When exploring a text, consider the structure and arrangement of paragraphs. Follow the colors in the discussion and example below. Note, if you have difficulty distinguishing between these colors or if you’re not using a color copy of the text, the first shaded part identifies the topic sentence, the shaded part in the middle identifies the support, and the final shaded part identifies the transition.
In terms of structure, an “academic” paragraph includes a topic sentence, which introduces* the paragraph’s main idea. It then offers several sentences (or at least one, as a minimum) to support or explain the topic sentence. Finally, it concludes with a sentence that helps transition to the next paragraph.
*Note that the topic sentence is often, but not always, the first sentence in the paragraph. You’ll hear more about that later. (For more about topic sentences see “Writing Paragraphs” in the “Drafting” section of this text.)
Here’s an example:
Single-use plastic water bottles cause dangerous substances to “leach” into the soil and water (Macklin). The bottles typically don’t begin to break down for one hundred years, or even longer. Their decomposition may be speeded up by extreme weather conditions, e.g., very hot or very cold temperatures. As they break down, they release dangerous chemicals like bisphenol-A into the soil. Bisphenol-A is an endocrine disruptor, i.e., it can affect the levels of hormones within the human body, creating disease. In addition, BPA is known to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in humans. As these chemicals accumulate in the soil, they eventually sink into the water table, contaminating the water (O’Connor). Making these threats even more frightening is the fact that there is currently no known technology for removing BPA and other leachates from the soil and water once they’re there.
Writers may choose to use short or long paragraphs to create specific effects—much the same as using short and long sentences. Short paragraphs can build tension or a sense of expectation, while long ones may create a “stream of consciousness” feeling, in which the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are given in a continuous, rambling flow.
The classic arrangement of paragraphs in a text may be described as “linear” or time-based. In other words, the narrator typically starts at the beginning and moves logically to the end. Sometimes a writer will use flashbacks, flash-forwards, or dream/imaginative sequences to affect the usual flow of time in the story or to provide additional information. For example, a flashback allows the reader to learn something about the story’s past they wouldn’t have known otherwise.