Paragraph, if you will, is the macro building block of an essay, which makes success in composition writing comprehensively dependent on good paragraph development. Introductory paragraph, in particular, is so important because besides being the springboard upon which your readers take off, it also contains the theme and structure that set the tone of your essay. In spite of that, studies suggest that students of academic writing – from elementary to postgraduate level – appear to struggle with having a strong start off, which their introductory paragraph always provides. For some reasons, their focus has always shifted from the thematic structure, which is the crux of the paragraph, to other elements. My intention in this paper is to explore the thematic structure of an introductory paragraph by breaking its components down, using practical steps, which hopefully will help the students to acquire the writing skills.
Often, students learning to write an essay know that it has three major sections – the introduction, the body or discussion and the conclusion. And within the structure of these three sections, there are other elements, such as cohesion, thematic and syntactic structures, which form the internal structural content of the paragraph. To me, at least what I realized from teaching academic writing at the university for over a decade and a half, these are the aspects that appear unclear to most of the students.
If you will, it is so because writing is everything but an expression of human thoughts, which often is complex and open-ended; therefore, when students or people generally write, do get immersed unconsciously in an overflow of ideas, focusing more on what to say than how to say. For a second language learner this is where the problem comes because, unless the learner achieves an advanced proficiency level in the language, he/she always struggles with both efforts – what to say and how to say it. You may wonder why sometimes we skip words when we write. It’s obvious, our mental process is faster than our physical writing process and so our hands do not write from our eyes, but from our thought processes.
The above is, therefore, the reasons students can easily forget even the recent writing rudiments taught to them in class to focus subconsciously on what to say. Even though they think of how to say it, in the case of average second language learners, they shift that ‘how’ to grammar and vocabulary choice. The relationship between ideas, or what I described above as structural content, is often eclipsed by syntactic and dictionary considerations. This shift appears to be the factor that impedes good paragraph development among many students and writers at different levels.
So, let’s see if we can try out some strategies – very simple and practical ones – that could help us have control over our writing. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to write a middle school essay about your last vacation or a term paper for your postgraduate seminar. Is it a professional writing or academic writing? I assure you these simple tips will get your writing skills out of the box. They will guide you on how to account for whatever you write and maintain the flow of ideas without letting your thematic and linguistic structures slip out at the intersection of your mental and physical writing exercises? But I must also tell you that this cannot be achieved in a step at once, in two steps or even three; it must be through many stages. And that’s why many scholars believe writing can be better nurtured through the process approach rather than conceptualizing it as a product.
In a study of three major approaches to teaching writing – product, process and genre – Badger and White (2000), though recommend that combining the three approaches appears more effective, also believe that the process must be emphasised to achieve that. Richards and Renandya (2002) also support this idea in their edited book titled: “Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice.” It is this perspective of writing that underlines my suggestion to break down the paragraph into smaller structure following a practical and straightforward process.
To start with, I’d like to focus on only the introductory paragraph, that first group of sentences you make to provide your readers with an insight into what you intend to express in your piece of work. All paragraphs in an essay are related, especially in terms of content; also, dependent on one another by transitions, but each is unique mainly based on its position in the overall structure of the essay. An introduction has always been an essential aspect of an essay because of its strategic position. This is the first impression if you like that lasts long. You can keep your reader or send him away right from your introduction. There are many variations of the introductory paragraph, but I will examine only two, which are the common ones mainly based on how long or short your essay will be. So, let’s begin with the structure of the first variation.
Introductory paragraph: First variation
The first variation introductory paragraph if often found in short essays, and has basically four elements:
- The topic sentence (TS)
- Supporting sentences (SS)
- Detail sentences (DS)
Introductory paragraph: Second variation
On the other hand, the second type of introduction is usually associated with long essays, and has the following structure:
- The topic sentence (TS)
- Supporting sentences (SS)
- Transition sentence (TR)
These are the fundamental elements of an introductory paragraph. But note that SS and DS, if found, can be more than one, especially DS in the first variation and SS in the second variation. You shouldn’t be surprised also you find DS in the second variation because some writers would want to provide more details for their idea. In fact, it’s one SS but has the characteristics of a DS because it’s detailed.
Another component that could be found (or not found) is general idea statement, let’s call it ‘GS,’ which is why the position of a topic sentence in a paragraph remains a debate among writing scholars. When you have a general idea, the topic sentence will, therefore, become the second; some writing experts believe it can even be anywhere within the paragraph.
Also, it is worth noting that if the whole essay is just one paragraph, then we must have a concluding sentence (CS) at the end, a closely similar sentence to transition sentence mentioned in the second variation. I will not dwell so much on CS because our target is an introduction for an essay that has more than one paragraph – a minimum of three paragraphs.
Now, look at the below sample of a paragraph. Is it the variation one or two?
It is difficult to say if, over the few years of the present administration, Nigeria has made any significant progress in its persistent fight against Boko Haram. The terrorists seem to be on the rise after one and a half years of relative silence following a proclaimed degradation they suffered from the military. The Nigerian army on many occasions destroyed the enclaves of the terrorists, killing many of them and pushing the rest to neighbouring countries, like Cameroun and Chad. However, there were many reports that some of these runaway militants launched new attacks on a military base; in some instances, they even recaptured some of the communities that were freed by the military.
I’m sure; you realized this is the first variation. It has the following structure: a topic sentence, a supporting sentence and two detail sentences:
TS –> SS –> DS –> DS
It is, therefore, obvious that the rest of the supporting, which we don’t know yet, will be developed in the subsequent paragraphs, let’s say one idea in each paragraph.
What about the paragraph below?
It is difficult to say if, over the few years of the present administration, Nigeria has made any significant progress in its persistent fight against Boko Haram. The terrorists seem to be on the rise after one and a half years of relative silence following a proclaimed degradation they suffered from the military. Reports show that the government has struck a deal with the terrorists to release some of their captives, something many commentators described as dangerous. To further complicate the challenges, it appears the insurgents also shift their targets. Let’s examine in more details how successful the Nigerian government has been in all these security challenges posed to them by the Boko Haram.
Does the above paragraph look like the second variation? Yes, it does. You can tell; it is clear about all the supporting ideas that it is going to discuss – they are: ‘terrorist are on the rise again,’ government stroke a deal to release captives’ and terrorists shifted targets.’ You can also understand that this paragraph is most likely to be longer because none of all the supporting ideas mentioned has been expanded with details. So, here is the structure in terms of the letter code:
TS – SS – SS – SS – TR
Yes, now we have a transition sentence. But we also don’t have detail sentences.. Remember, you can make this paragraph even shorter. For example:
It is difficult to say if, over the few years of the present administration, Nigeria has made any significant progress in its persistent fight against Boko Haram. The terrorists seem to be on the rise; there is a dangerous deal to release captives and insurgents shift targets. Let’s examine in more details how successful the Nigerian government has been in all these security challenges posed to them by the Boko Haram.
Also, read: How to write a paragraph that makes sense
Now, let’s examine all the paragraphical elements generally from top to bottom.
General idea statement (GS)
Unlike the debate surrounding the position of a topic sentence in a paragraph, that of a general statement is almost certain that it always begins the paragraph, and it’s one of the unique characteristics of an introductory sentence. In other words, you don’t easily find general idea statement on subsequent paragraphs in an essay. You will also notice that it is called a ‘statement’ rather than a ‘sentence.’ This is a tactic to avoid generalization because not all general idea statements are complete sentences. When I say a sentence, I mean a structure, which traditional grammarians will refer to as having a subject and a predicate, and most modern linguists, especially the followers of Halliday’s Functional Grammar, will call a group of words that communicate a complete thought.
That, however, doesn’t mean the term ‘statement’ does not denote complete sense. In fact, ‘sentence’ and ‘statement’ are often used interchangeably.
So, coming back to the explanation of a general idea statement, it can be a phrase (just a group of words that have a complete meaning of a sentence), perhaps just a word! Take for example:
- What an uncertainty!
- The importance of security in building a thriving society cannot be overemphasized.
All the three examples above can be used separately as general ideas sentences to our given paragraph about Nigeria and Boko Haram. The first example is a word, the second is a phrase, and the last one is a complete sentence. Of course, we know, it’s not necessary to have GS; one can start the paragraph straight with a topic sentence. And, where we have GS, it does not state specific ideas; it always makes a broad statement to start off a discussion, to grab attention. You can say, general idea statement is often hyperbolic.
A topic sentence (TS)
The next thing after the general idea is a topic sentence. First, this must be a complete sentence, and it should be a more focused statement than a broad one, which, on reading, one can have an idea about what is being talked about and the focus of the discussion. It is sometimes called ‘ the main idea.’
A topic sentence has two major parts. Some experts call the parts ‘a topic’ and ‘a controlling idea.’ Others call them ‘a topic’ and a comment’ (Strauch, 2005).
A topic is the subject of your paragraph – that word (a phenomenon, a problem, a concept) that all the discussion is focused on while controlling idea or comment is the compass of the discussion if you like.
Below is the topic sentence from our sample paragraph. Can you identify the topic and the comment?
It is difficult to say if, over the few years of the present administration, Nigeria has made any significant progress in its persistent fight against Boko Haram
Given that the above topic sentence is meant for an argumentative paragraph, you may require a second look to be able to distinguish between the topic and the comment. The topic is ‘Nigerian government fight against Boko Haram,’ while the comment is ‘whether there was any significant process.’
Definitely, based on this topic sentence, we do not expect to see any guided statement in terms of winning or losing the fight. I use this example because it apparently may be the tricky one. Otherwise, a topic sentence for a descriptive or explanatory paragraph will be easy to identify. You can easily see the two elements positioned side-by-side in the sentence.
Supporting sentences (SS)
Once your topic sentence is nailed, the next thing will be to explain it – that’s what the supporting sentences precisely do. Remember, your topic sentence is just a glimpse into an idea, more sentences, comprising of more specific details, are required to expose the idea. Have a look at the highlighted parts of the below excerpt from our sample paragraph:
It is difficult to say if, over the few years of the present administration, Nigeria has made any significant progress in its persistent fight against Boko Haram. The terrorists seem to be on the rise after one and a half years of relative silence following a proclaimed degradation they suffered from the military.
The highlighted sentence is our supporting sentence, and it’s the only supporting sentence in the first variation paragraph. It explains what we mean by ‘if there were significant progress.’ And that is why we use the words proclaimed degradation to question the victory of the military over the terrorists. Anything that follows the SS (in the first variation paragraph) is a detail sentence, which I will discuss below.
Detail sentences (DS)
Sometimes, supporting sentences don’t give enough examples; they simply state the point (s) to explain an idea. To nail those points concretely, you need examples, facts and figures, that’s where a detail sentence intersects. For instance, in our SS (first variation), we only know that the terrorists are on the rise and the military proclaimed defeating them, but we don’t know how. So, we need facts and instances. See the highlighted parts below:
The terrorists seem to be on the rise after one and a half years of relative silence following a proclaimed degradation they suffered from the military. The Nigerian army on many occasions destroyed the enclaves of the terrorists, killing many of them and pushing the rest to neighbouring countries, like Cameroun and Chad. However, there were many reports that some of these runaway militants launched new attacks on a military base; in some instances, they even recaptured some of the communities that were freed by the military.
There are two long sentences, and both are mainly giving us facts to justify the assertions that terrorists on the rise and that military proclaimed triumph. This brings us to our last point – transition sentence.
Transition sentence (TR)
Most writing textbooks don’t usually dwell so much on transition sentences because they are not seen as fundamental elements of a paragraph. Though they affect cohesion, a phenomenon Halliday and Hassan (1976) describe as ‘formulaic sequences’ while explaining referencing in cohesion. Transition sentence is necessary as seen in our second variation paragraph, but it could also be an option in the first variation, especially if the last detail sentence doesn’t seem to connect coherently to the next paragraph. Below is the example of TR as found in our sample paragraph.
Let’s examine in more details how successful the Nigerian government has been in all these security challenges posed to them by the Boko Haram.
Now that we’ve seen how information is organized in different types of an introductory paragraph, it’s time to look at other things that help to give our paragraph the best structure it deserves.
One most important element that a writer will look out in structuring his paragraph is making sure information from one sentence to another are connected semantically; in other words, they flow successively without altering the meaning or affecting grammar. There is undoubtedly a massive discussion about cohesion, especially the one did by Halliday and Hassan and revised many times, but I will prefer that to be a separate article, so here we focus only on conjunctions/connectors and anaphoric references.
Make sure you use all your conjunctions and connectors correctly. Some of them have contrasting meaning, denoting opposite ideas to a preceded sentence (but, unfortunately, however, etc.), others show results (so, because, etc.), and a number of them indicate addition (and, or, etc.) and so on and so forth. These connectors and conjunctions are critical to the internal linkages of your paragraph. Check in our sample paragraph how we use these cohesive devices.
b. Anaphoric references
Halliday and Hassan describe anaphoric reference as a way of using mostly pronoun to refer back to what has been mention earlier in order to avoid unnecessary repetition. For example, in the excerpt below from our paragraph, the pronoun ‘they’ in the second part of the sentence is an anaphora to the word, ‘militants’ in the first part of the sentence.
One major problem about anaphoric referencing is that writers tend to switch persons and numbers. For example, a singular pronoun can be mistakenly used to refer to a plural noun or vice versa.
2. Grammar and punctuation
The last two points that I cannot stress enough with regards checking your paragraph are grammar and punctuations. Make sure all your sentences have clear subject and verbs. If you use complex and compound sentences, make sure subordinations are well established. Punctuation is the last thing. Check all commas, full stops, question marks and capitalizations – they are very significant to the meaning your paragraph creates.
Before I draw the conclusion of my work (hopefully you found it useful), let me leave you with a quiz – just two questions – to help you evaluate all that we’ve said so far regarding the development of an introductory paragraph.
- Reread the introduction of this article and see what type of introductory paragraph it is. Explain and give the letter-code of the structure.
- Do you have any further comments or suggestions? Let me know, please.
To sum up, I hope it’s now clear that, though writing a paragraph might seem complicated, following some of the practical steps we discussed could help unravel its mystery. Once we break it into piecemeal, it will not be difficult to consume. For example, to master an introductory paragraph, one must know all its components, what they contain, how to compose them and how they relate to each other. If there are different variations to any of the components, exploring them will give one a better insight into their characteristics. Having learned all these, the most important thing one can do to translate learning into skills is practice, practice and practice!
Badger, R. and White, G. (2000) A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, 54 (2), P. 153–160
Halliday, M.A.K; and Ruqayia Hasan (1976): Cohesion in English. London: Longman
Richards, J. C. and Renandya, W. A. (2002) (Eds.) Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice. Cambridge University Press: New York
Straunch, A. O. (2005) Writers at work: The short composition. Cambridge University Press: New York