Paragraph Construction and Topic Sentences

A paragraph is composed of multiple sentences focused on a single, clearly-defined topic. There should be exactly one main idea per paragraph, so whenever you move on to a new idea, you should start a new paragraph.  For example, I have told you what a paragraph is here, and now I will start a new paragraph to deal with a new idea: how to structure a paragraph.

Paragraphs are actually organized much like persuasive papers are. Just like a paper has a thesis statement followed by a body of supportive evidence, paragraphs have a topic sentence followed by several sentences of support or explanation. Just like all the paragraphs in your paper should connect to your thesis statement, all the sentences in your paragraph should connect to the topic sentence. If you look at this paragraph, for example, you will see that it starts with a clear topic sentence letting you know that paragraphs follow a structure similar to that of papers. The next two sentences explain how a paragraph is like a paper, and then two more sentences show how this paragraph follows that structure.  All of these sentences are clearly connected to the main idea. If you ever notice your sentences no longer relate to the topic sentence or that your paragraph has suddenly switched to a new idea, you likely have two paragraphs that need to be split up.

The topic sentence that starts your paragraph should serve two purposes: first, it lets your reader know what the paragraph is going to be about; and, second, it highlights the connection between the present paragraph and the one that came before. The topic sentence of this third paragraph tells the reader that I am now going to explain what a topic sentence does, thus fulfilling the first function. It also tells you that this paragraph is going to talk about one particular aspect of the previous paragraph’s main idea: we are now moving from the general structure of the paragraph to the particular role of the topic sentence. Typically, topic sentences should not be quotations but rather should be written in your own words. They should clearly explain what your main idea for the paragraph is. Sometimes, you may want to include transition words or phrases—such as moreover, nonetheless, additionally, in contrast—to help relate your new paragraph to the previous one. Do not feel pressured to always use a transition word or phrase, though. If the train of thought connecting the paragraphs is clear without one, a transition word may not be necessary. As you can see, I did not use one in this paragraph. In the next paragraph, I will use a brief transitioning phrase to introduce a new topic: the role of the other sentences in a paragraph.

After your first sentence introduces the main idea, the remainder of the sentences in a paragraph should support or explain your topic. You may use these additional sentences to detail your position on the topic.  You might also provide examples, statistics, or other evidence that proves your point.  At the end of the paragraph, you may include some sort of conclusion or a transition that sets up the next idea you will be discussing (for example, you can see this clearly in the last sentence of the first paragraph).  Overall, making sure your reader knows how each sentence in the paragraph relates back to the topic sentence will greatly improve the quality of your writing, as does highlighting the connection between each paragraph and your thesis statement in a longer paper.


More Resources for Paragraph Writing

The content on this page is based in part on Angela Francis’s handout for ENG102, which can be found here. View the handout for examples of paragraph construction.


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