According to The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White, a paragraph is the “basic unit of composition.” Any form of written work, from term papers to novels, are made up of paragraphs. These smaller chunks of texts make writing more clear, concise, and digestible.
But knowing when to start and stop a paragraph isn’t always easy. There is no hard and fast rule for constructing a paragraph. There are, however, guidelines that can make writing a paragraph easier.
When to Start a New Paragraph
Think of a paragraph as a building block for your writing. You’re not going to build a house out of a single massive piece of wood. The structural integrity would not be strong. The same applies to essays, stories, and books. Paragraphs make your work readable. Correct organization of your paragraphs also makes your points stronger.
The only prescriptive grammar rule for dividing paragraphs involves dialogue. Whenever a new person speaks, you must start a new paragraph. Other than that, where you divide your writing is up to you.
One helpful tip for constructing paragraphs is the acronym TiPToP. This stands for:
Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.
Time can mean a time shift. In a work of fiction, memoir, or personal story, the time may shift by minutes, hours, days, or longer. Each time you do this, you can start a new paragraph. This also works for technical reports or studies. Whenever there has been a change in time, it’s probably a good time to start a new paragraph. Time can also refer to different historical periods if you’re writing an essay.
Place is exactly what it sounds like. Whenever there is a setting shift, switch paragraphs. This applies to fiction, nonfiction, and essays alike. If you are talking about a new location, hit that “enter” button.
Topic is broader than the others. How you define the topic is up to you. Sometimes, this rule might overrule the others. For instance, in an essay about the electoral college, you might reference two different elections where the popular vote winner lost the election. This is the same topic but different times. Depending on how much detail you are going into, you can leave these instances in the same paragraph.
Person is more than just dialogue. Just like with time, you can change paragraphs whenever you talk about a new person or use a new point-of-view.
A paragraph has three basic parts: a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence. The first sentence is the topic sentence, and it tells your readers what the paragraph is about. It serves as the glue for the entire paragraph.
The DBQ Project calls topic sentences “mini thesis” statements. This is a helpful way to think of it when you’re writing an essay. Each topic sentence should support your overarching thesis statement. It should somehow tie into the overall topic of the essay.
Topic sentences also serve other functions. They present the main idea of that paragraph and give a sample of what the paragraph is going to be about. This is important for your readers, but it’s also important for you as a writer. Your topic sentence keeps you “on topic.” It makes sure that all of the information that follows fits in that paragraph.
For fiction writers, topic sentences still give an overview of the paragraph. They may introduce what a character is doing or feeling before you go into more detail, or they may introduce a specific setting that you plan to elaborate on.
The supporting sentences are the meat of your paragraph. In any sort of academic or technical writing, this is where most of your argument is presented.
What sort of things can you include in supporting sentences? First, you can present evidence or facts that support both your topic sentence and your overall paper topic. But evidence alone isn’t very compelling. You can extend your point by offering further explanation and description. You can give specific examples or make comparisons. Your supporting sentences should also include some more in-depth analysis and evaluation. If opinions are appropriate for your topic, they can go here, too.
The most important thing to remember is that all your supporting sentences must relate back to your topic sentence. Writing is a synthesis of information, and paragraphs are how we categorize the information. If you’re writing a paper on evolution, and your paragraph is about Darwin’s finches, you won’t include a sentence about Mendel’s pea plants there.
Supporting sentences are more arbitrary in fiction, but they should still fit with your topic sentence. Using TiPToP is especially helpful when you aren’t sure if a sentence belongs in your story’s paragraph.
Finally, your paragraph will usually have a concluding sentence. A concluding sentence ties up your paragraph with a neat little bow. It should tie back to your topic sentence or back to the topic of the paper as a whole.
Sometimes, you might not need a concluding sentence. If you have split a long paragraph into two or three, these paragraphs might have more or less the same topic. Concluding sentences are used when you wrap up the topic and are moving on to the next point.
When we say that a concluding sentence restates the topic sentence, we don’t mean literally! Let’s take a look at an example paragraph. We’ll use the previous example of the United States electoral college.
In five elections, the candidate who lost the popular vote won the electoral college and became president. The first instance occurred in the 1824 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson won the popular vote, but Adams had more electoral votes. Most recently, this occurred again in 2016. Donald Trump became president after winning 304 electoral votes, even though he only won 46% of the popular vote. Though a rare occurrence, the popular vote does not ensure a victory for the presidential candidate.
You can see that the concluding sentence addressed that losing the popular vote is rare, and the topic sentence said it has only happened five times. Both sentences talked about losing the popular vote and becoming president. The supporting sentences were specific examples with explanations.
Final Tips for Constructing a Paragraph
Paragraph breaks occur where a writer thinks they are most logical. Someone else might choose different paragraph breaks than you would. The important thing to remember is that a paragraph should only cover one main idea.
Paragraphs shouldn't be too long. It’s hard for people to read large walls of text. Our brains need paragraphs to help us organize and process what we are reading. Not all of your paragraphs will be the same length. Some will have more information than others, and that’s okay.
A paragraph can be one sentence long. If a point is particularly important, this strategy can drive the idea home. However, this is rarely used in formal writing. Try to avoid one-sentence paragraphs in academic and technical writing. But in personal essays, fiction, and narrative non-fiction, it can make your writing more poignant when used appropriately. One-sentence paragraphs can also speed up the pacing of a scene.
What struggles do you have with paragraph structure? Let us know in the comment section below.