Skip to main content

Academic Writing: Paragraph Structure



How should you order the sentences inside your paragraphs? What does it mean when a paragraph has coherency? Discover these two vital elements to academic writing inside.

What does Coherence mean? Why is it important?

Coherence means that the writing follows a logical progression, which is another way to say that it's easy for the reader to follow. 

There are some typical logical patterns that make sense naturally, such as ordering information chronologically. Let's look at an example. I've included three sentences below about my day. How would you order them? Why?

  1. At noon, I ate lunch. 
  2. At 6am, I woke up. 
  3. I went to bed at nine.  

Did you order them from earliest to latest (6am to bed) or latest to earliest (bed to 6am). This is listing the information chronologically or reverse chronologically, and either one is an example of coherence. Why did you put them in that order? Because it logically made sense.  

Let's look at coherence some more and discover how to write our own academic paragraphs with strong coherence. 

Unity, Topic Sentences, and Concluding Sentences -- A reminder

In a previous post, we discussed the idea of unity in Academic Writing. Today, we're going to discover what makes strong coherence in an academic paragraph.

We might also want to remind ourselves about topic sentences and concluding sentences

Complete these sentences to remind yourself.

  1. A topic sentence should...
  2. A concluding sentence should...

 

So, an academic paragraph typically goes...

The typical order of an academic paragraph is topic sentence, "other sentences", and then the concluding sentence. The "other sentences" are often called supporting sentences or developmental sentences. Whatever you call them, remember that they explain and illustrate the idea mentioned in the topic sentence (and this creates unity, remember?)
  • Topic sentence
  • Other sentences
  • Concluding sentence

This current post examines the structure of the "other sentences". If we remind ourselves about the genre of academic writing, we should remember that academic writing is highly structured.  Likewise, paragraphs are also highly structured. A writer will introduce an idea (topic) and then explain and illustrate ("other sentences"). This is also the logical progression for academic writing.

When a new idea is introduced, an academic audience expects it to be explained and then illustrated. 

 

Let's look at an example. The two sentences below begin an academic paragraph.

Slave spirituals often had hidden double meanings. On one level, spirituals referenced heaven, Jesus, and the soul, but on another level, the songs spoke about slave resistance. 
  1. What is introduced in the first sentence?
  2. What is explained in the second sentence?
  3. If the writer is following the explain then illustrate structure, what do you expect to come next?

 

Check answers

Here is the next sentence:

For example, according to Frederick Douglass, the song “O Canaan, Sweet Canaan” spoke of slaves’ longing for heaven, but it also expressed their desire to escape to the North. 
  1. Did you guess it would be an illustration (example)?

 

Together, the paragraph reads like this so far:

Slave spirituals often had hidden double meanings. On one level, spirituals referenced heaven, Jesus, and the soul, but on another level, the songs spoke about slave resistance. For example, according to Frederick Douglass, the song “O Canaan, Sweet Canaan” spoke of slaves’ longing for heaven, but it also expressed their desire to escape to the North. 


Can you re-order the rest of the paragraph? The concluding sentence is already given at the end. Remember to look at Linking Words and the logical progression of academic writing.

Paragraph so far: Slave spirituals often had hidden double meanings. On one level, spirituals referenced heaven, Jesus, and the soul, but on another level, the songs spoke about slave resistance. For example, according to Frederick Douglass, the song “O Canaan, Sweet Canaan” spoke of slaves’ longing for heaven, but it also expressed their desire to escape to the North.

Which sentence comes next? And after that? And after that?

Slaves even used songs like “Steal Away to Jesus (at midnight)” to announce to other slaves the time and place of secret, forbidden meetings.
Careful listeners heard this second meaning in the following lyrics: “I don’t expect to stay / Much longer here. / Run to Jesus, shun the danger. / I don’t expect to stay.”

When slaves sang this song, they could have been speaking of their departure from this life and their arrival in heaven; however, they also could have been describing their plans to leave the South and run, not to Jesus, but to the North.

What whites heard as merely spiritual songs, slaves discerned as detailed messages.
 
Concluding sentence in the paragraph: The hidden meanings in spirituals allowed slaves to sing what they could not say.

  1. Which linking words helped you decide the order? How do linking words help with coherency?

 

Final Comments

In short, what we've done today is taken an example academic paragraph, and then cut it up. We then put the paragraph back in order. If you can do the same with your own paragraphs (cut it up, give it to a friend to re-order, and then they re-order it correctly), then your paragraph has strong coherence. If your friend can not put the paragraph back in order, then the paragraph lacks coherence.

Like everything else, coherency partially depends on your writing genre. If you wanted to write a novel, would you follow this idea of coherency? A poem? So, while there are some logical structures that seem natural (e.g. chronological), coherency also partially depends on genre, particularly the audience and their expectations. 

I also want to thank The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for allowing me to use their model paragraph.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Blog: My Experience with Global Game Jam 2018: Transmissions

This year's Global Game Jam (GGJ) was my first and the theme was Transmissions and boy was it enlightening.

For those of you unfamiliar with Global Game Jam, it's a yearly international event that asks people from all walks of life to join together to make a game in 48 hours. If you're interested in what goes into making games, then jams like GGJ provide an opportunity to lend your skills to the development of the game, whatever your skills may be: artist, audio, writing, coding, designing, and so on.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) provided a location so people in the area could meet like-minded individuals and have a collaborative working space for these 48 hours.  I went as a volunteer for Tech Valley Game Space and also participated in the event by teaming up with mostly RPI students, and in many ways it was an enlightening experience to be reminded why undergraduate students are hesitant to work in groups.

As I mentioned earlier, the theme for this year's G…