Instructional Materials for Craig White's Literature Courses

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Paragraph length: For academic writing, most paragraphs run 4-7 sentences long, but these lengths can vary, especially relative to sentence length. Paragraphs in popular writing (especially newspapers) usually run shorter, but not always.

Paragraph structure / parts: (applying mostly to body paragraphs)

Topic sentence: Usually the first sentence (sometimes first two sentences) of a paragraph. The topic sentence is usually a fairly long sentence because it performs three functions:

1. main idea (or topic) of paragraph

2. connection to thesis or main point (usually by repeating key word or concept from thesis statement)

3. transition from previous paragraph


Supporting Sentences: a paragraph's interior sentences, which "support” or develop the topic sentence's "main idea."

Content: facts, examples, quotations, testimony, analysis, logic (e.g. cause-and-effect), commentary. In brief, supporting sentences tend to be more concrete and particular, while the topic sentence tends to be more thematic or general.


(Optional) Summarizing Sentence:

If your paragraph becomes so long that its main idea or point gets lost on the way through the supporting sentences, try a final sentence summarizing where you’ve arrived that returns to and refocuses the topic sentence.


Warning: Students are sometimes taught to use the last sentence of a paragraph as a transition to the next paragraph. This approach works occasionally but generally violates standard practice. The need for transition almost always after a paragraph shift rather than before.


Unity, continuity, and transition in writing

Why important?

Aesthetics: Readers like variety but also like parts to form a whole.

Depth / extension of thought: The longer you stay with a subject, the farther or deeper you go. Frequently changing subjects causes brief and superficial treatment of many topics—a lot of this and that but nothing in particular.


How to develop and maintain unity? Two broad approaches . . .  

From the top down—intellectual approach (thinking on a straight line)


From the bottom up—technique or craft (connecting the parts to build a larger whole)


(In practice most writers do both—drafting from top down; revising from bottom up.) 

Top-Down unity

From the top down: the intellectual approach means keeping a large theme in sight or an idea in mind and chasing it, never letting it slip completely away, no matter how many twists and turns you take. “Pursue the thought.” When you lose it, chase it down and reconnect.

Whatever idea you start with, stay with it. If the subject has to change, reflect and comment on how it is changing. (Don't hope your reader doesn't mind.)

Readers will follow changes of direction as long as you acknowledge the shift and think your way through it.

What you started with remains important, though, because it’s what your readers started with—readers don't forget that first impression and your need to fill it out.

Keep looking back at what you started with. Connect new developments to it. If you made the move from point A to point B, there has to be a connection, so think about the shift and how it happened. The connection or continuity will be revealed.

When shifting paragraphs, look back to what you started with and forward to where you’re going. Consider the continuity.

The top-down, intellectual approach is especially helpful for writing under pressure or on the spot, without much chance for revision.

  An alternative starting point is to ask yourself, "Where do I want to come out? On what point do I want to end? Where do I want to land?" Keeping this goal in sight as you write will help you stay on-point, and you'll find yourself moving faster and more confidently to the point(s) you want to make.


From the bottom up Unity

From the bottom up: “technique” or “craft” of making on-the-spot connections between units of speech or thought—connections between paragraphs, sentences, parts of sentences.

  • This approach is most helpful in revision, but with practice you can learn to do it on the spot or under pressure.

  • As you make small connections between parts, you figure out how the larger pieces fit together, or you make them fit in a ways you couldn't imagine without the discipline of writing.

Techniques involved in this approach are often called transitions.” Transitions provide both continuity and change, so that you stay on theme or topic but turn it to different purposes or applications.


3 ways of making transition: (non-exclusive—all 3 may be in operation in a single unit of thought)

1. repeat key words or concepts from one part to another

(Students may be taught not to repeat words or phrases, but some repetition is desirable for refocusing or re-centering topic. Example: Public speakers repeat key words at intervals (e.g., "jobs," "fairness,") to remind people of the point they've been making and are continuing to make.)


2. demonstrative pronouns and adjectives

(this, that, these, those; such)


3. “transitional” or “signal” words and phrases

(most obvious forms of transition, but the first two are more thematic and subtle)

causation / logic: because, therefore, since, thus, as a result, consequently


contrast: but, however, yet, in contrast


sequence: then, next, following, before, etc.


addition: and, in addition, also, further, another, finally, first-second-third (be careful of this option—often piling on examples, as I may be doing now . . . )


For further examples, visit transitions page.