Paragraphs - Reviewing and editing your work

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Reviewing and editing your work

Paragraphs are the building blocks of a piece of extended prose writing. They organise what would otherwise be a single block of writing into bite-sized, manageable chunks, each representing a thought or topic - part of your argument. Paragraphs are also the stepping stones in your argument. And well-

written paragraphs enable the reader to navigate their way through your writing, ideally with comparative ease.

Paragraph structure

In capturing a thought or topic, a paragraph often does so in a recognisable way:

✵A paragraph normally develops one main idea.

✵The idea is often expressed in one or two sentences - the topic sentences - that are often the first sentences of a paragraph, but need not be. For example, topic sentences can follow an introductory sentence that links the paragraph with the previous one(s).

✵Sentences in the middle of the paragraph develop the topic sentence(s). They do so, for example, by giving definitions, offering explanation, providing examples, going into further detail, offering evidence and interpreting and evaluating it, considering causes and effects, and so on. There are many ways in which topic sentences can be developed.

✵Sometimes a paragraph will have a concluding sentence, which considers how the topic sentence has been developed and/or provides a link to the next paragraph.

A paragraph has at least two sentences, with many assessors favouring paragraphs that are at least four sentences long (a topic sentence and at least three supporting sentences). Most paragraphs in many kinds of assignment contain between 50 and 300 words. A paragraph of more than 300 words is a long one and may be seeking to cover too much ground. In many cases, such a paragraph can be split into two or more, to consider at least two topics rather than one larger one. Note that this paragraph contains 92 words.

Notice, in the following short paragraph, that the student begins with the topic sentence. This is followed by a statement of the importance of the medical condition and a brief explanation of its cause. The link with lifestyle is developed, with three factors introduced.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a problem that is increasing in many countries as a result of changes in modern lifestyle. In the United States, for example, CHD now causes more than half of human deaths1. Many factors increase the risk of CHD, all with a common outcome - the build up of fatty deposits within coronary arteries, known as atherosclerosis2. Atherosclerosis is one of the effects created by cholesterol building up on artery walls, suggesting diet is likely to be a contributory factor in CHD1. Other lifestyle choices, such as smoking and lack of exercise, are also predisposing factors 3.


Paragraph structure

In the following paragraph modified from a student’s essay:

(a)Which sentence(s) introduce(s) the topic of the paragraph?

(b)In your own words, summarise the ways the paragraph develops the topic sentence(s).

(c)Does the paragraph contain a concluding sentence, which summarises how the one or two topic sentences have been developed and/or introduces a link to the next paragraph?

As discussed earlier, as a result of excessive prescribing of penicillins, Gram-positive and Gram­

negative bacteria have developedpenicillin-resistance. Such resistance has arisen through natural selection in three main ways. Firstly, changes in the conformation of the pores (porins) in the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria can exclude penicillin3. Secondly, in Gram-positive bacteria, changes in the DNA in the penicillin target site can confer resistance4. Lastly, both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria can produce the enzyme penicillinase, which destroys the drug5. The three routes to resistance have required pharmacologists to stay ’one step ahead’ of the bacteria, by finding new natural antibiotics or developing synthetic ones.

Check your answers at the end of the chapter.

Linking within and between paragraphs

We have considered how academic writing, in most cases, concerns developing an argument. But how can that argument be sustained and developed across many paragraphs? There are two literary devices commonly used: transitional words or phrases; and repeating key points, words, phrases or sentence constructions.

Transitional words or phrases

One way of helping the reader follow your line of thought is by using transitions, also called connectors, which are single words or short phrases that draw the reader’s attention to relationships within and between paragraphs.

As we have seen earlier (Section 3.3), transitions point out to the reader where the current text lies within the developing argument. For example:

✵Beginning or introducing, e.g. ’To begin, .. ’, ’At the outset, ...’

✵Building or reinforcing, e.g. ’ Similarly, ..’, ’Likewise, ..’

✵Limiting or qualifying, e.g. ’However, there are exceptions. ..’

✵Countering, contrasting or giving alternatives, e.g. ’Alternatively, ...’, ’By contrast, ...’, ’Conversely, ...’

✵Consequences, evaluations or associations, e.g. ’As a result, ..’, ’Consequently, ..’, ’It follows, ..’, ’Therefore, ..’, This indicates ..’, ’This suggests ..’, ’Thus ..’

✵Drawing conclusions or summarising, e.g. ’In conclusion, ...’, ’In summary, ...’.

Finally, not all paragraphs need transitions to show connections between them. If your argument is logical and coherent, the sequence of topics in paragraphs may fall out naturally, without the need to signpost them in each and every case.

Transitions cannot or should not disguise a lack of connection

Do not use transitions to force artificial connections between sentences or paragraphs. Transitions should signpost real connections. Your assessor will soon notice if you are using transitions to compensate for a poorly structured argument.


Spot the transitions

In the following paragraph, underline the words or phrases that are key transitions - that connect one sentence with another.

Many public health specialists consider knowledge of hepatitis C, and how its causative agent the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is transmitted, to be poor among young adults in the UK1,2. This situation is unlike that of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and its causative agent HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), which have been the subject of widespread public health campaigns in recent years 3,4. However, current public awareness of hepatitis C infection can be compared with that of AIDS and HIV in the late-1980s5. Moreover, exaggerated fears about routes of transmission and the likelihood of infection may be similar for hepatitis C now as they were for AIDS and HIV more than 25 years ago.

Check your answer at the end of the chapter.

Returning to main points and repeating key words or sentence constructions

This offers an alternative approach for emphasising connections within and between paragraphs. For example, here key words and phrases (shown in bold) are restated, to develop the argument in a punchy manner:

University lecturers are often keen to say that they teach in a student-centred manner. However, when observed by staff developers, those same lecturers often reveal very different traits. They take centre stage rather than give a voice to the students in their classes . They control rather than empower.

Here, sentence constructions are repeated, to add emphasis and to highlight contrasts:

Getting the balance right in devolving power to students is difficult. Too much, and the teacher is put on the back foot, responding to unreasonable demands from determined students with self-centred aims. Too little, and the teacher is in danger of holding students back from expressing themselves and developing as flexible, independent learners. Nevertheless, ...

Repetition should be used sparingly. Too much and, like many any other literary devices, it becomes boring or irritating.