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It’s the roadmap to your essay, it’s the forecast for your argument, it’s...your introduction paragraph, and writing one can feel pretty intimidating. The introduction paragraph is a part of just about every kind of academic writing , from persuasive essays to research papers. But that doesn’t mean writing one is easy!

If trying to write an intro paragraph makes you feel like a Muggle trying to do magic, trust us: you aren’t alone. But there are some tips and tricks that can make the process easier—and that’s where we come in.

In this article, we’re going to explain how to write a captivating intro paragraph by covering the following info:  

  • A discussion of what an introduction paragraph is and its purpose in an essay
  • An overview of the most effective introduction paragraph format, with explanations of the three main parts of an intro paragraph
  • An analysis of real intro paragraph examples, with a discussion of what works and what doesn’t
  • A list of four top tips on how to write an introduction paragraph

Are you ready? Let’s begin!

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What Is an Introduction Paragraph? 

An introduction paragraph is the first paragraph of an essay , paper, or other type of academic writing. Argumentative essays , book reports, research papers, and even personal  essays are common types of writing that require an introduction paragraph. Whether you’re writing a research paper for a science course or an argumentative essay for English class , you’re going to have to write an intro paragraph. 

So what’s the purpose of an intro paragraph? As a reader’s first impression of your essay, the intro paragraph should introduce the topic of your paper. 

Your introduction will also state any claims, questions, or issues that your paper will focus on. This is commonly known as your paper’s thesis . This condenses the overall point of your paper into one or two short sentences that your reader can come back and reference later.

But intro paragraphs need to do a bit more than just introduce your topic. An intro paragraph is also supposed to grab your reader’s attention. The intro paragraph is your chance to provide just enough info and intrigue to make your reader say, “Hey, this topic sounds interesting. I think I’ll keep reading this essay!” That can help your essay stand out from the crowd.

In most cases, an intro paragraph will be relatively short. A good intro will be clear, brief, purposeful, and focused. While there are some exceptions to this rule, it’s common for intro paragraphs to consist of three to five sentences . 

Effectively introducing your essay’s topic, purpose, and getting your reader invested in your essay sounds like a lot to ask from one little paragraph, huh? In the next section, we’ll demystify the intro paragraph format by breaking it down into its core parts . When you learn how to approach each part of an intro, writing one won’t seem so scary!

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Once you figure out the three parts of an intro paragraph, writing one will be a piece of cake!

The 3 Main Parts of an Intro Paragraph

In general, an intro paragraph is going to have three main parts: a hook, context, and a thesis statement . Each of these pieces of the intro plays a key role in acquainting the reader with the topic and purpose of your essay. 

Below, we’ll explain how to start an introduction paragraph by writing an effective hook, providing context, and crafting a thesis statement. When you put these elements together, you’ll have an intro paragraph that does a great job of making a great first impression on your audience!

Intro Paragraph Part 1: The Hook

When it comes to how to start an introduction paragraph, o ne of the most common approaches is to start with something called a hook. 

What does hook mean here, though? Think of it this way: it’s like when you start a new Netflix series: you look up a few hours (and a few episodes) later and you say, “Whoa. I guess I must be hooked on this show!” 

That’s how the hook is supposed to work in an intro paragrap h: it should get your reader interested enough that they don’t want to press the proverbial “pause” button while they’re reading it . In other words, a hook is designed to grab your reader’s attention and keep them reading your essay! 

This means that the hook comes first in the intro paragraph format—it’ll be the opening sentence of your intro. 

It’s important to realize  that there are many different ways to write a good hook. But generally speaking, hooks must include these two things: what your topic is, and the angle you’re taking on that topic in your essay. 

One approach to writing a hook that works is starting with a general, but interesting, statement on your topic. In this type of hook, you’re trying to provide a broad introduction to your topic and your angle on the topic in an engaging way . 

For example, if you’re writing an essay about the role of the government in the American healthcare system, your hook might look something like this: 

There's a growing movement to require that the federal government provide affordable, effective healthcare for all Americans. 

This hook introduces the essay topic in a broad way (government and healthcare) by presenting a general statement on the topic. But the assumption presented in the hook can also be seen as controversial, which gets readers interested in learning more about what the writer—and the essay—has to say.

In other words, the statement above fulfills the goals of a good hook: it’s intriguing and provides a general introduction to the essay topic.

Intro Paragraph Part 2: Context

Once you’ve provided an attention-grabbing hook, you’ll want to give more context about your essay topic. Context refers to additional details that reveal the specific focus of your paper. So, whereas the hook provides a general introduction to your topic, context starts helping readers understand what exactly you’re going to be writing about

You can include anywhere from one to several sentences of context in your intro, depending on your teacher’s expectations, the length of your paper, and complexity of your topic. In these context-providing sentences, you want to begin narrowing the focus of your intro. You can do this by describing a specific issue or question about your topic that you’ll address in your essay. It also helps readers start to understand why the topic you’re writing about matters and why they should read about it. 

So, what counts as context for an intro paragraph? Context can be any important details or descriptions that provide background on existing perspectives, common cultural attitudes, or a specific situation or controversy relating to your essay topic. The context you include should acquaint your reader with the issues, questions, or events that motivated you to write an essay on your topic...and that your reader should know in order to understand your thesis. 

For instance, if you’re writing an essay analyzing the consequences of sexism in Hollywood, the context you include after your hook might make reference to the #metoo and #timesup movements that have generated public support for victims of sexual harassment. 

The key takeaway here is that context establishes why you’re addressing your topic and what makes it important. It also sets you up for success on the final piece of an intro paragraph: the thesis statement.

Elle Woods' statement offers a specific point of view on the topic of murder...which means it could serve as a pretty decent thesis statement!

Intro Paragraph Part 3: The Thesis

The final key part of how to write an intro paragraph is the thesis statement. The thesis statement is the backbone of your introduction: it conveys your argument or point of view on your topic in a clear, concise, and compelling way . The thesis is usually the last sentence of your intro paragraph. 

Whether it’s making a claim, outlining key points, or stating a hypothesis, your thesis statement will tell your reader exactly what idea(s) are going to be addressed in your essay. A good thesis statement will be clear, straightforward, and highlight the overall point you’re trying to make.

Some instructors also ask students to include an essay map as part of their thesis. An essay map is a section that outlines the major topics a paper will address. So for instance, say you’re writing a paper that argues for the importance of public transport in rural communities. Your thesis and essay map might look like this: 

Having public transport in rural communities helps people improve their economic situation by giving them reliable transportation to their job, reducing the amount of money they spend on gas, and providing new and unionized work .

The underlined section is the essay map because it touches on the three big things the writer will talk about later. It literally maps out the rest of the essay!

So let’s review: Your thesis takes the idea you’ve introduced in your hook and context and wraps it up. Think of it like a television episode: the hook sets the scene by presenting a general statement and/or interesting idea that sucks you in. The context advances the plot by describing the topic in more detail and helping readers understand why the topic is important. And finally, the thesis statement provides the climax by telling the reader what you have to say about the topic. 

The thesis statement is the most important part of the intro. Without it, your reader won’t know what the purpose of your essay is! And for a piece of writing to be effective, it needs to have a clear purpose. Your thesis statement conveys that purpose , so it’s important to put careful thought into writing a clear and compelling thesis statement. 

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How To Write an Introduction Paragraph: Example and Analysis

Now that we’ve provided an intro paragraph outline and have explained the three key parts of an intro paragraph, let’s take a look at an intro paragraph in action.

To show you how an intro paragraph works, we’ve included a sample introduction paragraph below, followed by an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses.

Example of Introduction Paragraph

While college students in the U.S. are struggling with how to pay for college, there is another surprising demographic that’s affected by the pressure to pay for college: families and parents. In the face of tuition price tags that total more than $100,000 (as a low estimate), families must make difficult decisions about how to save for their children’s college education. Charting a feasible path to saving for college is further complicated by the FAFSA’s estimates for an “Expected Family Contribution”—an amount of money that is rarely feasible for most American families. Due to these challenging financial circumstances and cultural pressure to give one’s children the best possible chance of success in adulthood, many families are going into serious debt to pay for their children’s college education. The U.S. government should move toward bearing more of the financial burden of college education. 

Example of Introduction Paragraph: Analysis

Before we dive into analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of this example intro paragraph, let’s establish the essay topic. The sample intro indicates that t he essay topic will focus on one specific issue: who should cover the cost of college education in the U.S., and why. Both the hook and the context help us identify the topic, while the thesis in the last sentence tells us why this topic matters to the writer—they think the U.S. Government needs to help finance college education. This is also the writer’s argument, which they’ll cover in the body of their essay. 

Now that we’ve identified the essay topic presented in the sample intro, let’s dig into some analysis. To pin down its strengths and weaknesses, we’re going to use the following three questions to guide our example of introduction paragraph analysis: 

  • Does this intro provide an attention-grabbing opening sentence that conveys the essay topic? 
  • Does this intro provide relevant, engaging context about the essay topic? 
  • Does this intro provide a thesis statement that establishes the writer’s point of view on the topic and what specific aspects of the issue the essay will address? 

Now, let’s use the questions above to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this sample intro paragraph. 

Does the Intro Have a Good Hook? 

First, the intro starts out with an attention-grabbing hook . The writer starts by presenting  an assumption (that the U.S. federal government bears most of the financial burden of college education), which makes the topic relatable to a wide audience of readers. Also note that the hook relates to the general topic of the essay, which is the high cost of college education. 

The hook then takes a surprising turn by presenting a counterclaim : that American families, rather than students, feel the true burden of paying for college. Some readers will have a strong emotional reaction to this provocative counterclaim, which will make them want to keep reading! As such, this intro provides an effective opening sentence that conveys the essay topic. 

Does the Intro Give Context?

T he second, third, and fourth sentences of the intro provide contextual details that reveal the specific focus of the writer’s paper . Remember: the context helps readers start to zoom in on what the paper will focus on, and what aspect of the general topic (college costs) will be discussed later on. 

The context in this intro reveals the intent and direction of the paper by explaining why the issue of families financing college is important. In other words, the context helps readers understand why this issue matters , and what aspects of this issue will be addressed in the paper.  

To provide effective context, the writer refers to issues (the exorbitant cost of college and high levels of family debt) that have received a lot of recent scholarly and media attention. These sentences of context also elaborate on the interesting perspective included in the hook: that American families are most affected by college costs.

Does the Intro Have a Thesis? 

Finally, this intro provides a thesis statement that conveys the writer’s point of view on the issue of financing college education. This writer believes that the U.S. government should do more to pay for students’ college educations. 

However, the thesis statement doesn’t give us any details about why the writer has made this claim or why this will help American families . There isn’t an essay map that helps readers understand what points the writer will make in the essay.

To revise this thesis statement so that it establishes the specific aspects of the topic that the essay will address, the writer could add the following to the beginning of the thesis statement:

The U.S. government should take on more of the financial burden of college education because other countries have shown this can improve education rates while reducing levels of familial poverty.

Check out the new section in bold. Not only does it clarify that the writer is talking about the pressure put on families, it touches on the big topics the writer will address in the paper: improving education rates and reduction of poverty. So not only do we have a clearer argumentative statement in this thesis, we also have an essay map!  

So, let’s recap our analysis. This sample intro paragraph does an effective job of providing an engaging hook and relatable, interesting context, but the thesis statement needs some work ! As you write your own intro paragraphs, you might consider using the questions above to evaluate and revise your work. Doing this will help ensure you’ve covered all of your bases and written an intro that your readers will find interesting!

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4 Tips for How To Write an Introduction Paragraph

Now that we’ve gone over an example of introduction paragraph analysis, let’s talk about how to write an introduction paragraph of your own. Keep reading for four tips for writing a successful intro paragraph for any essay. 

Tip 1: Analyze Your Essay Prompt

If you’re having trouble with how to start an introduction paragraph, analyze your essay prompt! Most teachers give you some kind of assignment sheet, formal instructions, or prompt to set the expectations for an essay they’ve assigned, right? Those instructions can help guide you as you write your intro paragraph!

Because they’ll be reading and responding to your essay, you want to make sure you meet your teacher’s expectations for an intro paragraph . For instance, if they’ve provided specific instructions about how long the intro should be or where the thesis statement should be located, be sure to follow them!

The type of paper you’re writing can give you clues as to how to approach your intro as well. If you’re writing a research paper, your professor might expect you to provide a research question or state a hypothesis in your intro. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, you’ll need to make sure your intro overviews the context surrounding your argument and your thesis statement includes a clear, defensible claim. 

Using the parameters set out by your instructor and assignment sheet can put some easy-to-follow boundaries in place for things like your intro’s length, structure, and content. Following these guidelines can free you up to focus on other aspects of your intro... like coming up with an exciting hook and conveying your point of view on your topic!

Tip 2: Narrow Your Topic

You can’t write an intro paragraph without first identifying your topic. To make your intro as effective as possible, you need to define the parameters of your topic clearly—and you need to be specific. 

For example, let’s say you want to write about college football. “NCAA football” is too broad of a topic for a paper. There is a lot to talk about in terms of college football! It would be tough to write an intro paragraph that’s focused, purposeful, and engaging on this topic. In fact, if you did try to address this whole topic, you’d probably end up writing a book!

Instead, you should narrow broad topics to  identify a specific question, claim, or issue pertaining to some aspect of NCAA football for your intro to be effective. So, for instance, you could frame your topic as, “How can college professors better support NCAA football players in academics?” This focused topic pertaining to NCAA football would give you a more manageable angle to discuss in your paper.

So before you think about writing your intro, ask yourself: Is my essay topic specific, focused, and logical? Does it convey an issue or question that I can explore over the course of several pages? Once you’ve established a good topic, you’ll have the foundation you need to write an effective intro paragraph . 

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Once you've figured out your topic, it's time to hit the books!

Tip 3: Do Your Research

This tip is tightly intertwined with the one above, and it’s crucial to writing a good intro: do your research! And, guess what? This tip applies to all papers—even ones that aren’t technically research papers. 

Here’s why you need to do some research: getting the lay of the land on what others have said about your topic—whether that’s scholars and researchers or the mass media— will help you narrow your topic, write an engaging hook, and provide relatable context. 

You don't want to sit down to write your intro without a solid understanding of the different perspectives on your topic. Whether those are the perspectives of experts or the general public, these points of view will help you write your intro in a way that is intriguing and compelling for your audience of readers. 

Tip 4: Write Multiple Drafts

Some say to write your intro first; others say write it last. The truth is, there isn’t a right or wrong time to write your intro—but you do need to have enough time to write multiple drafts . 

Oftentimes, your professor will ask you to write multiple drafts of your paper, which gives you a built-in way to make sure you revise your intro. Another approach you could take is to write out a rough draft of your intro before you begin writing your essay, then revise it multiple times as you draft out your paper. 

Here’s why this approach can work: as you write your paper, you’ll probably come up with new insights on your topic that you didn’t have right from the start. You can use these “light bulb” moments to reevaluate your intro and make revisions that keep it in line with your developing essay draft. 

Once you’ve written your entire essay, consider going back and revising your intro again . You can ask yourself these questions as you evaluate your intro: 

  • Is my hook still relevant to the way I’ve approached the topic in my essay?
  • Do I provide enough appropriate context to introduce my essay? 
  • Now that my essay is written, does my thesis statement still accurately reflect the point of view that I present in my essay?

Using these questions as a guide and putting your intro through multiple revisions will help ensure that you’ve written the best intro for the final draft of your essay. Also, revising your writing is always a good thing to do—and this applies to your intro, too!

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What's Next?

Your college essays also need great intro paragraphs. Here’s a guide that focuses on how to write the perfect intro for your admissions essays. 

Of course, the intro is just one part of your college essay . This article will teach you how to write a college essay that makes admissions counselors sit up and take notice.

Are you trying to write an analytical essay? Our step-by-step guide can help you knock it out of the park.

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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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this sentence is the first paragraph of an essay

The introduction paragraph is the first paragraph of an essay. This paragraph helps your reader be ready to understand your main idea.

Your introduction paragraph should—

grab your reader’s attention introduce the topic of your essay present your thesis

You can visualize the ideas in your introduction paragraph by thinking about an inverted triangle. The ideas in the beginning of your introduction paragraph are general. Then you narrow down the topic to a specific idea.

intro.png

Grab the reader’s attention and introduce the topic

The very first sentence of your introduction should get your reader interested in your topic. The first sentence of an introduction is called a “hook.” There are many types of hooks: facts, questions, problems, descriptions, etc. There is not one “perfect” hook for each essay. Your hook can help you introduce the general topic of your essay.

As you introduce your topic, make sure to give the reader enough background information about the topic that the reader will be able to understand the thesis.

Present your thesis

The thesis states the main idea, or focus, of the essay. The rest of the essay will give evidence and explanations that show why or how your thesis is true. Your reader will expect to find the main idea in the introduction paragraph, rather than later in the essay.

An effective thesis—

  • addresses the prompt if there is one* (i.e., answers the question).
  • is usually at the end of the introduction paragraph.
  • controls the content of all of the body paragraphs.
  • is a complete sentence.
  • does not announce the topic (e.g., “I’m going to talk about exercise.”).
  • should not simply be a fact (e.g., “Many people exercise.”).
  • should not be too general (e.g., “Exercise is good.”).
  • should not be too specific (e.g., “Exercise decreases the chance of developing diabetes, heart disease, asthma, osteoporosis, depression, and anxiety.”).
  • may state main points (e.g., “Exercise is essential because it improves overall physical and mental health.”).
  • may imply main points (e.g., “Exercise is essential for improving our well-being.”)

*In some essays you write, you will not have a specific question to answer. Instead, you may need to choose your own topic. Your essay should still answer a question (e.g., how are typical Japanese and Chinese birthday celebrations similar or different?).

Exercise 1: Identify hooks and general topics.

Identify the type of hook used in each introduction paragraph as well as the general topic.  

1. Working students deal with a lot of stress in their lives every day. Stress is very common for students while they are working because they have a lot of responsibiltities to balance. They have a list of tasks for school and work that can overwhelm their schedules. Feeling stress is normal when there is not enough time to finish all of your responsibilities, but it can have negative results. Instead of avoiding stress, students simply need to learn how to manage it. In order for students to manage stress better, they need to prioritize their tasks, eat well, and get enough sleep.  

Type of hook: __________________ General topic of the paragraph: __________________  

2. Many business owners find that running a business is a lot harder than they thought it was. How business owners decide to manage their business will determine their future success. They have to make important decisions about how to manage their business every day. These decisions include hiring employees, the hours of operation, the products and services that will be provided, and the way the business will be advertised. These decisions impact a lot of people. Successful business owners need to make wise decisions that satisfy employees, customers, and investors.  

Exercise 2: Analyze a thesis.

Read the introduction paragraph below to complete this exercise.  

Prompt: Why is exercise important?  

Thesis: Exercise is essential because it improves overall physical and mental health.  

Use this list of criteria to evaluate the thesis.  

  • Does the thesis address the prompt?  
  • Is the thesis a complete sentence?  
  • Does the thesis announce the topic?  
  • Is the thesis simply a fact?  
  • Is the thesis too general? Too specific?  
  • Are the main points stated or implied?  

Exercise 3: Identify effective thesis statements.

For each prompt, identify which thesis statement is more effective. Write an X on the line next to the more effective thesis statement.  

  • _____Thesis #1 Let’s see all of the interesting things you can do in Rome.  
  • _____Thesis #2 Rome has a very unique cultural history.  
  • _____Thesis #1 An influential leader is open-minded and humble.  
  • _____Thesis #2 Some people are born to be leaders and influence the world.  
  • _____Thesis #1 There are some ways to solve feeling homesick.  
  • _____Thesis #2 Enjoying comforts from home can help combat homesickness.  
  • _____Thesis #1 Writing provides more time to plan and revise than speaking.  
  • _____Thesis #2 Many people around the world communicate through writing.

Exercise 4: Evaluate thesis statements.

Which sentences are effective thesis statements? Which sentences are not effective thesis statements? On a piece of paper, write “yes” if you think the thesis is effective or “no” if you think it is ineffective. Discuss why each thesis is (or is not) effective.

Exercise 5: Write a thesis.

On a piece of paper, write a thesis for each prompt. Make sure the thesis addresses the prompt clearly.

1. What are weddings like in your country? 2. What problems do smartphones cause in our lives? 3. What are qualities of a true friend? 4. Should video games be prohibited?

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/academic_a_writing/introduction_paragra .

Examples of Great Introductory Paragraphs

Grab your reader's attention with the first words

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An introductory paragraph, as the opening of a conventional essay ,  composition , or  report , is designed to grab people's attention. It informs readers about the topic and why they should care about it but also adds enough intrigue to get them to continue to read. In short, the opening paragraph is your chance to make a great first impression.

Writing a Good Introductory Paragraph

The primary purpose of an introductory paragraph is to pique the interest of your reader and identify the topic and purpose of the essay. It often ends with a thesis statement .

You can  engage your readers right from the start through a number of tried-and-true ways. Posing a question, defining the key term, giving a brief anecdote , using a playful joke or emotional appeal, or pulling out an interesting fact are just a few approaches you can take. Use imagery, details, and sensory information to connect with the reader if you can. The key is to add intrigue along with just enough information so your readers want to find out more. 

One way to do this is to come up with a brilliant opening line . Even the most mundane topics have aspects interesting enough to write about; otherwise, you wouldn't be writing about them, right?

When you begin writing a new piece, think about what your readers want or need to know. Use your knowledge of the topic to craft an opening line that will satisfy that need. You don't want to fall into the trap of what writers call "chasers"  that bore your readers (such as "The dictionary defines...."). The introduction should make sense and hook the reader right from the start .

Make your introductory paragraph brief. Typically, just three or four sentences are enough to set the stage for both long and short essays. You can go into supporting information in the body of your essay, so don't tell the audience everything all at once.

Should You Write the Intro First?

You can always adjust your introductory paragraph later. Sometimes you just have to start writing. You can start at the beginning or dive right into the heart of your essay.

Your first draft may not have the best opening, but as you continue to write, new ideas will come to you, and your thoughts will develop a clearer focus. Take note of these and, as you work through revisions , refine and edit your opening. 

If you're struggling with the opening, follow the lead of other writers and skip it for the moment. Many writers begin with the body and conclusion and come back to the introduction later. It's a useful, time-efficient approach if you find yourself stuck in those first few words.

Start where it's easiest to start. You can always go back to the beginning or rearrange later, especially if you have an outline completed or general framework informally mapped out. If you don't have an outline, even just starting to sketch one can help organize your thoughts and "prime the pump" as it were.

Successful Introductory Paragraphs

You can read all the advice you want about writing a compelling opening, but it's often easier to learn by example. Take a look at how some writers approached their essays and analyze why they work so well.

"As a lifelong crabber (that is, one who catches crabs, not a chronic complainer), I can tell you that anyone who has patience and a great love for the river is qualified to join the ranks of crabbers. However, if you want your first crabbing experience to be a successful one, you must come prepared."
– (Mary Zeigler, "How to Catch River Crabs" )

What did Zeigler do in her introduction? First, she wrote in a little joke, but it serves a dual purpose. Not only does it set the stage for her slightly more humorous approach to crabbing, but it also clarifies what type of "crabber" she's writing about. This is important if your subject has more than one meaning.

The other thing that makes this a successful introduction is the fact that Zeigler leaves us wondering. What do we have to be prepared for? Will the crabs jump up and latch onto you? Is it a messy job? What tools and gear do I need? She leaves us with questions, and that draws us in because now we want answers.

"Working part-time as a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly has given me a great opportunity to observe human behavior. Sometimes I think of the shoppers as white rats in a lab experiment, and the aisles as a maze designed by a psychologist. Most of the rats—customers, I mean—follow a routine pattern, strolling up and down the aisles, checking through my chute, and then escaping through the exit hatch. But not everyone is so dependable. My research has revealed three distinct types of abnormal customer: the amnesiac, the super shopper, and the dawdler."
– "Shopping at the Pig"

This revised classification essay begins by painting a picture of an ordinary scenario: the grocery store. But when used as an opportunity to observe human nature, as this writer does, it turns from ordinary to fascinating.

Who is the amnesiac? Would I be classified as the dawdler by this cashier? The descriptive language and the analogy to rats in a maze add to the intrigue, and readers are left wanting more. For this reason, even though it's lengthy, this is an effective opening.

"In March 2006, I found myself, at 38, divorced, no kids, no home, and alone in a tiny rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I hadn’t eaten a hot meal in two months. I’d had no human contact for weeks because my satellite phone had stopped working. All four of my oars were broken, patched up with duct tape and splints. I had tendinitis in my shoulders and saltwater sores on my backside.
"I couldn’t have been happier...."
– Roz Savage, " My Transoceanic Midlife Crisis ."  Newsweek , March 20, 2011

Here is an example of reversing expectations. The introductory paragraph is filled with doom and gloom. We feel sorry for the writer but are left wondering whether the article will be a classic sob story. It is in the second paragraph where we find out that it's quite the opposite.

Those first few words of the second paragraph—which we cannot help but skim—surprise us and thus draw us in. How can the narrator be happy after all that sorrow? This reversal compels us to find out what happened.

Most people have had streaks where nothing seems to go right. Yet, it is the possibility of a turn of fortunes that compels us to keep going. This writer appealed to our emotions and a sense of shared experience to craft an effective read.

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The paragraph that begins an essay causes students the most trouble, yet carries the most importance. Although its precise construction varies from genre to genre (and from essay to essay), good introductory paragraphs generally accomplish the same tasks and follow a few basic patterns. Some of them are listed below, but keep in mind that what follows are guidelines, not immutable templates.

Tasks:  The introductory paragraph to a short essay usually attempts to do three things:

  • Introduce the topic  with some indication of its inherent interest or importance, and a clear definition of the boundaries of the subject area
  • Indicate the structure and/or methodology of the essay , often with the major sections of the essay or its structural principle clearly stated
  • State the thesis of the essay , preferably in a single, arguable statement with a clear main clause

Not every essay does all three in the first paragraph, and the degree to which an essay declares its structure or methodology may vary widely, depending on how necessary that information will be to the readers. Sometimes, the entire first paragraph will serve no other purpose than to generate interest in the subject or raise a question, leaving the other tasks for the second paragraph. However, this kind of opening requires a lot of skill, and you can lose your readers in the second and third paragraphs if do not make your purpose clear.

Patterns:  The standard pattern for an introductory paragraph follows the order of the tasks outlined above. Below is an outline of that pattern, written as if it were the first section of a formal outline of the entire essay:

Introduction

  • Its boundaries
  • Why it is interesting
  • The essay’s main sections (structure)
  • Why they come in that order (structural principle)
  • How the author plans to draw the necessary conclusions from the information available (methodology)
  • Its premise (the general claim about the information available)
  • Its conclusion (the consequences of the first claim)

Not every essay contains every element in precisely this order, but most good essays cover all of them, either explicitly or implicitly. In longer and more scholarly essays, the structure/methodology section should be longer, or can even be its own paragraph. It should also include some mention of the essay’s position within the field as a whole.

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Paragraphs & topic sentences.

A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.

Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.

TOPIC SENTENCES

A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.

Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.

PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE

Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.

Introduction : the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.

Body : follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.

Conclusion : the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.

The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.

SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put , on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or , if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY. George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”

In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.

Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.

A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.

Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.

Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized ) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.

Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.

Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.

I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular. Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”

SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS

(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference )

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout will help you understand how paragraphs are formed, how to develop stronger paragraphs, and how to completely and clearly express your ideas.

What is a paragraph?

Paragraphs are the building blocks of papers. Many students define paragraphs in terms of length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a paragraph is half a page long, etc. In reality, though, the unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph. A paragraph is defined as “a group of sentences or a single sentence that forms a unit” (Lunsford and Connors 116). Length and appearance do not determine whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. For instance, in some styles of writing, particularly journalistic styles, a paragraph can be just one sentence long. Ultimately, a paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences that support one main idea. In this handout, we will refer to this as the “controlling idea,” because it controls what happens in the rest of the paragraph.

How do I decide what to put in a paragraph?

Before you can begin to determine what the composition of a particular paragraph will be, you must first decide on an argument and a working thesis statement for your paper. What is the most important idea that you are trying to convey to your reader? The information in each paragraph must be related to that idea. In other words, your paragraphs should remind your reader that there is a recurrent relationship between your thesis and the information in each paragraph. A working thesis functions like a seed from which your paper, and your ideas, will grow. The whole process is an organic one—a natural progression from a seed to a full-blown paper where there are direct, familial relationships between all of the ideas in the paper.

The decision about what to put into your paragraphs begins with the germination of a seed of ideas; this “germination process” is better known as brainstorming . There are many techniques for brainstorming; whichever one you choose, this stage of paragraph development cannot be skipped. Building paragraphs can be like building a skyscraper: there must be a well-planned foundation that supports what you are building. Any cracks, inconsistencies, or other corruptions of the foundation can cause your whole paper to crumble.

So, let’s suppose that you have done some brainstorming to develop your thesis. What else should you keep in mind as you begin to create paragraphs? Every paragraph in a paper should be :

  • Unified : All of the sentences in a single paragraph should be related to a single controlling idea (often expressed in the topic sentence of the paragraph).
  • Clearly related to the thesis : The sentences should all refer to the central idea, or thesis, of the paper (Rosen and Behrens 119).
  • Coherent : The sentences should be arranged in a logical manner and should follow a definite plan for development (Rosen and Behrens 119).
  • Well-developed : Every idea discussed in the paragraph should be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the paragraph’s controlling idea (Rosen and Behrens 119).

How do I organize a paragraph?

There are many different ways to organize a paragraph. The organization you choose will depend on the controlling idea of the paragraph. Below are a few possibilities for organization, with links to brief examples:

  • Narration : Tell a story. Go chronologically, from start to finish. ( See an example. )
  • Description : Provide specific details about what something looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like. Organize spatially, in order of appearance, or by topic. ( See an example. )
  • Process : Explain how something works, step by step. Perhaps follow a sequence—first, second, third. ( See an example. )
  • Classification : Separate into groups or explain the various parts of a topic. ( See an example. )
  • Illustration : Give examples and explain how those examples support your point. (See an example in the 5-step process below.)

Illustration paragraph: a 5-step example

From the list above, let’s choose “illustration” as our rhetorical purpose. We’ll walk through a 5-step process for building a paragraph that illustrates a point in an argument. For each step there is an explanation and example. Our example paragraph will be about human misconceptions of piranhas.

Step 1. Decide on a controlling idea and create a topic sentence

Paragraph development begins with the formulation of the controlling idea. This idea directs the paragraph’s development. Often, the controlling idea of a paragraph will appear in the form of a topic sentence. In some cases, you may need more than one sentence to express a paragraph’s controlling idea.

Controlling idea and topic sentence — Despite the fact that piranhas are relatively harmless, many people continue to believe the pervasive myth that piranhas are dangerous to humans.

Step 2. Elaborate on the controlling idea

Paragraph development continues with an elaboration on the controlling idea, perhaps with an explanation, implication, or statement about significance. Our example offers a possible explanation for the pervasiveness of the myth.

Elaboration — This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their mischaracterization in popular media.

Step 3. Give an example (or multiple examples)

Paragraph development progresses with an example (or more) that illustrates the claims made in the previous sentences.

Example — For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha poised to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman.

Step 4. Explain the example(s)

The next movement in paragraph development is an explanation of each example and its relevance to the topic sentence. The explanation should demonstrate the value of the example as evidence to support the major claim, or focus, in your paragraph.

Continue the pattern of giving examples and explaining them until all points/examples that the writer deems necessary have been made and explained. NONE of your examples should be left unexplained. You might be able to explain the relationship between the example and the topic sentence in the same sentence which introduced the example. More often, however, you will need to explain that relationship in a separate sentence.

Explanation for example — Such a terrifying representation easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear.

Notice that the example and explanation steps of this 5-step process (steps 3 and 4) can be repeated as needed. The idea is that you continue to use this pattern until you have completely developed the main idea of the paragraph.

Step 5. Complete the paragraph’s idea or transition into the next paragraph

The final movement in paragraph development involves tying up the loose ends of the paragraph. At this point, you can remind your reader about the relevance of the information to the larger paper, or you can make a concluding point for this example. You might, however, simply transition to the next paragraph.

Sentences for completing a paragraph — While the trope of the man-eating piranhas lends excitement to the adventure stories, it bears little resemblance to the real-life piranha. By paying more attention to fact than fiction, humans may finally be able to let go of this inaccurate belief.

Finished paragraph

Despite the fact that piranhas are relatively harmless, many people continue to believe the pervasive myth that piranhas are dangerous to humans. This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their mischaracterization in popular media. For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha poised to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman. Such a terrifying representation easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear. While the trope of the man-eating piranhas lends excitement to the adventure stories, it bears little resemblance to the real-life piranha. By paying more attention to fact than fiction, humans may finally be able to let go of this inaccurate belief.

Troubleshooting paragraphs

Problem: the paragraph has no topic sentence.

Imagine each paragraph as a sandwich. The real content of the sandwich—the meat or other filling—is in the middle. It includes all the evidence you need to make the point. But it gets kind of messy to eat a sandwich without any bread. Your readers don’t know what to do with all the evidence you’ve given them. So, the top slice of bread (the first sentence of the paragraph) explains the topic (or controlling idea) of the paragraph. And, the bottom slice (the last sentence of the paragraph) tells the reader how the paragraph relates to the broader argument. In the original and revised paragraphs below, notice how a topic sentence expressing the controlling idea tells the reader the point of all the evidence.

Original paragraph

Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Revised paragraph

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Once you have mastered the use of topic sentences, you may decide that the topic sentence for a particular paragraph really shouldn’t be the first sentence of the paragraph. This is fine—the topic sentence can actually go at the beginning, middle, or end of a paragraph; what’s important is that it is in there somewhere so that readers know what the main idea of the paragraph is and how it relates back to the thesis of your paper. Suppose that we wanted to start the piranha paragraph with a transition sentence—something that reminds the reader of what happened in the previous paragraph—rather than with the topic sentence. Let’s suppose that the previous paragraph was about all kinds of animals that people are afraid of, like sharks, snakes, and spiders. Our paragraph might look like this (the topic sentence is bold):

Like sharks, snakes, and spiders, piranhas are widely feared. Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless . Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Problem: the paragraph has more than one controlling idea

If a paragraph has more than one main idea, consider eliminating sentences that relate to the second idea, or split the paragraph into two or more paragraphs, each with only one main idea. Watch our short video on reverse outlining to learn a quick way to test whether your paragraphs are unified. In the following paragraph, the final two sentences branch off into a different topic; so, the revised paragraph eliminates them and concludes with a sentence that reminds the reader of the paragraph’s main idea.

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. A number of South American groups eat piranhas. They fry or grill the fish and then serve them with coconut milk or tucupi, a sauce made from fermented manioc juices.

Problem: transitions are needed within the paragraph

You are probably familiar with the idea that transitions may be needed between paragraphs or sections in a paper (see our handout on transitions ). Sometimes they are also helpful within the body of a single paragraph. Within a paragraph, transitions are often single words or short phrases that help to establish relationships between ideas and to create a logical progression of those ideas in a paragraph. This is especially likely to be true within paragraphs that discuss multiple examples. Let’s take a look at a version of our piranha paragraph that uses transitions to orient the reader:

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, except in two main situations, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ instinct is to flee, not attack. But there are two situations in which a piranha bite is likely. The first is when a frightened piranha is lifted out of the water—for example, if it has been caught in a fishing net. The second is when the water level in pools where piranhas are living falls too low. A large number of fish may be trapped in a single pool, and if they are hungry, they may attack anything that enters the water.

In this example, you can see how the phrases “the first” and “the second” help the reader follow the organization of the ideas in the paragraph.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Lunsford, Andrea. 2008. The St. Martin’s Handbook: Annotated Instructor’s Edition , 6th ed. New York: St. Martin’s.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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6.2 Effective Means for Writing a Paragraph

Learning objectives.

  • Identify characteristics of a good topic sentence.
  • Identify the three parts of a developed paragraph.
  • Apply knowledge of topic sentences and parts of a developed paragraph in an assignment.

Now that you have identified common purposes for writing and learned how to select appropriate content for a particular audience, you can think about the structure of a paragraph in greater detail. Composing an effective paragraph requires a method similar to building a house. You may have the finest content, or materials, but if you do not arrange them in the correct order, then the final product will not hold together very well.

A strong paragraph contains three distinct components:

  • Topic sentence . The topic sentence is the main idea of the paragraph.
  • Body . The body is composed of the supporting sentences that develop the main point.
  • Conclusion . The conclusion is the final sentence that summarizes the main point.

The foundation of a good paragraph is the topic sentence, which expresses the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence relates to the thesis, or main point, of the essay (see Chapter 9 “Writing Essays: From Start to Finish” for more information about thesis statements) and guides the reader by signposting what the paragraph is about. All the sentences in the rest of the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.

This section covers the major components of a paragraph and examines how to develop an effective topic sentence.

Developing a Topic Sentence

Pick up any newspaper or magazine and read the first sentence of an article. Are you fairly confident that you know what the rest of the article is about? If so, you have likely read the topic sentence. An effective topic sentence combines a main idea with the writer’s personal attitude or opinion. It serves to orient the reader and provides an indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. Read the following example.

Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many states.

This topic sentence declares a favorable position for standardizing math and English education. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to provide supporting details and facts as to why standardizing math and English education might improve student learning in many states. If the purpose of the essay is actually to evaluate education in only one particular state, or to discuss math or English education specifically, then the topic sentence is misleading.

When writing a draft of an essay, allow a friend or colleague to read the opening line of your first paragraph. Ask your reader to predict what your paper will be about. If he or she is unable to guess your topic accurately, you should consider revising your topic sentence so that it clearly defines your purpose in writing.

Main Idea versus Controlling Idea

Topic sentences contain both a main idea (the subject, or topic that the writer is discussing) and a controlling idea (the writer’s specific stance on that subject). Just as a thesis statement includes an idea that controls a document’s focus (as you will read about in Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” ), a topic sentence must also contain a controlling idea to direct the paragraph. Different writers may use the same main idea but can steer their paragraph in a number of different directions according to their stance on the subject. Read the following examples.

  • Marijuana is a destructive influence on teens and causes long-term brain damage.
  • The antinausea properties in marijuana are a lifeline for many cancer patients.
  • Legalizing marijuana would create a higher demand for Class A and Class B drugs.

Although the main idea—marijuana—is the same in all three topic sentences, the controlling idea differs depending on the writer’s viewpoint.

Circle the main idea and underline the controlling idea in each of the following topic sentences.

  • Exercising three times a week is the only way to maintain good physical health.
  • Sexism and racism are still rampant in today’s workplace.
  • Raising the legal driving age to twenty-one would decrease road traffic accidents.
  • Owning a business is the only way to achieve financial success.
  • Dog owners should be prohibited from taking their pets on public beaches.

Characteristics of a Good Topic Sentence

Five characteristics define a good topic sentence:

A good topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.

Weak example. People rarely give firefighters the credit they deserve for such a physically and emotionally demanding job. (The paragraph is about a specific incident that involved firefighters; therefore, this topic sentence is too general.)

Stronger example. During the October riots, Unit 3B went beyond the call of duty. (This topic sentence is more specific and indicates that the paragraph will contain information about a particular incident involving Unit 3B.)

A good topic sentence contains both a topic and a controlling idea or opinion.

Weak example. In this paper, I am going to discuss the rising suicide rate among young professionals. (This topic sentence provides a main idea, but it does not present a controlling idea, or thesis.)

Stronger example. The rising suicide rate among young professionals is a cause for immediate concern. (This topic sentence presents the writer’s opinion on the subject of rising suicide rates among young professionals.)

A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.

Weak example. In general, writing an essay, thesis, or other academic or nonacademic document is considerably easier and of much higher quality if you first construct an outline, of which there are many different types. (This topic sentence includes a main idea and a controlling thesis, but both are buried beneath the confusing sentence structure and unnecessary vocabulary. These obstacles make it difficult for the reader to follow.)

Stronger example. Most forms of writing can be improved by first creating an outline. (This topic sentence cuts out unnecessary verbiage and simplifies the previous statement, making it easier for the reader to follow.)

A good topic sentence does not include supporting details.

Weak example. Salaries should be capped in baseball for many reasons, most importantly so we don’t allow the same team to win year after year. (This topic sentence includes a supporting detail that should be included later in the paragraph to back up the main point.)

Stronger example. Introducing a salary cap would improve the game of baseball for many reasons. (This topic sentence omits the additional supporting detail so that it can be expanded upon later in the paragraph.)

A good topic sentence engages the reader by using interesting vocabulary.

Weak example. The military deserves better equipment. (This topic sentence includes a main idea and a controlling thesis, but the language is bland and unexciting.)

Stronger example. The appalling lack of resources provided to the military is outrageous and requires our immediate attention. (This topic sentence reiterates the same idea and controlling thesis, but adjectives such as appalling and immediate better engage the reader. These words also indicate the writer’s tone.)

Choose the most effective topic sentence from the following sentence pairs.

a. This paper will discuss the likelihood of the Democrats winning the next election.

b. To boost their chances of winning the next election, the Democrats need to listen to public opinion.

a. The unrealistic demands of union workers are crippling the economy for three main reasons.

b. Union workers are crippling the economy because companies are unable to remain competitive as a result of added financial pressure.

a. Authors are losing money as a result of technological advances.

b. The introduction of new technology will devastate the literary world.

a. Rap music is produced by untalented individuals with oversized egos.

b. This essay will consider whether talent is required in the rap music industry.

Using the tips on developing effective topic sentences in this section, create a topic sentence on each of the following subjects. Remember to include a controlling idea as well as a main idea. Write your responses on your own sheet of paper.

An endangered species

____________________________________________

The cost of fuel

The legal drinking age

A controversial film or novel

Writing at Work

When creating a workplace document, use the “top-down” approach—keep the topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph so that readers immediately understand the gist of the message. This method saves busy colleagues precious time and effort trying to figure out the main points and relevant details.

Headings are another helpful tool. In a text-heavy document, break up each paragraph with individual headings. These serve as useful navigation aids, enabling colleagues to skim through the document and locate paragraphs that are relevant to them.

Developing Paragraphs That Use Topic Sentences, Supporting Ideas, and Transitions Effectively

Learning how to develop a good topic sentence is the first step toward writing a solid paragraph. Once you have composed your topic sentence, you have a guideline for the rest of the paragraph. To complete the paragraph, a writer must support the topic sentence with additional information and summarize the main point with a concluding sentence.

This section identifies the three major structural parts of a paragraph and covers how to develop a paragraph using transitional words and phrases.

Identifying Parts of a Paragraph

An effective paragraph contains three main parts: a topic sentence, the body, and the concluding sentence. A topic sentence is often the first sentence of a paragraph. This chapter has already discussed its purpose—to express a main idea combined with the writer’s attitude about the subject. The body of the paragraph usually follows, containing supporting details. Supporting sentences help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence. The concluding sentence is the last sentence in the paragraph. It reminds the reader of the main point by restating it in different words.

Figure 6.2 Paragraph Structure Graphic Organizer

Paragraph Structure Graphic Organizer

Read the following paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.

After reading the new TV guide this week I had just one thought—why are we still being bombarded with reality shows? This season, the plague of reality television continues to darken our airwaves. Along with the return of viewer favorites, we are to be cursed with yet another mindless creation. Prisoner follows the daily lives of eight suburban housewives who have chosen to be put in jail for the purposes of this fake psychological experiment. A preview for the first episode shows the usual tears and tantrums associated with reality television. I dread to think what producers will come up with next season, but if any of them are reading this blog—stop it! We’ve had enough reality television to last us a lifetime!

The first sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It tells the reader that the paragraph will be about reality television shows, and it expresses the writer’s distaste for these shows through the use of the word bombarded .

Each of the following sentences in the paragraph supports the topic sentence by providing further information about a specific reality television show. The final sentence is the concluding sentence. It reiterates the main point that viewers are bored with reality television shows by using different words from the topic sentence.

Paragraphs that begin with the topic sentence move from the general to the specific. They open with a general statement about a subject (reality shows) and then discuss specific examples (the reality show Prisoner ). Most academic essays contain the topic sentence at the beginning of the first paragraph.

Now take a look at the following paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.

Last year, a cat traveled 130 miles to reach its family, who had moved to another state and had left their pet behind. Even though it had never been to their new home, the cat was able to track down its former owners. A dog in my neighborhood can predict when its master is about to have a seizure. It makes sure that he does not hurt himself during an epileptic fit. Compared to many animals, our own senses are almost dull.

The last sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It draws on specific examples (a cat that tracked down its owners and a dog that can predict seizures) and then makes a general statement that draws a conclusion from these examples (animals’ senses are better than humans’). In this case, the supporting sentences are placed before the topic sentence and the concluding sentence is the same as the topic sentence.

This technique is frequently used in persuasive writing. The writer produces detailed examples as evidence to back up his or her point, preparing the reader to accept the concluding topic sentence as the truth.

Sometimes, the topic sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph. Read the following example. The topic sentence is underlined for you.

For many years, I suffered from severe anxiety every time I took an exam. Hours before the exam, my heart would begin pounding, my legs would shake, and sometimes I would become physically unable to move. Last year, I was referred to a specialist and finally found a way to control my anxiety—breathing exercises. It seems so simple, but by doing just a few breathing exercises a couple of hours before an exam, I gradually got my anxiety under control. The exercises help slow my heart rate and make me feel less anxious. Better yet, they require no pills, no equipment, and very little time. It’s amazing how just breathing correctly has helped me learn to manage my anxiety symptoms.

In this paragraph, the underlined sentence is the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea—that breathing exercises can help control anxiety. The preceding sentences enable the writer to build up to his main point (breathing exercises can help control anxiety) by using a personal anecdote (how he used to suffer from anxiety). The supporting sentences then expand on how breathing exercises help the writer by providing additional information. The last sentence is the concluding sentence and restates how breathing can help manage anxiety.

Placing a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph is often used in creative writing. If you notice that you have used a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph in an academic essay, read through the paragraph carefully to make sure that it contains only one major topic. To read more about topic sentences and where they appear in paragraphs, see Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” .

Implied Topic Sentences

Some well-organized paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence at all. Instead of being directly stated, the main idea is implied in the content of the paragraph. Read the following example:

Heaving herself up the stairs, Luella had to pause for breath several times. She let out a wheeze as she sat down heavily in the wooden rocking chair. Tao approached her cautiously, as if she might crumble at the slightest touch. He studied her face, like parchment; stretched across the bones so finely he could almost see right through the skin to the decaying muscle underneath. Luella smiled a toothless grin.

Although no single sentence in this paragraph states the main idea, the entire paragraph focuses on one concept—that Luella is extremely old. The topic sentence is thus implied rather than stated. This technique is often used in descriptive or narrative writing. Implied topic sentences work well if the writer has a firm idea of what he or she intends to say in the paragraph and sticks to it. However, a paragraph loses its effectiveness if an implied topic sentence is too subtle or the writer loses focus.

Avoid using implied topic sentences in an informational document. Readers often lose patience if they are unable to quickly grasp what the writer is trying to say. The clearest and most efficient way to communicate in an informational document is to position the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

Identify the topic sentence, supporting sentences, and concluding sentence in the following paragraph.

Collaboration

Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.

Supporting Sentences

If you think of a paragraph as a hamburger, the supporting sentences are the meat inside the bun. They make up the body of the paragraph by explaining, proving, or enhancing the controlling idea in the topic sentence. Most paragraphs contain three to six supporting sentences depending on the audience and purpose for writing. A supporting sentence usually offers one of the following:

Sentence: The refusal of the baby boom generation to retire is contributing to the current lack of available jobs.

Sentence: Many families now rely on older relatives to support them financially.

Sentence: Nearly 10 percent of adults are currently unemployed in the United States.

Sentence: “We will not allow this situation to continue,” stated Senator Johns.

Sentence: Last year, Bill was asked to retire at the age of fifty-five.

The type of supporting sentence you choose will depend on what you are writing and why you are writing. For example, if you are attempting to persuade your audience to take a particular position you should rely on facts, statistics, and concrete examples, rather than personal opinions. Read the following example:

There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. (Topic sentence)

First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. (Supporting sentence 1: statistic)

Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. (Supporting sentence 2: fact)

Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. (Supporting sentence 3: reason)

Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. (Supporting sentence 4: example)

“It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas powered vehicles I’ve owned.” (Supporting sentence 5: quotation)

Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future. (Concluding sentence)

To find information for your supporting sentences, you might consider using one of the following sources:

  • Reference book
  • Encyclopedia
  • Biography/autobiography
  • Newspaper/magazine
  • Previous experience
  • Personal research

To read more about sources and research, see Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?” .

When searching for information on the Internet, remember that some websites are more reliable than others. websites ending in .gov or .edu are generally more reliable than websites ending in .com or .org. Wikis and blogs are not reliable sources of information because they are subject to inaccuracies.

Concluding Sentences

An effective concluding sentence draws together all the ideas you have raised in your paragraph. It reminds readers of the main point—the topic sentence—without restating it in exactly the same words. Using the hamburger example, the top bun (the topic sentence) and the bottom bun (the concluding sentence) are very similar. They frame the “meat” or body of the paragraph. Compare the topic sentence and concluding sentence from the previous example:

Topic sentence: There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.

Concluding sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Notice the use of the synonyms advantages and benefits . The concluding sentence reiterates the idea that owning a hybrid is advantageous without using the exact same words. It also summarizes two examples of the advantages covered in the supporting sentences: low running costs and environmental benefits.

You should avoid introducing any new ideas into your concluding sentence. A conclusion is intended to provide the reader with a sense of completion. Introducing a subject that is not covered in the paragraph will confuse the reader and weaken your writing.

A concluding sentence may do any of the following:

Restate the main idea.

Example: Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States.

Summarize the key points in the paragraph.

Example: A lack of healthy choices, poor parenting, and an addiction to video games are among the many factors contributing to childhood obesity.

Draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph.

Example: These statistics indicate that unless we take action, childhood obesity rates will continue to rise.

Make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information in the paragraph.

Example: Based on this research, more than 60 percent of children in the United States will be morbidly obese by the year 2030 unless we take evasive action.

Offer an additional observation about the controlling idea.

Example: Childhood obesity is an entirely preventable tragedy.

On your own paper, write one example of each type of concluding sentence based on a topic of your choice.

Transitions

A strong paragraph moves seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use transitional words and phrases. A transition is a connecting word that describes a relationship between ideas. Take another look at the earlier example:

There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. First , they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second , they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Each of the underlined words is a transition word. Words such as first and second are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that he or she has another point to make in support of the topic sentence. Other transition words that show order include third , also , and furthermore .

The transition word because is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas). Other transition words of consequence include as a result , so that , since , or for this reason .

To include a summarizing transition in her concluding sentence, the writer could rewrite the final sentence as follows:

In conclusion, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

The following chart provides some useful transition words to connect supporting sentences and concluding sentences. See Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” for a more comprehensive look at transitional words and phrases.

Table 6.1 Useful Transitional Words and Phrases

Using your own paper, write a paragraph on a topic of your choice. Be sure to include a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence and to use transitional words and phrases to link your ideas together.

Transitional words and phrases are useful tools to incorporate into workplace documents. They guide the reader through the document, clarifying relationships between sentences and paragraphs so that the reader understands why they have been written in that particular order.

For example, when writing an instructional memo, it may be helpful to consider the following transitional words and phrases: before you begin , first , next , then , finally , after you have completed . Using these transitions as a template to write your memo will provide readers with clear, logical instructions about a particular process and the order in which steps are supposed to be completed.

Key Takeaways

  • A good paragraph contains three distinct components: a topic sentence, body, and concluding sentence.
  • The topic sentence expresses the main idea of the paragraph combined with the writer’s attitude or opinion about the topic.
  • Good topic sentences contain both a main idea and a controlling idea, are clear and easy to follow, use engaging vocabulary, and provide an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
  • Topic sentences may be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a paragraph. In most academic essays, the topic sentence is placed at the beginning of a paragraph.
  • Supporting sentences help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence by offering facts, reasons, statistics, quotations, or examples.
  • Concluding sentences summarize the key points in a paragraph and reiterate the main idea without repeating it word for word.
  • Transitional words and phrases help organize ideas in a paragraph and show how these ideas relate to one another.

Writing for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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11 Rules for Essay Paragraph Structure (with Examples)

How do you structure a paragraph in an essay?

If you’re like the majority of my students, you might be getting your basic essay paragraph structure wrong and getting lower grades than you could!

In this article, I outline the 11 key steps to writing a perfect paragraph. But, this isn’t your normal ‘how to write an essay’ article. Rather, I’ll try to give you some insight into exactly what teachers look out for when they’re grading essays and figuring out what grade to give them.

You can navigate each issue below, or scroll down to read them all:

1. Paragraphs must be at least four sentences long 2. But, at most seven sentences long 3. Your paragraph must be Left-Aligned 4. You need a topic sentence 5 . Next, you need an explanation sentence 6. You need to include an example 7. You need to include citations 8. All paragraphs need to be relevant to the marking criteria 9. Only include one key idea per paragraph 10. Keep sentences short 11. Keep quotes short

Paragraph structure is one of the most important elements of getting essay writing right .

As I cover in my Ultimate Guide to Writing an Essay Plan , paragraphs are the heart and soul of your essay.

However, I find most of my students have either:

  • forgotten how to write paragraphs properly,
  • gotten lazy, or
  • never learned it in the first place!

Paragraphs in essay writing are different from paragraphs in other written genres .

In fact, the paragraphs that you are reading now would not help your grades in an essay.

That’s because I’m writing in journalistic style, where paragraph conventions are vastly different.

For those of you coming from journalism or creative writing, you might find you need to re-learn paragraph writing if you want to write well-structured essay paragraphs to get top grades.

Below are eleven reasons your paragraphs are losing marks, and what to do about it!

11 tips for perfect paragraphs

Essay Paragraph Structure Rules

1. your paragraphs must be at least 4 sentences long.

In journalism and blog writing, a one-sentence paragraph is great. It’s short, to-the-point, and helps guide your reader. For essay paragraph structure, one-sentence paragraphs suck.

A one-sentence essay paragraph sends an instant signal to your teacher that you don’t have much to say on an issue.

A short paragraph signifies that you know something – but not much about it. A one-sentence paragraph lacks detail, depth and insight.

Many students come to me and ask, “what does ‘add depth’ mean?” It’s one of the most common pieces of feedback you’ll see written on the margins of your essay.

Personally, I think ‘add depth’ is bad feedback because it’s a short and vague comment. But, here’s what it means: You’ve not explained your point enough!

If you’re writing one-, two- or three-sentence essay paragraphs, you’re costing yourself marks.

Always aim for at least four sentences per paragraph in your essays.

This doesn’t mean that you should add ‘fluff’ or ‘padding’ sentences.

Make sure you don’t:

a) repeat what you said in different words, or b) write something just because you need another sentence in there.

But, you need to do some research and find something insightful to add to that two-sentence paragraph if you want to ace your essay.

Check out Points 5 and 6 for some advice on what to add to that short paragraph to add ‘depth’ to your paragraph and start moving to the top of the class.

  • How to Make an Essay Longer
  • How to Make an Essay Shorter

2. Your Paragraphs must not be more than 7 Sentences Long

Okay, so I just told you to aim for at least four sentences per paragraph. So, what’s the longest your paragraph should be?

Seven sentences. That’s a maximum.

So, here’s the rule:

Between four and seven sentences is the sweet spot that you need to aim for in every single paragraph.

Here’s why your paragraphs shouldn’t be longer than seven sentences:

1. It shows you can organize your thoughts. You need to show your teacher that you’ve broken up your key ideas into manageable segments of text (see point 10)

2. It makes your work easier to read.   You need your writing to be easily readable to make it easy for your teacher to give you good grades. Make your essay easy to read and you’ll get higher marks every time.

One of the most important ways you can make your work easier to read is by writing paragraphs that are less than six sentences long.

3. It prevents teacher frustration. Teachers are just like you. When they see a big block of text their eyes glaze over. They get frustrated, lost, their mind wanders … and you lose marks.

To prevent teacher frustration, you need to ensure there’s plenty of white space in your essay. It’s about showing them that the piece is clearly structured into one key idea per ‘chunk’ of text.

Often, you might find that your writing contains tautologies and other turns of phrase that can be shortened for clarity.

3. Your Paragraph must be Left-Aligned

Turn off ‘Justified’ text and: Never. Turn. It. On. Again.

Justified text is where the words are stretched out to make the paragraph look like a square. It turns the writing into a block. Don’t do it. You will lose marks, I promise you! Win the psychological game with your teacher: left-align your text.

A good essay paragraph is never ‘justified’.

I’m going to repeat this, because it’s important: to prevent your essay from looking like a big block of muddy, hard-to-read text align your text to the left margin only.

You want white space on your page – and lots of it. White space helps your reader scan through your work. It also prevents it from looking like big blocks of text.

You want your reader reading vertically as much as possible: scanning, browsing, and quickly looking through for evidence you’ve engaged with the big ideas.

The justified text doesn’t help you do that. Justified text makes your writing look like a big, lumpy block of text that your reader doesn’t want to read.

What’s wrong with Center-Aligned Text?

While I’m at it, never, ever, center-align your text either. Center-aligned text is impossible to skim-read. Your teacher wants to be able to quickly scan down the left margin to get the headline information in your paragraph.

Not many people center-align text, but it’s worth repeating: never, ever center-align your essays.

an infographic showing that left-aligned paragraphs are easy to read. The infographic recommends using Control plus L on a PC keyboard or Command plus L on a Mac to left align a paragraph

Don’t annoy your reader. Left align your text.

4. Your paragraphs must have a Topic Sentence

The first sentence of an essay paragraph is called the topic sentence. This is one of the most important sentences in the correct essay paragraph structure style.

The topic sentence should convey exactly what key idea you’re going to cover in your paragraph.

Too often, students don’t let their reader know what the key idea of the paragraph is until several sentences in.

You must show what the paragraph is about in the first sentence.

You never, ever want to keep your reader in suspense. Essays are not like creative writing. Tell them straight away what the paragraph is about. In fact, if you can, do it in the first half of the first sentence .

I’ll remind you again: make it easy to grade your work. Your teacher is reading through your work trying to determine what grade to give you. They’re probably going to mark 20 assignments in one sitting. They have no interest in storytelling or creativity. They just want to know how much you know! State what the paragraph is about immediately and move on.

Suggested: Best Words to Start a Paragraph

Ideal Essay Paragraph Structure Example: Writing a Topic Sentence If your paragraph is about how climate change is endangering polar bears, say it immediately : “Climate change is endangering polar bears.” should be your first sentence in your paragraph. Take a look at first sentence of each of the four paragraphs above this one. You can see from the first sentence of each paragraph that the paragraphs discuss:

When editing your work, read each paragraph and try to distil what the one key idea is in your paragraph. Ensure that this key idea is mentioned in the first sentence .

(Note: if there’s more than one key idea in the paragraph, you may have a problem. See Point 9 below .)

The topic sentence is the most important sentence for getting your essay paragraph structure right. So, get your topic sentences right and you’re on the right track to a good essay paragraph.

5. You need an Explanation Sentence

All topic sentences need a follow-up explanation. The very first point on this page was that too often students write paragraphs that are too short. To add what is called ‘depth’ to a paragraph, you can come up with two types of follow-up sentences: explanations and examples.

Let’s take explanation sentences first.

Explanation sentences give additional detail. They often provide one of the following services:

Let’s go back to our example of a paragraph on Climate change endangering polar bears. If your topic sentence is “Climate change is endangering polar bears.”, then your follow-up explanation sentence is likely to explain how, why, where, or when. You could say:

Ideal Essay Paragraph Structure Example: Writing Explanation Sentences 1. How: “The warming atmosphere is melting the polar ice caps.” 2. Why: “The polar bears’ habitats are shrinking every single year.” 3. Where: “This is happening in the Antarctic ice caps near Greenland.” 4. When: “Scientists first noticed the ice caps were shrinking in 1978.”

You don’t have to provide all four of these options each time.

But, if you’re struggling to think of what to add to your paragraph to add depth, consider one of these four options for a good quality explanation sentence.

>>>RELATED ARTICLE: SHOULD YOU USE RHETORICAL QUESTIONS IN ESSAYS ?

6. Your need to Include an Example

Examples matter! They add detail. They also help to show that you genuinely understand the issue. They show that you don’t just understand a concept in the abstract; you also understand how things work in real life.

Example sentences have the added benefit of personalising an issue. For example, after saying “Polar bears’ habitats are shrinking”, you could note specific habitats, facts and figures, or even a specific story about a bear who was impacted.

Ideal Essay Paragraph Structure Example: Writing an ‘Example’ Sentence “For example, 770,000 square miles of Arctic Sea Ice has melted in the past four decades, leading Polar Bear populations to dwindle ( National Geographic, 2018 )

In fact, one of the most effective politicians of our times – Barrack Obama – was an expert at this technique. He would often provide examples of people who got sick because they didn’t have healthcare to sell Obamacare.

What effect did this have? It showed the real-world impact of his ideas. It humanised him, and got him elected president – twice!

Be like Obama. Provide examples. Often.

7. All Paragraphs need Citations

Provide a reference to an academic source in every single body paragraph in the essay. The only two paragraphs where you don’t need a reference is the introduction and conclusion .

Let me repeat: Paragraphs need at least one reference to a quality scholarly source .

Let me go even further:

Students who get the best marks provide two references to two different academic sources in every paragraph.

Two references in a paragraph show you’ve read widely, cross-checked your sources, and given the paragraph real thought.

It’s really important that these references link to academic sources, not random websites, blogs or YouTube videos. Check out our Seven Best types of Sources to Cite in Essays post to get advice on what sources to cite. Number 6 w ill surprise you!

Ideal Essay Paragraph Structure Example: In-Text Referencing in Paragraphs Usually, in-text referencing takes the format: (Author, YEAR), but check your school’s referencing formatting requirements carefully. The ‘Author’ section is the author’s last name only. Not their initials. Not their first name. Just their last name . My name is Chris Drew. First name Chris, last name Drew. If you were going to reference an academic article I wrote in 2019, you would reference it like this: (Drew, 2019).

Where do you place those two references?

Place the first reference at the end of the first half of the paragraph. Place the second reference at the end of the second half of the paragraph.

This spreads the references out and makes it look like all the points throughout the paragraph are backed up by your sources. The goal is to make it look like you’ve reference regularly when your teacher scans through your work.

Remember, teachers can look out for signposts that indicate you’ve followed academic conventions and mentioned the right key ideas.

Spreading your referencing through the paragraph helps to make it look like you’ve followed the academic convention of referencing sources regularly.

Here are some examples of how to reference twice in a paragraph:

  • If your paragraph was six sentences long, you would place your first reference at the end of the third sentence and your second reference at the end of the sixth sentence.
  • If your paragraph was five sentences long, I would recommend placing one at the end of the second sentence and one at the end of the fifth sentence.

You’ve just read one of the key secrets to winning top marks.

8. Every Paragraph must be relevant to the Marking Criteria

Every paragraph must win you marks. When you’re editing your work, check through the piece to see if every paragraph is relevant to the marking criteria.

For the British: In the British university system (I’m including Australia and New Zealand here – I’ve taught at universities in all three countries), you’ll usually have a ‘marking criteria’. It’s usually a list of between two and six key learning outcomes your teacher needs to use to come up with your score. Sometimes it’s called a:

  • Marking criteria
  • Marking rubric
  • (Key) learning outcome
  • Indicative content

Check your assignment guidance to see if this is present. If so, use this list of learning outcomes to guide what you write. If your paragraphs are irrelevant to these key points, delete the paragraph .

Paragraphs that don’t link to the marking criteria are pointless. They won’t win you marks.

For the Americans: If you don’t have a marking criteria / rubric / outcomes list, you’ll need to stick closely to the essay question or topic. This goes out to those of you in the North American system. North America (including USA and Canada here) is often less structured and the professor might just give you a topic to base your essay on.

If all you’ve got is the essay question / topic, go through each paragraph and make sure each paragraph is relevant to the topic.

For example, if your essay question / topic is on “The Effects of Climate Change on Polar Bears”,

  • Don’t talk about anything that doesn’t have some connection to climate change and polar bears;
  • Don’t talk about the environmental impact of oil spills in the Gulf of Carpentaria;
  • Don’t talk about black bear habitats in British Columbia.
  • Do talk about the effects of climate change on polar bears (and relevant related topics) in every single paragraph .

You may think ‘stay relevant’ is obvious advice, but at least 20% of all essays I mark go off on tangents and waste words.

Stay on topic in Every. Single. Paragraph. If you want to learn more about how to stay on topic, check out our essay planning guide .

9. Only have one Key Idea per Paragraph

One key idea for each paragraph. One key idea for each paragraph. One key idea for each paragraph.

Don’t forget!

Too often, a student starts a paragraph talking about one thing and ends it talking about something totally different. Don’t be that student.

To ensure you’re focussing on one key idea in your paragraph, make sure you know what that key idea is. It should be mentioned in your topic sentence (see Point 3 ). Every other sentence in the paragraph adds depth to that one key idea.

If you’ve got sentences in your paragraph that are not relevant to the key idea in the paragraph, they don’t fit. They belong in another paragraph.

Go through all your paragraphs when editing your work and check to see if you’ve veered away from your paragraph’s key idea. If so, you might have two or even three key ideas in the one paragraph.

You’re going to have to get those additional key ideas, rip them out, and give them paragraphs of their own.

If you have more than one key idea in a paragraph you will lose marks. I promise you that.

The paragraphs will be too hard to read, your reader will get bogged down reading rather than scanning, and you’ll have lost grades.

10. Keep Sentences Short

If a sentence is too long it gets confusing. When the sentence is confusing, your reader will stop reading your work. They will stop reading the paragraph and move to the next one. They’ll have given up on your paragraph.

Short, snappy sentences are best.

Shorter sentences are easier to read and they make more sense. Too often, students think they have to use big, long, academic words to get the best marks. Wrong. Aim for clarity in every sentence in the paragraph. Your teacher will thank you for it.

The students who get the best marks write clear, short sentences.

When editing your draft, go through your essay and see if you can shorten your longest five sentences.

(To learn more about how to write the best quality sentences, see our page on Seven ways to Write Amazing Sentences .)

11. Keep Quotes Short

Eighty percent of university teachers hate quotes. That’s not an official figure. It’s my guestimate based on my many interactions in faculty lounges. Twenty percent don’t mind them, but chances are your teacher is one of the eight out of ten who hate quotes.

Teachers tend to be turned off by quotes because it makes it look like you don’t know how to say something on your own words.

Now that I’ve warned you, here’s how to use quotes properly:

Ideal Essay Paragraph Structure Example: How To Use Quotes in University-Level Essay Paragraphs 1. Your quote should be less than one sentence long. 2. Your quote should be less than one sentence long. 3. You should never start a sentence with a quote. 4. You should never end a paragraph with a quote. 5 . You should never use more than five quotes per essay. 6. Your quote should never be longer than one line in a paragraph.

The minute your teacher sees that your quote takes up a large chunk of your paragraph, you’ll have lost marks.

Your teacher will circle the quote, write a snarky comment in the margin, and not even bother to give you points for the key idea in the paragraph.

Avoid quotes, but if you really want to use them, follow those five rules above.

I’ve also provided additional pages outlining Seven tips on how to use Quotes if you want to delve deeper into how, when and where to use quotes in essays. Be warned: quoting in essays is harder than you thought.

The basic essay paragraph structure formula includes: 4-6 sentence paragraphs; a clear topic sentence; useful explanations and examples; a focus on one key idea only; and references to two different academic sources.

Follow the advice above and you’ll be well on your way to getting top marks at university.

Writing essay paragraphs that are well structured takes time and practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself and keep on trying!

Below is a summary of our 11 key mistakes for structuring essay paragraphs and tips on how to avoid them.

I’ve also provided an easy-to-share infographic below that you can share on your favorite social networking site. Please share it if this article has helped you out!

11 Biggest Essay Paragraph Structure Mistakes you’re probably Making

1.  Your paragraphs are too short 2.  Your paragraphs are too long 3.  Your paragraph alignment is ‘Justified’ 4.  Your paragraphs are missing a topic sentence 5 .  Your paragraphs are missing an explanation sentence 6.  Your paragraphs are missing an example 7.  Your paragraphs are missing references 8.  Your paragraphs are not relevant to the marking criteria 9.  You’re trying to fit too many ideas into the one paragraph 10.  Your sentences are too long 11.  Your quotes are too long

Chris

Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 5 Top Tips for Succeeding at University
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 50 Durable Goods Examples
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 100 Consumer Goods Examples
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 30 Globalization Pros and Cons

4 thoughts on “11 Rules for Essay Paragraph Structure (with Examples)”

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Hello there. I noticed that throughout this article on Essay Writing, you keep on saying that the teacher won’t have time to go through the entire essay. Don’t you think this is a bit discouraging that with all the hard work and time put into your writing, to know that the teacher will not read through the entire paper?

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Hi Clarence,

Thanks so much for your comment! I love to hear from readers on their thoughts.

Yes, I agree that it’s incredibly disheartening.

But, I also think students would appreciate hearing the truth.

Behind closed doors many / most university teachers are very open about the fact they ‘only have time to skim-read papers’. They regularly bring this up during heated faculty meetings about contract negotiations! I.e. in one university I worked at, we were allocated 45 minutes per 10,000 words – that’s just over 4 minutes per 1,000 word essay, and that’d include writing the feedback, too!

If students know the truth, they can better write their essays in a way that will get across the key points even from a ‘skim-read’.

I hope to write candidly on this website – i.e. some of this info will never be written on university blogs because universities want to hide these unfortunate truths from students.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Regards, Chris

' src=

This is wonderful and helpful, all I say is thank you very much. Because I learned a lot from this site, own by chris thank you Sir.

' src=

Thank you. This helped a lot.

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Pasco-Hernando State College

  • The Writing Process
  • Definition of a Paragraph
  • Parts of a Paragraph; Multi-Paragraph Documents
  • Rhetorical Modes; Review of Paragraphs
  • Unity and Coherence in Essays
  • Proving the Thesis/Critical Thinking
  • Appropriate Language

Related Pages

What is a paragraph.

A paragraph is a series of sentences on a specific point or topic.  A well written paragraph must have a topic sentence which states the main idea: what the paragraph is about.  While some say the  topic sentence can be anywhere in the paragraph, it is best to put it as the first sentence in a paragraph.  The rest of the sentences in the paragraph support, elaborate, and/or further explain the main idea expressed in the topic sentence.

Paragraphs have varying length depending upon various factors.  An average paragraph in an academic essay is about six to eight sentences.

Types of Paragraphs

There are various types of paragraphs such as summaries, abstracts, and answers to questions for a specific assignment.  In addition, there are specialized types of paragraphs for various reports such as feasibility studies or performance reports.

The types of paragraphs covered in this lesson are general paragraphs as would be used in the body of a letter or an academic essay, including general research papers (research essays).

Parts of a Paragraph

Topic sentence – purpose of a paragraph.

Unless you are writing specialized report such as a scientific research paper or a feasibility study that may otherwise show the purpose of a paragraph such as a heading , a well written paragraph must have a topic sentence which states what the paragraph is about.

Whether you are writing a paragraph for a specific assignment, an academic essay, a research paper, or a simple letter, each paragraph

The topic sentence should be the first sentence of the paragraph so that the reader knows what the paragraph is about.  The topic sentence in a body paragraph of an essay must be support for the thesis: a reason why the thesis is true or accurate.

The rest of the sentences in the paragraph of an essay support, elaborate, and/or further explain the topic sentence.

Here is an example of a paragraph:

The first sentence is the topic sentence. See how the rest of the sentences support, elaborate, and/or or further explain it.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been improved through convenience provided by technology.    From the alarm clock in the morning to the entertainment center at night, everyday life is improved.  The automatic coffee maker has the coffee ready at a certain time. Cars or public transportation bring people to work where computers operate at the push of a button.  At home, there’s the convenience of washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, air conditioners, and power lawn mowers.  Modern technology has made life better with many conveniences.

Everything in this paragraph is about how modern life has been improved through convenience provided by technology.

Unity and Coherence

A paragraph must have unity.

All of the sentences of a particular paragraph must focus on one point to achieve one goal: to support the topic sentence.

A paragraph must have coherence.

The sentences must flow smoothly and logically from one to the next as they support the topic sentence.

The last sentence of the paragraph should restate the topic sentence to help achieve unity and coherence.

Here is an example with information that  does not  support the topic sentence.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been improved through convenience provided by modern technology.  From the alarm clock in the morning to the entertainment center at night, everyday life is improved. The automatic coffee maker has the coffee ready at a certain time. People are more concerned about health issues and good air quality, so they have started walking or riding a bike to work even though they have the option of using a car or public transportation.   There’s the convenience of washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, air conditioners, and power lawn mowers.  Modern technology has made life better with many conveniences.

See how just one non-supporting sentence takes away from the effectiveness of the paragraph in showing how modern conveniences make life better since the unity and coherence are affected.  There is no longer unity among all the sentences.  The thought pattern is disjointed and the paragraph loses its coherence.

Here’s another example of a paragraph

Not only has modern technology improved life through convenience, it has improved life through efficiency.  The time saved with machines doing most of the work leaves more time for people to develop their personal goals or to just relax.  Years ago, when doing laundry could take all day, there wasn’t time left over to read or go to school or even just to take a leisurely walk.  Nowadays, people have more time and energy than ever to simply enjoy their lives thanks to the efficiency of modern technology.

Note: See how all the sentences work together to support the point that technology has improved lives through efficiency.

Transitions – Words that Connect

Transitions  are words, groups of words, or sentences that connect one sentence to another or one paragraph to another.

They promote a logical flow from one idea to the next.

While they are not needed in every sentence, they are missed when they are omitted since the flow of thoughts becomes disjointed or even confusing.

There are different types of transitions such as the following:

  • Time – before, after, during, in the meantime, nowadays
  • Space – over, around, under
  • Examples – for instance, one example is
  • Comparison –  on the other hand, the opposing view
  • Consequence – as a result, subsequently

These are just a few examples.  The idea is to paint a clear, logical connection between sentences and between paragraphs.

Here’s how transitions help make a paragraph unified and coherent

Not only  has modern technology improved life through convenience, it has improved life through efficiency.  The time saved with machines doing most of the work leaves more time for people to develop their personal goals or to just relax.   Years ago,  when doing laundry could take all day, there wasn’t time left over to read or go to school or even just to take a leisurely walk.   Nowadays , people have more time and energy than ever to simply enjoy their lives thanks to the efficiency of modern technology.

Each part of a paragraph must support the topic sentence.  In addition, the sentences must flow logically from one to the other.

See how the following paragraph has ideas that don’t seem to belong

Growing flowers is fun.  The sun rises in the morning and warms the soil.  Flowers come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.  Sometimes, there is not enough rain.  Flowers also bloom during different times of the year.  Flowers need nutrients to grow strong and beautiful.  There are some children who like to pick the flowers. There are different growing seasons in different parts of the country.  Flowers that will grow high should be planted behind those that will not grow as high.  Some people let their dog’s leash extend allowing the dog to go into the flower beds which is not very nice. Designing a flower bed has to consider the different times the flowers will bloom.  A substitute for rainfall should be planned.  It is fun to grow flowers.

Here is a revised version with unity and coherence.  See how each sentence is clearly part of the whole which is to show how it is fun to grow flowers.

Growing flowers is fun.   Planning the garden is the first step, and it is part of the fun.  Flowers must be selected for their size, color, and time of bloom.  Selections should be made so that there is at least one type of flower blooming throughout the season and that taller flowers are behind shorter ones.  Meeting the challenges to assure growth such as with an irrigation system or hand watering and fertilizing when needed is also part of the fun.   It’s wonderful to check the garden every day to see the little green sprouts starting to appear.  It gives a great sense of accomplishment and joy to see the flowers in bloom.  It is fun to grow flowers.

An example of a paragraph from a business letter  which does  have unity and coherence:

There are several reasons to select my company to do this job.  We are a family owned and operated business and have been in business in this county for thirty-five years.  In addition to thousands of satisfied customers, we have proudly sponsored many community events and organizations.  All of our employees live in this county, and most have stayed with us for years.  We have successfully kept our overhead low and pass those savings onto our customers.  By far, we are the best company to complete this project.

Note: See how all the sentences work together to support the point that we are the best company to hire.

Here’s a version of the paragraph which  does not  have unity and coherence:

I am happy that the warm weather is finally here! It’s been a cold winter. There are several reasons to select my company to do this job.  By far, we are the best company to complete this project.  I have a large family, and in addition to having Sunday dinners, we work together in the company which has many satisfied customers.  Some of my employees take the bus to work, so I am concerned about our public transportation system.  We have proudly served our community, and we use cost saving methods to keep prices low.

An example of a paragraph in an inter-office memo

Beginning January 1, we will have a revised policy concerning new customers.  The updated intake form includes additional information, so please be sure to read through and complete each section.  Pay particular addition to the additional questions at the bottom as they are now required by the insurance company.  We would like to have e-mail addresses as well.  You can assure customers that we will not be sending them solicitations nor giving the list to any other business.  Be sure to fill in the information neatly and accurately. It is preferred that the information be entered directly into the computer although we realize there are times when that is not practical and a hard-copy form will have to be completed by hand.  Review the instructions on the back page of the form for more details on the revised policy for new customers.

Note:  See how all the sentences work together to support the point shown in the topic sentence that modern technology has expanded accessibility.

Closing/Transitional Statements in Paragraphs

The last sentence of a paragraph should remind the reader of the point of the paragraph and transition into the next paragraph if there is one.  See how the last sentence, for example, in the above paragraph reminds the reader of what the paragraph is about: Review the instructions on the back page of the form for more details on the revised policy for new customers.

Multi-Paragraph Documents

Most paragraphs we see are part of a multi-paragraph document: newspaper and magazine articles, books, business letters and inter-office memorandum, “how-to” documents, and other informational documents.  Usually, there is an organization of the paragraphs in a specific way.  The opening paragraph generally gives some idea of what the document is about.  The middle paragraphs give more details about the specific point.  The last paragraph ends the writing, generally by summing up and repeating the point.

There are some context-specific documents that have moe clearly defined paragraphs which are something included as sections of the writing.  For example, a feasibility report might have paragraphs as follows: abstract and/or summary, introduction, discussion, conclusion, recommendations.

Paragraphs in Business Letters and Inter-Office Memorandum

Business letters and inter-office memoradums basically have the same organization of the content:  an introduction paragraph, paragraphs that prove or further explain, and a concluding paragraph which sums up and repeats the point.  A business letter, however, is generally written on company stationery and has the date and address block in the upper left, a Re: line, a salutation such as Dear Mr. Haller (although some are no longer using a formal salutation), and a complimentary closing such as Sincerely.    An inter-office memorandum is generally written on plain paper, sometimes with the company logo as part of the template, lines with To:, From:, Date:, and Re: in the upper left, and no complimentary closing.

Paragraphs in Informational Documents and Academic Essays

Informational documents.

This refers to groups of writings that are designed to give information about a topic or position on a topic.  While they all include a specific thesis (point), have an introduction and concluding paragraph, and have paragraphs that proof or explain the point, there can be wide variety on where the thesis is expressed and the ancillary information presented that is supplemental to the thesis.  These are sometimes called essays.  However,  academic  essays do have a very specific organizational pattern.

Academic Essays

The introduction paragraph and the concluding paragraph of an essay are different from a general paragraph.  An introduction contains general background information on a topic and leads into a thesis statement.  The sentences with background information should be general and not contain proof of the thesis. The sentences should be relevant, however, and logically flow into the thesis.  Background sentences include information about the topic and the controversy. Some instructors may prefer other types of content in the introduction in addition to the thesis.  It is best to check with an instructor as to whether he or she has a preference for content.  In any case, there must be unity and coherence in an introduction paragraph as well. 

While the body paragraph of an academic is the same as a general paragraph in that they have a topic sentence and sentences that support it, the topic sentence must be a reason why the thesis of the essay is accurate.  Body paragraphs should clearly support the thesis and not contain any extraneous information. However, one way of proving your thesis is right is by presenting the opposing view and then rebutting it, that is, showing how it is not valid.  

Some instructors say that any opposing information should be in a separate rebuttal paragraph before the concluding paragraph.  If not specifically indicated by your instructor, either putting opposing information into the paragraphs related to the specific information or having a separate rebuttal paragraph is appropriate, but not both in the same essay.

A concluding paragraph sums up the proof and restates the thesis. Some instructors ask for a statement drawing an implication of the information presented instead of or in addition to a restatement of the thesis.  In either case, while a concluding paragraph as with the introduction paragraph does not start with a topic sentence and have the rest of the sentences support the topic sentence, the concluding paragraph is similar in that the summary of the proof ties directly into the thesis or statement of general implication.  There are not extraneous, off-topic sentences

Rhetorical Modes as Types of Paragraphs

Narration is when an author writes as though telling a story.  This mode is used more often in fiction, but it can be used in academic essay writing when the best way to help prove the thesis is by relating a sequence of events.

Description/Definition/Exemplification, and Classification

These closely related modes use specific information about certain aspects of a thing, event, or situation. The terms speak for themselves.  Description uses details describing the thing, event, or situation. Definition defines it. Exemplification uses examples, and classification uses categories.

The rose was red. (description)

A rose is a flower with soft petals and a beautiful, brief bloom. (definition)

Roses comes in a variety of colors such as red, yellow, and white. (example)

Roses come in a variety of types including miniature, climbing, hybrid tea, and floribunda. (classification)

Compare/Contrast

Comparing and/or contrasting one thing, event, or situation is a helpful way to show what it is and isn't.  If someone were arguing that a particular type of sneaker was the best, it would be useful to compare to others for support, durability, and price.

Cause and/or Effect

This mode is useful in arguing for or again an action.  Showing the cause and/or effect of an action can be persuasive.  For example, if someone were arguing for an increase in the speed limit, statistics showing an increase in fatalities where limits are higher would be a persuasive argument.

Persuasion/Argumentation

In a sense, the ultimate intent of all communication is persuasion.  Argumentation is one way of talking about debate.  We think of arguing as what we do among friends or family members - and it is - but there is a formal way to argue to prove our point.  Actually, we can learn how to better have civil arguments which will be constructive.  In thinking about persuasion/argumentation as a rhetorical mode, it refers to a type of writing that is clearly arguing in support of a specific point.

  • A paragraph is a series of sentences on a particular point.
  • A paragraph should begin with a topic sentence which states that point.
  • Sentences with supporting details such as examples should follow.
  • A paragraph must have unity and coherence where the sentences smoothly and logically flow from one to the next and stay focused on supporting the topic sentence.
  • Transition words and phrases should be used to connect sentencs and paragraphs for unity and coherence
  • Paragraphs that are part of multi-paragraph documents serve specific functions
  • Special Types of Paragraphs in Business Letters and Inter-Office Memorandum
  • Special Types of Paragraphs in Informational Documents and Academic Essays
  • Rhetorical Modes can be used as types of paragraphs
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Anne R. Allen's Blog... with Ruth Harris

Writing about writing. Mostly.

April 28, 2018 By Anne R. Allen 53 Comments

How to Write a Great First Sentence—with 22 Inspiring Examples

How to Write a Great First Sentence—with 22 Inspiring Examples

First sentences from classic and contemporary literature analyzed.

by Ruth Harris

No matter what genre you write, your first sentence is a seduction. It can be in the form of an invitation. A declaration. A tease. A promise. A jolt. A shock.

You must be shameless and your first sentence must be irresistible. It must induce curiosity and promise the answer to an urgent question.

You must do whatever you can to lure your reader into the web you’ve woven by writing a sentence so provocative and so powerful that s/he is compelled to continue.

You’re the master of ceremonies and in your first sentence you must present yourself and your book with confidence and authority. If you’ve written a thriller, your first sentence must promise thrills. If you’ve written a romance, your first sentence must promise romance.

Just like a nothingburger cover or a  meh  blurb, a clunky or poorly-conceived first sentence that’s inconsistent with your genre, will turn readers off and cause them to skip your book.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, romance or sci fi, a thriller or a mystery, the first sentence of your book must achieve one goal: compel the reader to read on.

Stephen King has said that he spends “months and years” creating that first line. He goes on to say: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

The question is, how do we accomplish all this in one sentence? From  Moby Dick ’s “ Call me Ishmael”  to  Charles Dickens’  “ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ,” some first sentences have become famous classics. So, too, Jane Austen’s “ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

A deeper look into the breadth of masterful first sentences offers a wide array of the ways writers draw readers into their stories and inspiring examples of how much information can be conveyed in a single sentence.

The First Person Introduction.

In a memoir or a novel written in the first person, the author puts himself in the mind of the central character and, in one way or another, tells us that we are about to get the real deal. No BS here, the sentence promises, just the honest, unvarnished truth about someone we want to know more about.

Sylvia Plath uses the first sentence of  The Bell Jar , to establish the nervous, dark mood that hovers over the character and the story. Her story begins—

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Plath’s use of the word  electrocuted  provides an unexpected jolt and mention of the  Rosenbergs  sets a time (June 1953).  Sultry summer  sets an uncomfortable season,  New York  establishes a place, and the final phrase conveys the uncertainty of a young woman struggling to find an identity and a place in life.

Vladimir Nabokov uses the first nine words of  Lolita  to convey the note of obsessive erotic desire that pulses through the entire novel.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

Nabokov begins by naming the object of his passion, the word  light  expresses her transformative influence on the narrator, the word  loins  promises that we will be reading a story about sex, and the repetition of the letter  l  creates the feeling of an incantation.

In  Ghostwriters In The Sky , Book 1 of The Camilla Randall Mysteries, Anne uses her first sentence to introduce the MC, locate the place (the subway can only mean NYC), and refer to the season (sweaty indicates hot, most likely summer).

“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh.”

The phrase “creeping up my thigh” indicates a level of unwanted personal attention which places the character in an uncomfortable, if rather ludicrous situation—a theme that will be repeated in different variations throughout the novel.

In  Catcher In the Rye , J.D. Salinger uses an effective but contradictory combination of bravado and vulnerability to establish a unique voice as he introduces us to preppy Holden Caulfield.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 

We read on because Salinger’s confessional tone makes us want to know more about his  lousy childhood  and find out why he doesn’t feel like going into it.

The Third Person Introduction.

In  Goldfinger , Ian Fleming introduces 007 in the first sentence.

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami airport and thought about life and death.”

Fleming has told us in only a few words that his MC is a drinking man, one who travels, and one who contemplates the larger questions of existence. Where, we wonder, is Bond going, what is he going to do once he gets there, and why does he need to down  two double bourbons  before he boards his flight?

In  The Hobbit , JRR Tolkien simply tells us where his MC lives, but in such a startling way that we feel compelled to read on.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

A hobbit? A story about a creature who lives in a hole? Who or what is this hobbit and why does he live in a hole. Curious, we read on.

I introduce DeeDee Dahlen, the MC in  Love And Money , Book 1 of the Park Avenue Series with a brief, declarative sentence.

“Her name was DeeDee Dahlen and she was famous from the day she was born.”

How can a newly-born infant be famous?, the reader wonders. What rewards—and penalties—does unasked-for celebrity impose? What secrets and scandal will shadow her future?—urgent questions that will reverberate throughout the entire novel.

Graham Greene, in  Brighton Rock , compels us to want to know more.

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Who are the ‘they?’ we wonder. And what has Hale done? Why do ‘they’ want to kill him?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins  One Hundred Years of Solitude  with this famous sentence—

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

The author uses a shocking situation—a man facing a firing squad—plus a long-ago memory to pique our curiosity. Who is the Colonel and what had he done that he ends up facing a firing squad? What was there about the discovery of ice that it has lodged so forcefully in his memory? Compelling questions to which we must find the answer and, thus, we continue to read.

Whether classic literature, hard-boiled pulp fiction, or cyberpunk scifi, the first sentence establishes a theme that will continue throughout the story. If the book does not follow through on the promise of that first sentence, the disappointed reader will feel cheated.

In his first sentence, Leo Tolstoy in  Anna Karenina  tells us that we are about to read a story about an unhappy family.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Why, we ask ourselves, are they unhappy? What has happened to them and what will they do? Powerful questions the reader wants answered.

James Matthew Barrie establishes the theme of  Peter Pan  with a brief, declarative statement.

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Which child, we wonder. Why not? And what will happen to a child who doesn’t grow up?

A far different theme is set by Franz Kafka in his posthumously published 1925 novel,  The Trial.

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

Kafka’s first sentence thrusts us immediately into the MC’s waking nightmare of terror and paranoia that will be sustained throughout the story.

William Gibson’s  Neuromancer  was the first novel to win the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. The chilling first sentence, said to have been written at the last minute, sets the novel’s theme of a burnt-out computer hacker adrift in a dystopian near future governed by artificial intelligence.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Hunter S Thompson, starts his novel,  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , by establishing a place, a mood, and a theme (a disenchanted retrospective look at the 1960s) in the first sentence.

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

A Tease, a Shock, a Jolt.

A skillfully written first sentence containing a tease, a shock or a jolt can introduce a character, establish a tone or a setting, and dare the reader not to continue.

The first sentence of  Nineteen Eighty-Four,  George Orwell’s dystopian novel, often considered one of the best one hundred books of the 20 th  Century, tells us immediately that something—time itself—is awry in a future world of Big Brother, doublethink and government surveillance.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Joe Konrath pulls us right into the action in the first sentence of his mystery thriller,  Dirty Martini , Book 4 of the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels Mystery series.

“No security cameras this time, but he still has to be careful.”

What is he doing, we wonder? In his first sentence, Konrath lets us know that whatever it is, it’s something he’s done before. Something risky, perhaps dangerous, and, even though experienced, he still has to be careful. Of what? Of whom?

In his legal thriller,  The Firm , John Grisham uses his first sentence to tell us that this unnamed and mysterious senior partner will indeed find something to dislike about Mitchell Y. McDeere who, the word  résumé  indicates, is being considered for a job.

“The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.”

What kind of job, we wonder, and what will the senior partner find to dislike? Grisham’s tease promises evil doings and the reader is lured on.

In  L.A. Confidential,  James Ellroy’s first sentence introduces a main character, sets a theme, and tells us exactly what we are about to read. Ellroy uses a knowledgable tone and vernacular language to let us know that he knows what he’s talking about.

“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”

Dennis Lehane, in his short story,  Until Gwen  pulls us in with the use of the second person combined with the promise of drugs and sex.

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”

The Rule Breakers.

Although writers are often cautioned about starting a book with a character’s dream, that rule was effectively broken in the classic first sentence of Daphne DuMaurier’s famous gothic mystery,  Rebecca .

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Marie Force begins her Gansett Island romance,  Meant For Love , with a reference to a dream.

“The dream was always the same, the last perfect moment before life as Jenny Wilks knew it changed forever.”

Both dreams refer to emotionally significant aspects of the characters’ pasts. The reader wonders why the unidentified first-person narrator of  Rebecca  dreams of a place and Jenny Wilks of a “perfect” life now gone forever. The authors use dreams to provoke interest in their characters and in the events of the story to come.

The passive tense is usually considered to be another no-no. Charles McCarry, in  TheTears Of Autumn, considered to be one of the best espionage thrillers of the 20 th  Century, uses the passive tense to introduce American intelligence officer, Paul Christopher, who is investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“Paul Christopher had been loved by two women who could not understand why he had stopped writing poetry.”

McCarry’s elegant use of the passive tense to introduce his MC sets the theme of the book: an exploration of glittering promise that results in the wreckage of unintended consequences—the end of poetry and the end of Camelot.

Your first sentence is your opportunity to let your creativity shine. Whether you decide to go for a tease or a jolt, a theme or a rule breaker, a first person or third person introduction, remember what Mom always said: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.

For more info on beginnings, Anne and I have both opined about first chapters. For  Anne’s take . For  Ruth’s take .

by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) April 29, 2018

What about you, scriveners? Do you have a favorite first line? Do you find your first line hard to write? (I usually write mine last.) Do you have a dynamite first line for a book you haven’t written yet? 

This week Anne is Poisoning People for Fun and Profit again. This time she’s talking about Gelsemium , a pretty plant that may be growing in your own backyard. And is so deadly it’s the drug of choice of many professional assassins. It also nearly killed Arthur Conan Doyle.

BOOK OF THE WEEK

The Chanel Caper new cover

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS

Central Coasters: Don’t miss the “Writers in Action: From Idea to Publication” Workshop  on May 19th! 1-day workshop by Sisters in Crime, Central Coast at the PG&E Energy Center in San Luis Obispo. Should be a lot of fun. Here’s a link to the application form and lunch menu.

Red Hen Press annual Nonfiction Contest.    $25 entry FEE. $1,000 prize and publication by the prestigious Red Hen Press. They’re looking for an essay collection, memoir, or book of narrative nonfiction. Florencia Ramirez will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of at least 150 pages.  Deadline April 30

CRAFT Literary Short Story contest. $20 FEE .  Short fiction up to 6000 words. $2000 first prize; the two runners-up will receive $500 and $300, respectively. plus publication in CRAFT  Literary Magazine. Deadline April 30th.

Mad Scientist Journal: Battling in All Her Finery.  Genre : Speculative fiction stories about women leaders in any field.  Payment : 2 cents/word.  Deadline: April 30, 2018.

13 Imprints of Big 5 publishers who take unagented submissions. From the good people at Authors Publish Magazine.

Supernatural Fiction Award : $1000 prize + publication in The Ghost Story magazine. Not just ghost stories. Any paranormal story welcome. 1500-10,000 words   $20 entry fee. Deadline April 30 th .

Prophecy Creek Book Award for Speculative Fiction . Prize $1,000 and publication by Hidden River Publishing.  Any length novel that includes elements of science fiction, supernatural fiction, or fantasy. $22 fee. Deadline May 15.

Smokelong Quarterly Flash Fiction contest. $13 Fee.  Under 1000 words. Nominates for Pushcart. Must never have been published (including on blogs.) $1500 prize plus publication. Runner-up prizes, too. Deadline May 20th. 

Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest   $10 Fee.  800-5000 words showing a powerful sense of place: Fiction or nonfiction. Previous publication okay. $1000 prize plus publication in Nowhere magazine. Deadline May 31st

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About Anne R. Allen

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market.

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery RomCom Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

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April 29, 2018 at 10:27 am

I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the first line until after my first book. I am proud of the first lines of the next three books, especially the two that say so much about the character. Those are excellent examples and a good breakdown as to why they work. Knowing that is half the struggle.

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April 29, 2018 at 12:54 pm

Alex—Thanks! Congratulations on your quality first lines….knowing what and where the target is makes it so much easier to score!

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April 29, 2018 at 11:10 am

Couldn’t agree more Ruth, and it’s one of my favorite topics to cover with aspiring authors on the library-circuit. It’s one of those things a newish writer hasn’t truly considered, but they light up when you show examples like these gems (we overlap with several!). I would suggest there’s also the out-and-out lunatic opening to consider, like Ian Banks who set the bar pretty high with his opening to “The Crow Road” (1992):

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Tell me who’s going to put that one back on the rack!

April 29, 2018 at 12:56 pm

Will—Love the Ian Banks first line. Thanks for the great addition!

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April 29, 2018 at 11:28 am

Excellent! I particularly like the constellation of 1st person examples: Plath, Nabokov, Salinger, & Allen! Well-chosen, indeed. And, as I am big-idea person more than an analytical person, I love seeing these split into categories — I simply wouldn’t think to do that to these fine examples, but it helps me conceptualize it all. Thanks again.

April 29, 2018 at 12:59 pm

CS—Thanks and happy to hear my category breakdown helped. There are infinite ways to write a great first sentence!

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April 29, 2018 at 1:39 pm

I love the topic you chose for today, Ruth, and the way you take a close, illuminating look at each one. Thanks so much for the insight.

I think you had one or two short story first lines in the mix, and I’m glad for that.(I write short stories.) I think an awesome first line is every bit as important in short stories. (Last line too.)

Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina first line is also an example of what I think has the potential to be powerful: A truism, or a simple philosophical (sort of) statement. He certainly nails it with this one!

An article on great last lines would be a fascinating complement to this one.

April 29, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Tricia—thanks! Yes, the Dennis Lehane first sentence was from a short story. First sentences matter!

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April 29, 2018 at 2:35 pm

My favourite opening line is from J.G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’:

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

It sets tone, character, place…and the opportunity to decline an invitation to proceed.

April 29, 2018 at 4:34 pm

Patricia—that’s just great! Thanks!

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April 29, 2018 at 3:44 pm

I used my favorite first line in an email signature that earned me a visit from the President of the college; he never made me take it down, but I knew somebody had asked about it nonetheless. From James Crumley’s Last Good Kiss: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” I can smell that wasted, lost afternoon, I know the likes of Abraham Trahearne right up front, and one day I’m going to name my new bulldog Fireball Roberts.

April 29, 2018 at 4:38 pm

Ruthie—thanks for another fabulous first line! Wonder if anyone would name a kitten Fireball Roberts? Nah, don’t think so. 😉

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April 29, 2018 at 4:35 pm

Sorry to be picky, but there are two typos in this article…which, by the way, is great. This a wonderful collection of first lines, some of which I’ve never seen before. ‘auto court’, I think, rather than ‘auto cout’ – although maybe this is a type of area I’ve not come across before! And Mr Grisham gets spelt as Grosham at one point….

April 29, 2018 at 4:47 pm

Mcrow—Thanks for your eagle eye! I wondered about “cout” but that’s how it came up in my research so I decided to go with it. Maybe a regionalism? Grissom is just a plain vanilla typo. (As I type this, tho, autocorrect turns it into Grissom.) lol

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April 30, 2018 at 8:53 am

This is such a great post. I love to look at the first line of a book. It really does either pull you in … or not. I really liked ““All children, except one, grow up.” I’ve never read the book. Maybe now I will. I always try to write a first line or at least the first few lines in a way that the reader will wonder what’s going to happen next and what’s going on. Thanks for this.

April 30, 2018 at 11:24 am

Patricia—thanks for the kind words. First lines are well worth the effort.:)

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April 30, 2018 at 10:01 am

First lines are tough and hard to make appealing to a large group of people–even within our own genres.

One I like is: This is the way the world ends – not with a band or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door. – Hollowland by Amanda Hocking

I love the call back to Eliot with a fantasy twist.

April 30, 2018 at 11:27 am

HR—thanks for another good example and fine analysis!

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April 30, 2018 at 5:48 pm

Thanks so much for this insightful look into first lines, Ruth. A good reminder to go over some of my old favs and revisit first lines in particular. 🙂

May 1, 2018 at 6:11 am

Dg—appreciate your kind words. Have fun with your old faves!

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April 30, 2018 at 6:41 pm

Thanks for this article! I was inspired to re-check out some first lines. I’m pretty happy with the first lines of my two fantasy novels…the second one took a long time. The whole first chapter and especially the first paragraph went through a dozen false starts before I managed to like one I tried. But the first line of Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” is wonderful–and it must be, as it begins not only a novel, but an epic seven-book series. The line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

May 1, 2018 at 6:15 am

Fred—*only* a dozen tries? Wow! Speedy. ;-). Thanks for the excellent Stephen King addition. Much appreciated!

May 6, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Not really speedy. I had it published about twenty-two years after I finished the first draft. I’m finishing a paranormal romance and beginning a fantasy series. Thanks to your article I re-examined, and changed, the first sentence of each one. And of course I may do so again before I’m finished. My thanks to you and Anne both for all these great helpful blogs.

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May 1, 2018 at 6:47 am

Wow, those are some great first lines. I’ve always found first lines hard to write and this post has really motivated me to make sure the promise I’m making to my audience is there inside it.

One of my favorite first lines is from the manga Fullmetal Alchemist (English Translation):

“Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning…for humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return.”

May 1, 2018 at 7:25 am

Amy—happy to hear the post helped. 🙂 thanks,too, for the excellent addition to our first lines!

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May 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

I often write my first lines after the first draft. Rather, I should say, I “rewrite” my first line a gazillion times after the first draft. Great post, Ruth. Thanks for the inspiration!

May 1, 2018 at 11:06 am

Sue—yes! It’s not the writing. It’s the rewriting. + the revisions. Facts of life! 😉

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May 1, 2018 at 10:17 pm

I love, love, love first sentences. I’ve written hundreds of them! If only I had completed stories to go with all with my first lines….heavy sigh. Enjoyed the post.

May 2, 2018 at 4:13 am

Tammy—ditto and thanks. Maybe find the love for second sentences? 😉

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May 6, 2018 at 8:26 am

A great article, Anne.

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May 6, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Robbie–The thanks go entirely to Ruth. Not only did she write the piece. but she chose the image this time too. I thought it was perfect!

May 6, 2018 at 4:52 pm

Robbie—glad to learn you enjoyed the post!

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May 6, 2018 at 10:31 am

3 greatest are from Moby Dick, Old Man and Sea and Tale of 2 Cities. Oh, and that “In the beginning…” one is pretty famous too.

May 6, 2018 at 1:10 pm

Carl—thanks for the suggestions. We should also add “once upon a time.” 🙂

May 7, 2018 at 3:55 am

Yes, of course !

May 6, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Fredwaiss—22 years? Definitely not speedy! I stand corrected. 🙂 Pleased to learn the post encouraged you to go back and review your first lines. Anne and I work with the goal of helping writers avoid the mistakes we made!

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May 8, 2018 at 12:23 pm

Great post, thanks! It was a dark and stormy night…?????

May 8, 2018 at 12:52 pm

M. L.—Perfecto! A truly worthy addition! 🙂

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May 8, 2018 at 1:08 pm

Great article Ruth! I have a harder time with LAST lines but reading this reminded me of an unread book I peeked at while unpacking last week that made me want to sit in the pile boxes to keep reading:

“Even before I push the fucking door open I know.” First line of IN SIGHT OF THE STARS by Gae Polisner.

I’m a little envious of that opening…

May 8, 2018 at 2:06 pm

Eldonna—Thanks. 🙂 Thanks, too, for adding another great first sentence!

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May 10, 2018 at 3:17 pm

What a fun post – and great comments with more first lines – love it! Thanks for this.

My favorite for description is from IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote because of the contrast with the title:

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ ”

and my favorite for ‘you had me at the first line’ (technically, 3 sentences, they could have been separated by commas… but it would change the rhythm) still, it got me and I read this one, then pretty much all his other books in a 2-month binge. It’s in STRAIGHT by Dick Francis:

“I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.”

May 10, 2018 at 5:58 pm

Msmartha—Thanks for the kind words—and for two great suggestions! I recall a lengthy dick Francis binge, too. 🙂

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June 3, 2018 at 3:09 pm

I don’t have a favorite first line, sorry! I opened an email from you and saw this as title as one of your previous posts and was intrigued. Fantastic post! I’m starting my new WIP today and you’ve inspired me to nail down that first line of my WIP. Thanks!

June 3, 2018 at 4:16 pm

Fiona—Ruth Harris here. Glad you enjoyed the post! Even happier to learn it was inspiring. Good luck with your great first sentence!

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October 7, 2018 at 3:21 pm

“If there were a way, if I could, I would write this book in sign language.” Ruth Sidranski’s first line in her memoir entitled In Silence.

October 7, 2018 at 4:48 pm

Katherine—excellent! Thank you.

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October 28, 2019 at 8:58 am

I read and try to write romance. This is my favorite opening line from a romance novel, The Best Man by Kristan Higgins:

“On a beautiful day in June, in front of literally half the town, wearing a wedding dress that made her look like Cinderella and holding a bouquet of perfect pink roses, Faith Elizabeth Holland was left at the altar.”

It was my first book by Kristan Higgins, but I can assure you it wasn’t my last!

October 28, 2019 at 10:24 am

Dena Jo—Wonderful! Thanks for a great addition to the list of compelling first lines. Appreciated! 🙂

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November 21, 2019 at 6:54 am

First lines–yes! I waffled when I started to write my first book. (A fantasy novel based on a D&D scenario I wrote.) I decided to self-publish it after an agent who had taken me on tried to get me to publish with a publisher who asked for a lot of money. At least it was a lot to me. I was proud of that book, but it took far too long to get to the story proper. I wrote part 2 of the series and published it. Then I found a publisher for my next book, who wanted to take on my previously published books, so I took the opportunity of rewriting the beginning. I cut at least the first 4 chapters and began where the protagonist and his friends were given their quest. A much better beginning,I think.

November 21, 2019 at 1:34 pm

V.M.—Thanks for the great comment! Sounds like you’re on the right track by cutting your early chapters and starting with the quest. And yes, indeed, sometimes getting a book right does take “too long.” Frustrating but worth it!

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June 19, 2020 at 5:30 am

so I wrote a first paragraph and I was hoping that someone might help me with critiquing it “You know that every time I peek my head through this window and see the tower, my heart fills with uneasiness, how it pokes into the sky here in Paris and is quite the centerpiece in the culture. Of course, I was talking about the Eiffel tower, the looming feeling I get measures to about the amount you get when you see the corpse of a person next to a puddle of blood with a 15mm Occitane Pistol floating along slowly to a sewer pipe. When you know whatever caused it can just peek out and get you too, slide its fingers along the side of the trigger, and in seconds your years of life have come to an end. ” by the way, Occitane is a region in France, in the book I am writing it also holds a secret underground gun producing factory.

June 19, 2020 at 6:26 am

Noah—Thanks for taking the time to comment. Anne and I do not offer critique services, but wish you the best of luck with your book.

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August 15, 2021 at 4:10 pm

Here’s the first sentence of my second novel, plus the short one that follows:

“Who was that,” Greg asked as he and Josie drove home from the folk dance, “the fiddler, singing, at the end? You know him?” Jealousy tainted his question.

It seems to set up the emotional tension that permeates the book.

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Humanities LibreTexts

2.7: Writing Paragraphs

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  • Page ID 218975

  • Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, & Tracienne Ravita
  • Texas A&M Univesrity

Once you decide on a method for organizing your essay, you’ll want to start drafting your paragraphs. Think of your paragraphs as links in a chain where coherence and continuity are key. Imagine reading one long block of text, with each idea blurring into the next. You are likely to lose interest in a piece of writing that is disorganized and spans many pages without breaks. Paragraphs separate ideas into logical, manageable chunks, each paragraph focusing on only one main idea and presenting coherent sentences to support that one point. Because all the sentences in one paragraph support the same point, a paragraph may stand on its own. For most types of informative or persuasive academic writing, writers find it helpful to think of the paragraph analogous to an essay, as each is controlled by a main idea or point, and that idea is developed by an organized group of more specific ideas. Thus, the thesis of the essay is analogous to the topic sentence of a paragraph, just as the supporting sentences in a paragraph are analogous to the supporting paragraphs in an essay.

In essays, each supporting paragraph adds another related main idea to support the writer’s thesis, or controlling idea. Each related supporting idea is developed with facts, examples, and other details that explain it. By exploring and refining one idea at a time, writers build a strong case for their thesis. Effective paragraphing makes the difference between a satisfying essay that readers can easily process and one that requires readers to mentally organize the piece themselves. Thoughtful organization and development of each body paragraph leads to an effectively focused, developed, and coherent essay.

An effective paragraph contains three main parts:

  • a topic sentence
  • body, supporting sentences
  • a concluding sentence

In informative and persuasive writing, the topic sentence is usually the first or second sentence of a paragraph and expresses its main idea, followed by supporting sentences that help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence. In narrative and descriptive paragraphs, however, topic sentences may be implied rather than explicitly stated, with all supporting sentences working to create the main idea. If the paragraph contains a concluding sentence, it is the last sentence in the paragraph and reminds the reader of the main point by restating it in different words.

Creating Focused Paragraphs with Topic Sentences

The foundation of a paragraph is the topic sentence which expresses the main idea or point of the paragraph. A topic sentence functions in two ways: it clearly refers to and supports the essay’s thesis, and it indicates what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. As the unifying sentence for the paragraph, it is the most general sentence, whereas all supporting sentences provide different types of more specific information such as facts, details, or examples.

An effective topic sentence has the following characteristics:

  • A topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.

Weak Example

First, we need a better way to educate students.

Explanation: The claim is vague because it does not provide enough information about what will follow and it is too broad to be covered effectively in one paragraph.

Stronger Example

Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many states.

Explanation: The sentence replaces the vague phrase “a better way” and leads readers to expect supporting facts and examples as to why standardizing education in these subjects might improve student learning in many states.

  • A good topic sentence is the most general sentence in the paragraph and thus does not include supporting details.

Salaries should be capped in baseball for many reasons, most importantly so we don’t allow the same team to win year after year.

Explanation: This topic sentence includes a supporting detail that should be included later in the paragraph to back up the main point.

Introducing a salary cap would improve the game of baseball for many reasons.

Explanation: This topic sentence omits the additional supporting detail so that it can be expanded upon later in the paragraph, yet the sentence still makes a claim about salary caps – improvement of the game.

  • A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.

In general, writing an essay, thesis, or other academic or nonacademic document is considerably easier and of much higher quality if you first construct an outline, of which there are many different types.

Explanation: The confusing sentence structure and unnecessary vocabulary bury the main idea, making it difficult for the reader to follow the topic sentence.

Most forms of writing can be improved by first creating an outline.

Explanation: This topic sentence cuts out unnecessary verbiage and simplifies the previous statement, making it easier for the reader to follow. The writer can include examples of what kinds of writing can benefit from outlining in the supporting sentences.

Location of Topic Sentences

As previously discussed, a topic sentence can appear anywhere within a paragraph depending upon the mode of writing, or it can be implied such as in narrative or descriptive writing. In college-level expository or persuasive writing, placing an explicit topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph (the first or second sentence) makes it easier for readers to follow the essay and for writers to stay on topic, but writers should be aware of variations and maintain the flexibility to adapt to different writing projects. The following examples illustrate varying locations for the topic sentence. In each example, the topic sentence is underlined.

Topic Sentence Begins the Paragraph (General to Specific)

After reading the new TV guide this week I wondered why we are still being bombarded with reality shows, a plague that continues to darken our airwaves. Along with the return of viewer favorites, we are to be cursed with yet another mindless creation. Prisoner follows the daily lives of eight suburban housewives who have chosen to be put in jail for the purposes of this fake psychological experiment. A preview for the first episode shows the usual tears and tantrums associated with reality television. I dread to think what producers will come up with next season and hope that other viewers will express their criticism. These producers must stop the constant stream of meaningless shows without plotlines. We’ve had enough reality television to last us a lifetime.

The first sentence tells readers that the paragraph will be about reality television shows, and it expresses the writer’s distaste for these shows through the use of the word bombarded . Each of the following sentences in the paragraph supports the topic sentence by providing further information about a specific reality television show and why the writer finds it unappealing. The final sentence is the concluding sentence. It reiterates the main point that viewers are bored with reality television shows by using different words from the topic sentence.

Paragraphs that begin with the topic sentence move from the general to the specific. They open with a general statement about a subject (reality shows) and then discuss specific examples (the reality show Prisoner ). Most academic essays contain the topic sentence at the beginning of the first paragraph. However, when utilizing a specific to general method, the topic sentence may be located later in the paragraph.

Topic Sentence Ends the Paragraph (Specific to General)

Last year, a cat traveled 130 miles to reach its family who had moved to another state and had left their pet behind. Even though it had never been to their new home, the cat was able to track down its former owners. A dog in my neighborhood can predict when its master is about to have a seizure. It makes sure that he does not hurt himself during an epileptic fit. Compared to many animals, our own senses are almost dull.

The last sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It draws on specific examples (a cat that tracked down its owners and a dog that can predict seizures) and then makes a general statement that draws a conclusion from these examples (animals’ senses are better than humans’). In this case, the supporting sentences are placed before the topic sentence, and the concluding sentence is the same as the topic sentence. This technique is frequently used in persuasive writing. The writer produces detailed examples as evidence to back up his or her point, preparing the reader to accept the concluding topic sentence as the truth.

When the Topic Sentence Appears in the Middle of the Paragraph

For many years, I suffered from severe anxiety every time I took an exam. Hours before the exam, my heart would begin pounding, my legs would shake, and sometimes I would become physically unable to move. Last year, I was referred to a specialist and finally found a way to control my anxiety—breathing exercises. It seems so simple, but by doing just a few breathing exercises a couple of hours before an exam, I gradually got my anxiety under control. The exercises help slow my heart rate and make me feel less anxious. Better yet, they require no pills, no equipment, and very little time. It’s amazing how just breathing correctly has helped me learn to manage my anxiety symptoms.

In this paragraph, the underlined sentence is the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea—that breathing exercises can help control anxiety. The preceding sentences enable the writer to build up to his main point (breathing exercises can help control anxiety) by using a personal anecdote (how he used to suffer from anxiety). The supporting sentences then expand on how breathing exercises help the writer by providing additional information. The last sentence is the concluding sentence and restates how breathing can help manage anxiety. Placing a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph is often used in creative writing. If you notice that you have used a topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph in an academic essay, read through the paragraph carefully to make sure that it contains only one major topic.

Implied Topic Sentences

Some well-organized paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence at all, a technique often used in descriptive and narrative writing. Instead of being directly stated, the main idea is implied in the content of the paragraph, as in the following narrative paragraph.

Example of Implied Topic Sentence

Heaving herself up the stairs, Luella had to pause for breath several times. She let out a wheeze as she sat down heavily in the wooden rocking chair. Tao approached her cautiously, as if she might crumble at the slightest touch. He studied her face, like parchment, stretched across the bones so finely he could almost see right through the skin to the decaying muscle underneath. Luella smiled a toothless grin.

Although no single sentence in this paragraph states the main idea, the entire paragraph focuses on one concept—that Luella is extremely old. The topic sentence is thus implied rather than stated so that all the details in the paragraph can work together to convey the dominant impression of Luella’s age. In a paragraph such as this one, an explicit topic sentence would seem awkward and heavy-handed. Implied topic sentences work well if the writer has a firm idea of what he or she intends to say in the paragraph and sticks to it. However, a paragraph loses its effectiveness if an implied topic sentence is too subtle or the writer loses focus.

Developing Paragraphs

If you think of a paragraph as a sandwich, the supporting sentences are the filling between the bread. They make up the body of the paragraph by explaining, proving, or enhancing the controlling idea in the topic sentence. The overall method of development for paragraphs depends upon the essay as a whole and the purpose of each paragraph; thus paragraphs may be developed by using examples, description, narration, comparison and contrast, definition, cause and effect, classification and division. A writer may use one method or combine several methods.

Writers often want to know how many words a paragraph should contain, and the answer is that a paragraph should develop the idea, point, or impression completely enough to satisfy the writer and readers. Depending on their function, paragraphs can vary in length from one or two sentences, to over a page; however, in most college assignments, successfully developed paragraphs usually contain approximately one hundred to two hundred and fifty words and span one-fourth to two-thirds of a typed page. A series of short paragraphs in an academic essay can seem choppy and unfocused, whereas paragraphs that are one page or longer can tire readers. Giving readers a paragraph break on each page helps them maintain focus.

This advice does not mean, of course, that composing a paragraph of a particular number of words or sentences guarantees an effective paragraph. Writers must provide enough supporting sentences within paragraphs to develop the topic sentence and simultaneously carry forward the essay’s main idea.

For example, in a descriptive paragraph about a room in the writer’s childhood home, a length of two or three sentences is unlikely to contain enough details to create a picture of the room in the reader’s mind, and it will not contribute in conveying the meaning of the place. In contrast, a half page paragraph, full of carefully selected vivid, specific details and comparisons, provides a fuller impression and engages the reader’s interest and imagination. In descriptive or narrative paragraphs, supporting sentences present details and actions in vivid, specific language in objective or subjective ways, appealing to the readers’ senses to make them see and experience the subject. In addition, some sentences writers use make comparisons that bring together or substitute the familiar with the unfamiliar, thus enhancing and adding depth to the description of the incident, place, person, or idea.

In a persuasive essay about raising the wage for certified nursing assistants, a paragraph might focus on the expectations and duties of the job, comparing them to that of a registered nurse. Needless to say, a few sentences that simply list the certified nurse’s duties will not give readers a complete enough idea of what these healthcare professionals do. If readers do not have plenty of information about the duties and the writer’s experience in performing them for what she considers inadequate pay, the paragraph fails to do its part in convincing readers that the pay is inadequate and should be increased.

In informative or persuasive writing, a supporting sentence usually offers one of the following:

  • Reason: The refusal of the baby boom generation to retire is contributing to the current lack of available jobs.
  • Fact: Many families now rely on older relatives to support them financially.
  • Statistic: Nearly 10 percent of adults are currently unemployed in the United States.
  • Quotation: “We will not allow this situation to continue,” stated Senator Johns.
  • Example: Last year, Bill was asked to retire at the age of fifty-five.

The type of supporting sentence you choose will depend on what you are writing and why you are writing. For example, if you are attempting to persuade your audience to take a particular position, you should rely on facts, statistics, and concrete examples, rather than personal opinions. Personal testimony in the form of an extended example can be used in conjunction with the other types of support.

Consider the elements in the following paragraph.

Example Persuasive Paragraph

Topic sentence: There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.

Sentence 1 (statistic): First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel- efficient gas-powered vehicle.

Sentence 2 (fact): Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving.

Sentence 3 (reason): Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump.

Sentence 4 (example): Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance.

Sentence 5 (quotation): “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas powered vehicles I’ve owned.”

Concluding sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Sometimes the writing situation does not allow for research to add specific facts or other supporting information, but paragraphs can be developed easily with examples from the writer’s own experience.

Farheya, a student in a freshman English Composition class, quickly drafted an essay during a timed writing assignment in class. To practice improving paragraph development, she selected the body paragraph below to add support:

Example of Original Body Paragraph

Topic: Would you be better off if you didn’t own a television? Discuss.

Lack of ownership of a television set is also a way to preserve innocence, and keep the exposure towards anything inappropriate at bay. From simply watching a movie, I have seen things I shouldn’t have, no matter how fast I switch the channel. Television shows not only display physical indecency, but also verbal. Many times movies do voice-overs of profane words, but they also leave a few words uncensored. Seeing how all ages can flip through and see or hear such things make t.v. toxic for the mind, and without it I wouldn’t have to worry about what I may accidentally see or hear.

The original paragraph identifies two categories of indecent material, and there is mention of profanity to provide a clue as to what the student thinks is indecent. However, the paragraph could use some examples to make the idea of inappropriate material clearer. Farheya considered some of the television shows she had seen and made a few changes.

Example of Revised Body Paragraph

Not owning a television set would also be a way to preserve innocence and keep my exposure to anything inappropriate at bay. While searching for a program to view, I have seen things I shouldn’t have, no matter how fast I switched the channel. The synopsis of Euro Trip, which describes high school friends traveling across Europe, leads viewers to think that the film is an innocent adventure; however; it is filled with indecency, especially when the students reach Amsterdam. The movie Fast and Furious has the same problem since the women are all half-naked in half tops and mini-skirts or short- shorts. Television shows not only display physical indecency, but also verbal. Many television shows have no filters, and the characters say profane words freely. On Empire, the main characters Cookie and Lucious Lyon use profane words during their fights throughout entire episodes. Because The Big Bang Theory is a show about a group of science geeks and their cute neighbor, viewers might think that these science geniuses’ conversations would be about their current research or other science topics. Instead, their characters regularly engage in conversations about their personal lives that should be kept private. The ease of flipping through channels and seeing or hearing such things makes t.v. toxic for the mind, and without a television I wouldn’t have to worry about what I may accidentally see or hear.

Farheya’s addition of a few examples helps to convey why she thinks she would be better off without a television.

Concluding Sentences

An effective concluding sentence draws together all the ideas raised in your paragraph. It reminds readers of the main point—the topic sentence—without restating it in exactly the same words. Using the hamburger example, the top bun (the topic sentence) and the bottom bun (the concluding sentence) are very similar. They frame the “meat” or body of the paragraph.

Compare the topic sentence and concluding sentence from the first example on hybrid cars:

Topic Sentence: There are many advantages to owning a hybrid car.

Concluding Sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Notice the use of the synonyms advantages and benefits . The concluding sentence reiterates the idea that owning a hybrid is advantageous without using the exact same words. It also summarizes two examples of the advantages covered in the supporting sentences: low running costs and environmental benefits.

Writers should avoid introducing any new ideas into a concluding sentence because a conclusion is intended to provide the reader with a sense of completion. Introducing a subject that is not covered in the paragraph will confuse readers and weaken the writing.

A concluding sentence may do any of the following:

  • Restate the main idea.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States.

  • Summarize the key points in the paragraph

A lack of healthy choices, poor parenting, and an addiction to video games are among the many factors contributing to childhood obesity.

  • Draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph.

These statistics indicate that unless we take action, childhood obesity rates will continue to rise.

  • Make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information in the paragraph.

Based on this research, more than 60 percent of children in the United States will be morbidly obese by the year 2030 unless we take evasive action.

  • Offer an additional observation about the controlling idea.

Childhood obesity is an entirely preventable tragedy.

Paragraph Length

Although paragraph length is discussed in the section on developing paragraphs with supporting sentences, some additional reminders about when to start a new paragraph may prove helpful to writers:

  • If a paragraph is over a page long, consider providing a paragraph break for readers. Look for a logical place to divide the paragraph; then revise the opening sentence of the second paragraph to maintain coherence.
  • A series of short paragraphs can be confusing and choppy. Examine the content of the paragraphs and combine ones with related ideas or develop each one further.
  • When dialogue is used, begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.
  • Begin a new paragraph to indicate a shift in subject, tone, or time and place.

Improving Paragraph Coherence

A strong paragraph holds together well, flowing seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use a combination of elements:

  • A clear organizational pattern: chronological (for narrative writing and describing processes), spatial (for descriptions of people or places), order of importance, general to specific (deductive), specific to general (inductive)
  • Transitional words and phrases: These connecting words describe a relationship between ideas.
  • Repetition of ideas: This element helps keep the parts of the paragraph together by maintaining focus on the main idea, so this element reinforces both paragraph coherence and unity.

In the following example, notice the use of transitions ( bolded ) and key words ( underlined ):

Example of Transition Words

Owning a hybrid car benefits both the owner and the environment . First , these cars get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second , they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car , it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Words such as first and second are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that he or she has another point to make in support of the topic sentence. The transition word because is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas).

In addition to transition words, the writer repeats the word hybrid (and other references such as these cars , and they ), and ideas related to benefits to keep the paragraph focused on the topic and hold it together.

To include a summarizing transition for the concluding sentence, the writer could rewrite the final sentence as follows:

In conclusion, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.

Although the phrase “in conclusion” certainly reinforces the idea of summary and closure, it is not necessary in this case and seems redundant, as the sentence without the phrase already repeats and summarizes the benefits presented in the topic sentence and flows smoothly from the preceding quotation. The second half of the sentence, in making a prediction about the future, signals a conclusion, also making the phrase “in conclusion” unnecessary. The original version of the concluding sentence also illustrates how varying sentence openings can improve paragraph coherence. As writers continue to practice and develop their style, they more easily make these decisions between using standard transitional phrases and combining the repetition of key ideas with varied sentence openings.

Table 5.3.1 provides some useful transition words and phrases to connect sentences within paragraphs as well as to connect body paragraphs:

[table id=3 /]

Practice Activity

The original version of this chapter contained H5P content. You may want to remove or replace this element.

This section contains material from:

Crowther, Kathryn, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson. Successful College Composition . 2nd edition. Book 8. Georgia: English Open Textbooks, 2016. http://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/8 . Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License .

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  • How to Paraphrase | Step-by-Step Guide & Examples

How to Paraphrase | Step-by-Step Guide & Examples

Published on April 8, 2022 by Courtney Gahan and Jack Caulfield. Revised on June 1, 2023.

Paraphrasing means putting someone else’s ideas into your own words. Paraphrasing a source involves changing the wording while preserving the original meaning.

Paraphrasing is an alternative to  quoting (copying someone’s exact words and putting them in quotation marks ). In academic writing, it’s usually better to integrate sources by paraphrasing instead of quoting. It shows that you have understood the source, reads more smoothly, and keeps your own voice front and center.

Every time you paraphrase, it’s important to cite the source . Also take care not to use wording that is too similar to the original. Otherwise, you could be at risk of committing plagiarism .

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Table of contents

How to paraphrase in five easy steps, how to paraphrase correctly, examples of paraphrasing, how to cite a paraphrase, paraphrasing vs. quoting, paraphrasing vs. summarizing, avoiding plagiarism when you paraphrase, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about paraphrasing.

If you’re struggling to get to grips with the process of paraphrasing, check out our easy step-by-step guide in the video below.

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Putting an idea into your own words can be easier said than done. Let’s say you want to paraphrase the text below, about population decline in a particular species of sea snails.

Incorrect paraphrasing

You might make a first attempt to paraphrase it by swapping out a few words for  synonyms .

Like other sea creatures inhabiting the vicinity of highly populated coasts, horse conchs have lost substantial territory to advancement and contamination , including preferred breeding grounds along mud flats and seagrass beds. Their Gulf home is also heating up due to global warming , which scientists think further puts pressure on the creatures , predicated upon the harmful effects extra warmth has on other large mollusks (Barnett, 2022).

This attempt at paraphrasing doesn’t change the sentence structure or order of information, only some of the word choices. And the synonyms chosen are poor:

  • “Advancement and contamination” doesn’t really convey the same meaning as “development and pollution.”
  • Sometimes the changes make the tone less academic: “home” for “habitat” and “sea creatures” for “marine animals.”
  • Adding phrases like “inhabiting the vicinity of” and “puts pressure on” makes the text needlessly long-winded.
  • Global warming is related to climate change, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing.

Because of this, the text reads awkwardly, is longer than it needs to be, and remains too close to the original phrasing. This means you risk being accused of plagiarism .

Correct paraphrasing

Let’s look at a more effective way of paraphrasing the same text.

Here, we’ve:

  • Only included the information that’s relevant to our argument (note that the paraphrase is shorter than the original)
  • Introduced the information with the signal phrase “Scientists believe that …”
  • Retained key terms like “development and pollution,” since changing them could alter the meaning
  • Structured sentences in our own way instead of copying the structure of the original
  • Started from a different point, presenting information in a different order

Because of this, we’re able to clearly convey the relevant information from the source without sticking too close to the original phrasing.

Explore the tabs below to see examples of paraphrasing in action.

  • Journal article
  • Newspaper article
  • Magazine article

Once you have your perfectly paraphrased text, you need to ensure you credit the original author. You’ll always paraphrase sources in the same way, but you’ll have to use a different type of in-text citation depending on what citation style you follow.

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It’s a good idea to paraphrase instead of quoting in most cases because:

  • Paraphrasing shows that you fully understand the meaning of a text
  • Your own voice remains dominant throughout your paper
  • Quotes reduce the readability of your text

But that doesn’t mean you should never quote. Quotes are appropriate when:

  • Giving a precise definition
  • Saying something about the author’s language or style (e.g., in a literary analysis paper)
  • Providing evidence in support of an argument
  • Critiquing or analyzing a specific claim

A paraphrase puts a specific passage into your own words. It’s typically a similar length to the original text, or slightly shorter.

When you boil a longer piece of writing down to the key points, so that the result is a lot shorter than the original, this is called summarizing .

Paraphrasing and quoting are important tools for presenting specific information from sources. But if the information you want to include is more general (e.g., the overarching argument of a whole article), summarizing is more appropriate.

When paraphrasing, you have to be careful to avoid accidental plagiarism .

This can happen if the paraphrase is too similar to the original quote, with phrases or whole sentences that are identical (and should therefore be in quotation marks). It can also happen if you fail to properly cite the source.

Paraphrasing tools are widely used by students, and can be especially useful for non-native speakers who may find academic writing particularly challenging. While these can be helpful for a bit of extra inspiration, use these tools sparingly, keeping academic integrity in mind.

To make sure you’ve properly paraphrased and cited all your sources, you could elect to run a plagiarism check before submitting your paper. And of course, always be sure to read your source material yourself and take the first stab at paraphrasing on your own.

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • ChatGPT vs human editor
  • ChatGPT citations
  • Is ChatGPT trustworthy?
  • Using ChatGPT for your studies
  • What is ChatGPT?
  • Chicago style
  • Critical thinking

 Plagiarism

  • Types of plagiarism
  • Self-plagiarism
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Academic integrity
  • Consequences of plagiarism
  • Common knowledge

To paraphrase effectively, don’t just take the original sentence and swap out some of the words for synonyms. Instead, try:

  • Reformulating the sentence (e.g., change active to passive , or start from a different point)
  • Combining information from multiple sentences into one
  • Leaving out information from the original that isn’t relevant to your point
  • Using synonyms where they don’t distort the meaning

The main point is to ensure you don’t just copy the structure of the original text, but instead reformulate the idea in your own words.

Paraphrasing without crediting the original author is a form of plagiarism , because you’re presenting someone else’s ideas as if they were your own.

However, paraphrasing is not plagiarism if you correctly cite the source . This means including an in-text citation and a full reference, formatted according to your required citation style .

As well as citing, make sure that any paraphrased text is completely rewritten in your own words.

Plagiarism means using someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. Paraphrasing means putting someone else’s ideas in your own words.

So when does paraphrasing count as plagiarism?

  • Paraphrasing is plagiarism if you don’t properly credit the original author.
  • Paraphrasing is plagiarism if your text is too close to the original wording (even if you cite the source). If you directly copy a sentence or phrase, you should quote it instead.
  • Paraphrasing  is not plagiarism if you put the author’s ideas completely in your own words and properly cite the source .

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To present information from other sources in academic writing , it’s best to paraphrase in most cases. This shows that you’ve understood the ideas you’re discussing and incorporates them into your text smoothly.

It’s appropriate to quote when:

  • Changing the phrasing would distort the meaning of the original text
  • You want to discuss the author’s language choices (e.g., in literary analysis )
  • You’re presenting a precise definition
  • You’re looking in depth at a specific claim

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