Just as many of your essays will depend upon a thesis to assert and control its argument, so will many of your paragraphs require a topic sentence to assert and control their main ideas. Without a topic sentence, or claim, paragraphs can seem jumbled. Readers may find themselves confused.
Because the structure and sense of a paragraph often draws from the topic sentence or claim, the writer must craft them with care. Tutors and writing assistants will want to pay close attention to topic sentences: a weak or empty topic sentence is often followed by a paragraph that rambles aimlessly. Strong topic sentences, on the other hand, practically write the paragraphs that follow them.
When you come across a troubled paragraph, ask yourself:
When writers compose paragraphs, they face two important questions: First, how can a writer know when an paragraph is fully developed? And second, how does a writer arrange his paragraph so that its logic is clear? As a tutor or writing assistant, you will want to ask the following questions of the paragraphs you are reading:
If the topic sentence is well-written, it will tell a writer how long her paragraph should be, and what it needs to do. But what do you do when you encounter a paragraph that seems to be under-developed (or over-developed)? Consider making the following kinds of observations:
The most common problem with paragraphs is that they often aren't developed logically. Writers have either failed to work out the logic of their argument, or they have problems expressing that argument clearly and coherently (more on coherence in a moment).
Often, however, the problem is that the writer doesn't understand that paragraph development benefits from analysis. Writers who have been taught to write using the five-paragraph-theme model often believe that paragraphs exist to give examples of the point they've declared in the topic sentence - when in fact, paragraphs exist to develop or to analyze that point.
For example: A student is writing a paper whose argument is that Fitzgerald's work is autobiographical. He sees this trend in three novels: The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon. He decides to make his first paragraph a list of all of the ways that Jay Gatsby is like Fitzgerald. The second paragraph does the same for the protagonist of Tender is the Night. And so on. What the writer of this paper fails to understand is 1) that each paragraph is saying essentially the same thing (the argument does not go anywhere), and 2) that evidence is not the same thing as argument
If a writer doesn't understand that paragraphs are units of a larger argument, each with the task of developing, analytically, one of the argument's points, then the argument is likely to stall. Another reason to convince young writers to abandon the five-paragraph theme!
Imagine that a writer has come to you having gotten this far: she has her thesis, her topic sentence, and truckloads of evidence to support the whole lot. But even though she's followed her outline and everything is "there," the essay just doesn't seem to hold together. The writer has a problem with coherence.
A lack of coherence is easy to diagnose, but not so easy to cure. An incoherent essay doesn't seem to flow. Its arguments are hard to follow. The reader has to double back again and again in order to follow the gist of the argument. Something has gone wrong. What?
Look for these problems in the paper:
According to Maxwell, the correlation between equality and gender characterized the first regime of the women's movement that began in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the crafters of the constitution never intended women to be included in the governing of the United States, but at no point did they ever envision that women might be able to vote. The significance of the "all men are created equal" clause of the constitution becomes clear, as Maxwell states, when one acknowledges that women were not considered to be men, asthey are now. At this point, Maxwell highlights a key component in the success of women's suffrage: women needed first to convince society that they were indeed people.When faced with a paragraph like this, you should ask the writer to think about which of the five grammatical subjects, if any, is actually the subject of the paragraph. She can then revise the paragraph accordingly.
Last Updated: 11/29/12