguments, theories and ideas. Our critical thinking webpages are a good starting point if you want to know more.
To show criticality in your paragraphs:
- explore the significance of an idea, principle, innovation or evidence
- tell the reader more than just what happened, what this is, how this works, and explore the causes, consequences, effects and implications of what you are writing about
- use appropriate evidence to support any claims or lines of reasoning
- evaluate the evidence, showing how it links to the overall argument
- compare, contrast or comment on how different pieces of evidence relate to one another and to your wider argument.
The boundaries of knowledge are constantly moving and at any one time there may be a wide number of different ideas or perspectives about your subject area. Over time and in different contexts, some of these ideas or perspectives may become more dominant than others.
When you are writing and researching, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that what we “know” today may change tomorrow, or that what could be “true” in one context is not true in another. This is where balance in your writing becomes important.
To demonstrate balance you can explicitly or implicitly acknowledge that there may be alternative viewpoints on the subject, for example by citing relevant arguments and literature.
You can also show that you understand that knowledge may be ambiguous and rarely definitive by using language which adds caution to your claims, for example:
“High levels of intrinsic motivation in students may be linked to greater satisfaction with their courses.”
Find out more about showing caution in your writing.