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Paragraphing

What are the elements of a paragraph? Traditionally, a paragraph is defined as the expression of one idea through the use of multiple sentences. However, a paragraph is also an important building block of a larger work. How many paragraphs should be used in an essay, for example? Should the introduction of a piece be limited to one paragraph, or can it stretch over multiple paragraphs? While there are no hard rules, there are guidelines for determining when to start a new paragraph.

Quite simply, a paragraph should have a single focus. If the introduction to an essay has multiple points, the writer should not be afraid to break the introduction into multiple paragraphs. Conclusions usually can be limited to one paragraph because they are restating topics that have already been fully explored in other paragraphs. If the analysis of the piece is especially complex, a multiple paragraph conclusion may be necessary. The writer should focus on making sure that each paragraph succinctly yet thoroughly expresses a specific idea.

As an example, an essay on the hottest varieties of chili peppers may consist of an introduction, one descriptive paragraph per chili pepper and a conclusion. However, the writer may choose to insert a “compare and contrast” paragraph between two descriptive paragraphs in order to highlight differences between the peppers. The writer may also wish to include an “explanation” paragraph focused on how the Scoville rating scale for measuring the heat of chili peppers was initially developed. Regardless of its type, each paragraph should stick to a particular topic. The writer should not attempt to describe the relevant features of the chili pepper and how the Scoville rating scale was developed in the same paragraph.

Structurally, each paragraph should have a topic sentence that introduces the reader to the central idea. This idea should then be developed throughout the rest of the paragraph with supporting details, followed by a closing sentence. The closing sentence should complete the idea of the paragraph while preparing the reader for the next paragraph of the piece.

The total length of each paragraph should generally fall between four to six sentences in order to make it more readable. Extremely long or short paragraphs should be the exception, not the norm. However, a writer should always compose a paragraph in order to convey an idea, rather than composing a paragraph to meet an arbitrary length.

Writers should also strive to incorporate links or “bridges” between paragraphs. To return to the example essay above, each descriptive paragraph should not only describe the relevant characteristics of the chili pepper, but also provide a logical and hopefully intriguing “bridge” to the next paragraph, like this:

“Despite its high Scoville rating and long shape, the Chilica is not as popular as other peppers.”

Bridges generally can be placed in the closing sentence. The paragraph should not be written as an encyclopedia entry, but rather as a work that the reader will enjoy reading. This emphasis on reading pleasure separates average paragraphs from genuinely compelling ones.

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