Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.
What Is a Paragraph?
Throughout your education, you have heard it all the time: ''Read the two paragraphs,'' ''Write a 5-paragraph essay,'' ''Organize your paragraphs''… but what is a paragraph?
You are constantly required to deal with paragraphs, either with your own writing or with reading. It is a huge help with these types of activities if you truly understand the definition of a paragraph. A paragraph is a section of a piece of writing covering one topic and indicated by indentation.
Let's look a bit closer at that definition. The first part states a paragraph is 'a section of a piece of writing.' This means paragraphs break down larger pieces of writing. For example, imagine you are reading a chapter in your history textbook on President Abraham Lincoln. Each section of that chapter will be broken into paragraphs. The paragraphs will help you follow along with the ideas throughout the entire chapter.
The second part of the definition states 'a paragraph covers one topic.' Within that larger piece of writing, each paragraph should explain just one concept related to the larger topic. For example, in that chapter on President Lincoln, you may read one paragraph that describes his childhood. That paragraph should focus on only his childhood and not the other parts of his life.
The final part of the definition is 'indicated by indentation.' This makes paragraphs easy to identify. The first line of all paragraphs need to indented, or moved further from the margin than the other lines. This way you can visually see how the topics may change or how a chapter will be broken up.
Purpose of a Paragraph
Now that you know what a paragraph is, let's discuss why paragraphs are important. As we saw earlier, paragraphs help to keep a large piece of writing organized. Since each paragraph should cover one specific concept, they provide a flow to the writing overall. When you write assignments or essays, paragraphs will help you keep your ideas organized. You should even decide the topic for each paragraph before you begin writing. Then you can organize the whole piece of writing by deciding the order of the topics, and thus, the paragraphs. If you do this and stick to one main idea per paragraph, then your paper, and your ideas, will not be confusing.
Besides helping writers, paragraphs also help readers. Imagine you are reading that chapter on Abraham Lincoln. What if the first few sentences were about how he was elected, the next few were on where he was born, the next on his death, and the next on the start of the Civil War? Wouldn't you be completely confused? Having one paragraph for each of those topics will help you, as the reader, comprehend the author's ideas. Furthermore, you will not be overwhelmed with information and will remain interested in the writing.
Structure of a Paragraph
Now that you know the definition and purpose of a paragraph, let's look at the structure. We have already discussed how the first line of a paragraph should always be indented. This helps the reader visually see when topics will change.
Besides indenting, there are some other things to keep in mind when structuring a paragraph. The first is to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence. The topic sentence serves as the introduction to the whole paragraph. For example, imagine you are writing that paragraph on Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Your topic sentence should be some broad statement about this main idea. Look at this example: ''Abraham Lincoln had a rough childhood.'' If this is your topic sentence, then the whole paragraph must be about challenges he faced when he was young.
The middle of a paragraph should contain supporting sentences, which support the main idea of the paragraph. This should include any details, evidence and examples that prove your point. For the paragraph on Lincoln's childhood, the supporting sentences need to describe where he was born, what his family life was like, and anything else that happened in his childhood. These details should also support the idea of his having a rough childhood.
Finally, each paragraph should end with a closing sentence. You can think of this as the opposite of the topic sentence. This sentence needs to end the paragraph and provide a close to that main idea. For example, ''These events show the early struggles Abraham Lincoln faced in his life.'' could be a possible closing sentence for that paragraph. It summarizes the main idea and provides closure.
What Makes an Effective Paragraph?
Knowing the definition, purpose and structure of a paragraph can help you when reading a piece of writing, but if you want to be a successful writer, you need to know how to make a paragraph effective.
Firstly, you need to use the proper structure. Indenting and having only one main idea per paragraph are both good ways to keep your readers' interest and prevent confusion.
In addition, you need to make sure that you not only have topic and closing sentences but that they provide a transition between the ideas of the different paragraphs. For example, if you plan on writing a paragraph about Abraham Lincoln's struggles in early adulthood right after the paragraph on his childhood, then your closing and topic sentences should indicate that change in topic. You can end the childhood paragraph with ''These events show how Abraham Lincoln was able to learn the skills that will allow him to overcome obstacles in his later life.'' This indicates that the next topic you will be discussing relates to struggles he faced in his adulthood. In this way, that closing sentence connects or transitions to the next paragraph.
Lastly, an important way to create an effective paragraph is to include relevant and convincing supporting details. In each paragraph, the middle sentences need to contain the evidence for whatever is your main idea. For example, if you were writing the paragraph on Lincoln overcoming obstacles in his early adulthood, then you need to share details of him succeeding in elections, or in his family, or in any circumstance where he overcame the odds. These ideas support your statement that he had struggles but succeeded anyway. If you have relevant evidence to support your claims, then your paragraph will be effective.
To review, a paragraph is a section of a piece of writing covering one topic and indicated by indentation. It must have one main idea and have a first line indented from the margin more than the other lines.
Paragraphs help writers to keep their ideas organized and provide a flow to their writing. For readers, paragraphs help keep them interested in the writing and able to comprehend the writer's ideas.
Paragraphs should also have a specific structure. Each needs to have a topic sentence to introduce the main idea of the paragraph, supporting sentences to describe the evidence and examples, and a closing sentence to provide an end to the paragraph.
Finally, to be effective, a paragraph needs to have relevant and important supporting details. The structure should be clear and properly indented. Also, the topic and closing sentences should connect to previous and following paragraphs. If you keep these ideas in mind as you write, your paragraphs will be strong and credible.
You should have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Define a paragraph
- Identify the purpose of paragraphs
- Describe the structure of an effective paragraph
- Explain the importance of relevant and supporting details to an effective paragraph
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