7.2 THE BIG PICTURE: Back to Basics — The Perfect Paragraph

As Michael Harvey writes in his book The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, paragraphs are “a form of punctuation, and like other forms of punctuation they are meant to make written material easy to read.”  Without good paragraphs, you simply cannot clearly convey sequential points and their relationships to one another. So it is important that you continue to study strategies for constructing, ordering, and relating paragraphs in academic writing.

Topic sentences

In academic writing, readers expect each paragraph to have a sentence or two that captures its main point. They’re often called “topic sentences.” In academic writing, topic sentences do two things:

  • They tell the reader the main point of the paragraph. All the other sentences in this paragraph will offer details to support this main point.
  • They explain to the reader how that main idea connects to the overall thesis of the paper. In other words, how does it grow out of the previous paragraph? And how does it feed the paragraph that follows? And, together, how does that support the thesis?

Consider these two examples from a research paper about climate change and global warming:

  • Version A: Now I will write about the biological evidence.
  • Version B: The biological evidence provides clear support that global warming is affecting more than the environment.

Both versions convey a topic: biological evidence.  However, Version B is doing a lot more than that. In version B, we can see that the writer is using this evidence to support a thesis related to global warming. Furthermore, since the writer says “more than the environment,” we can infer that the previous paragraph was probably about some environmental evidence, such as weather patterns.

Academic readers expect topic sentences to be at the beginning of the paragraph. That helps readers understand your argument. When you’re writing for professors, it is especially effective to put your topic sentences first because they usually convey your own original thinking. It’s a very good sign when your paragraphs are typically composed of a single clear idea followed by evidence and explanation.

Knowing this convention of academic writing can help you both read and write more effectively. When you’re reading a complicated academic piece for the first time, you might want to go through reading only the first sentence or two of each paragraph to get the overall outline of the argument. Then you can go back and read all of it with a clearer picture of how each of the details fit in. And when you’re writing, you may also find it useful to write the first sentence of each paragraph (instead of writing a topic-based outline) in order to map out a thorough argument before getting immersed in details. For example, compare these two ways to organize your ideas before writing (Remember? That’s the “O” part of the P.O.W.E.R. writing process). Which one would help you start writing more easily?


Traditional Outline Topic Sentence Outline
I. Granovetter’s “Strength of weak ties”
a. Definition
b. Example—getting jobs
The importance of networking for both career development and social change is well known. Granovetter (1973) explains that weak ties—that is, ties among acquaintances—are often more useful in job hunting because they connect job-seekers to a broader range of people and workplaces. …
II. Creativity in social networks
a. Explanation
b. Richard Florida’s argument
Subsequent research in network analysis has shown that weak ties can promote creativity by bringing ideas together from different social realms. …
Richard Florida (2002) argues that cities would do well to facilitate weak ties in order to recruit members of the “creative class” and spur economic development. …
III. Implications
a. For urban planners
b. For institutions of higher education
Florida’s argument can inspire a powerful new approach to strategic planning within colleges and universities as well. …

Cohesion and coherence

The next task is to make sure that your writing has unity. This depends on cohesion and coherence. Cohesion is about the “sense of flow” (how each sentence fits with the next), while coherence is about the “sense of the whole” (how everything supports the main idea, or thesis).

Watch these two short videos to learn more:



Ending your body paragraphs

Some teachers advise you to end each paragraph with a concluding sentence. But that’s not a widely held opinion. Most well-written academic papers do not adhere to that structure. The last sentence of the paragraph should certainly be in your own words (not a quote), but as long as the paragraph succeeds in carrying out the task that it has been assigned by its key sentence, you do not need to worry about ending with a sentence that wraps up each paragraph individually. It is more important to make sure the idea or thought flows from one paragraph to the next.

Optional: Where to find more information

If you want more information and practice, visit this website about writing strong paragraphs.




Let’s examine the flow of our writing by making a reverse outline of Essay 02 using its thesis statement and topic sentences. Here’s how:

  1. Start a new document.
  2. Copy and paste the your thesis statement from Essay 02.
  3. Copy and paste the topic sentence from each of the other paragraphs of your Essay 02.
  4. Correct any grammar errors.
  5. Read them again and then answer the question: How do your topic sentences reflect the flow of the thesis?


Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, milneopentextbooks.org/writing-in-college-from-competence-to-excellence/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA

Videos from: Smrt English. “Unity in English Academic Writing.” YouTube, 15 Nov. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXOiS0Yq_Qg. Accessed 10 Dec. 2021; and Write to the Top. “Cohesion & Coherence in Essay Writing.” www.youtube.com, 11 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6piVC5rgWsM. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.


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