Paragraphs are like people. They are not all the same size, and they don’t all have the same job. For example, introductory paragraphs provide essential background information and indicate the main idea (thesis). Meanwhile, a developmental paragraph further investigates a certain idea. Transitional paragraphs, on the other hand, move the reader from one point to another. Lastly, the concluding paragraph makes a closing comment on the topic of the paper.*
Writing, like art, varies widely depending on the artist and the purpose. Because of different genres (screenplays, lyrics, poetry, letters, lab reports, business proposals, etc.), you cannot assume that writing “correctly” in one class means you know how to write in another class. For example, I may know how to write fiction (narratives), but I have never written a lab report. The two types of writing are extremely different, so how do I know how to write the lab report? Read other lab reports in order to analyze how they have been written. (Ask your teacher or a librarian where to find examples if you don’t know.) You will notice the format. In addition, you should ask your instructor for specific guidelines if none are given to you. Looking at professional examples and mimicking (not copying) them can be a useful way to prepare you for authentic tasks.
When developing a paragraph, you need support. But support does not necessarily mean you need ideas from other people (sources). You can tell a story (anecdote), describe something or someone, provide examples from your life or from current events, define something (in your own words, not Webster’s), compare/contrast, and/or explain the cause and effect of a certain action.
For a research paper, you may find it useful to remember the following “I.S.E. recipe” for paragraph development. (Just remember that variations are allowed. This “recipe” is only to get you started and is not a hard and fast rule for all writing. See the “Using Sources” handout for additional information.)
Introduce your paragraph with a topic sentence
Support your idea
Explain your support (How does this relate to your topic sentence and to the overall purpose of your paper?)
Sample Student Paragraph:
Magic Johnson, an NBA Great by Cyrus Norton
Some National Basketball Association (NBA) players are good because they have a special talent in one area. Magic Johnson was a great NBA star because he was excellent in shooting, passing, rebounding, and leading. As a shooter, few have ever equaled him. He could slam, shovel, hook, and fire from three-point range—all with deadly accuracy. As for free throws, he led all NBA players in shooting percentage in 1988-89. While averaging more than twenty points per game, he helped others become stars with his passes. As the point guard (the quarterback of basketball), he was always near the top in the league in assists and was famous for his “no-look” pass, which often surprised even his teammates with its precision. When he wasn’t shooting or passing, he was rebounding. A top rebounding guard is unusual in professional basketball, but Magic, at six feet, nine inches, could bump shoulders and leap with anyone. These three qualities made him probably the most spectacular triple-double threat of all time. “Triple-double” means reaching two digits in scoring, assists, and rebounding. Magic didn’t need more for greatness in the NBA, but he had more. With his everlasting smile and boundless energy, he was also an inspirational team leader. He always believed in himself and his team. When his team was down by a point and three seconds remained on the game clock, the fans looked for Magic to get the ball. They watched as he dribbled once, he faded, he leaped, he twisted, and he hooked one in from twenty feet. That was magic. That was Magic.*
*This material is from Sentences, Paragraphs, & Beyond by Lee and Kelly Brandon, pp. 262-264.
In the beginning, a paper was assigned. The problem was that you didn’t know how to start the assigned paper. So your friend told you to ask yourself a question. “Ask yourself what you want to learn or what you want to prove while writing this paper.” (Whether you are focusing on what you want to learn or what you want to prove depends on the type of assignment.)
Pitfalls to Avoid
If you are supposed to have an argumentative paper, you must avoid using facts (which are not arguable), neutral statements (which do not reveal your position on the topic), truisms, personal or religious convictions that cannot be logically debated, opinions based solely on your own feelings, sweeping generalizations, or announcements of the paper’s broad subject (Raimes 47). From Keys for Writers, 4th edition
Fact: Tornadoes are dangerous.
Revised: Because of the fierce damage caused by tornadoes, all cities should provide an underground safety site for citizens.
Neutral: Behavior matters.
Revised: Following the proper business etiquette guidelines can assist in our interaction with co-workers.
Truism: Smoking has advantages and disadvantages.
Revised: Smoking may help calm some people, but the long-term physical risks are not worth the short-term pleasure.
Personal Conviction: Racism is the worst kind of prejudice.
Revised: The best weapon against racism is primary and secondary education.
Opinion Based on Feeling: I think baseball is boring and stupid.
Revised: Baseball should be banned at area schools and replaced with football.
Sweeping Generalization: Women are better with children.
Revised: Due to the change in our workforce, moms and dads may play equal roles in our children’s lives.
Too Broad: This paper is about eating junk.
Revised: An over-reliance on fast food and prepackaged meals has led to an obesity epidemic in the United States.
Maybe you are the type of person who needs to write first. Some people sit at their computers and type their papers before realizing what it is they wanted to say. So they write their thesis statements AFTER they write their papers. That is fine. (Everyone has a unique writing process.) Just make sure that you read each paragraph and ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this paragraph?” Then consider whether the purpose of each relates to the purpose/goal of your paper. You may find that you need to move paragraphs or to delete some.
The most important point to remember is that a thesis statement is SPECIFIC. Avoid using statements that fall into the “pitfall” category.
To begin, you may want to ask yourself a question like “Does watching violence on TV result in violent behavior in children?” Then, if the paper is argumentative, you need to decide if you would answer that question “Yes” or “No.” After that, ask yourself ,“Why?” You may not know why. So research (your support) may be required before you can craft a final thesis. But you can begin your paper with a “working thesis.” For example, you could start by writing a thesis statement like “Violence should be omitted from children’s TV programs due to the psychological impact it has on their behavior.” But your thesis may get even more specific. As you do research, you may find that you want to focus on personality disorders resulting from violence.
For more information on writing a thesis statement, visit http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/print/general.gl_thesis.html