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Apprenticeship Learning Support

It is important to use language in academic writing that signposts the flow of an argument and shows how the different parts of the assignment fit together. These useful phrases are referred to as transitional phrases, signposting or connecting words - they help to control your argument and allow the reader to understand the way you have structured your assignment.

 Structuring  your  Paragraphs

Properly constructed paragraphs are the foundations upon which academic writing is built. They help you to focus and clarify your argument as you write and they help the reader to understand the topic by dividing it logically into sections.  They also help the argument and ideas to flow coherently and persuasively.  As with punctuation, the key word here is “help” : they help you to express as clearly as possible what you want to say, and the reader to follow your intended meaning.

Academic paragraphs share certain key features as follows –

  • A paragraph is a group of sentences that deal with a single, identifiable topic.
  • Paragraphs can vary significantly in length depending on the type and purpose of the text, but should generally not be less than 4 or 5 sentences.
  • In most cases the first sentence introduces the topic of the paragraph. Subsequent sentences may then give definitions, examples, explanations, reasons, opposing views, references to literature, interpretations, summaries and so on.
  • The component parts of the paragraph are linked together by the use of conjunctions and linking phrases, to ensure flow and to guide the reader.
  • Linking between as well as within paragraphs is important too, to introduce new topics and signpost the overall direction the argument is taking.

It follows from this that paragraphs which are too short will not allow you to develop your argument in sufficient depth or detail.  Conversely, overly lengthy paragraphs run the risk of being rambling and unfocused, and would probably benefit from being further divided into distinct topics. Tutor feedback suggests that these are two very common pitfalls.

John Seely  (Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, 2009)  proposes that a typical paragraph has three sections.  This is a useful way of thinking about your paragraphs :

  • Lead sentence   (sometimes called the topic sentence)   This is normally the first or second sentence in the paragraph, and tells the reader what the paragraph is about.
  • Body of the paragraph   There follow a number of sentences, usually between two and five, that develop this subject matter.
  • Concluding sentence    This has two purposes : to round off and/or sum up what has gone before, and to provide a lead-in to the next paragraph.