A paragraph is a mini-essay. Like an essay, it has a beginning, middle, and an end:
- The beginning is called the "topic sentence" (the first sentence in the paragraph) and reflects the author's opinion about a specific point that supports the thesis.
- The middle contains the evidence used to support that opinion.
- The end, or final sentence, reflects the summary of the discussion in the paragraph. It also transitions into the next paragraph (we'll discuss that later).
Example: In the following example, bold indicates the opinion, italics indicates the evidence, and underline indicates the interpretation of that evidence to support the opinion. This paragraph is adapted from "The Population Surprise," by Max Singer, published in The Atlantic Monthly.
Fifty years from now, the world's population will be declining, with no end in sight. The big surprise of the past twenty years is that in not one country did fertility stop falling when it reached the replacement rate - 2.1 children per woman. In the Unites States, fertility rates have been falling for 200 years (except for the blip of the Baby Boom), but partly because of immigration it has stayed only slightly above replacement level for twenty-five years. In Italy, for example, the rate has fallen to 1.2. In Western Europe as a whole and in Japan it is down to 1.5. World population was growing by two percent a year in the 1960's; the rate is now down to one percent a year, and if the patterns of the past century don't change radically, it will head into negative numbers. Given this trend, several centuries from now there could be fewer people living in the entire world than live in the United States today, unless people's values change. [This last phrase is the transition into the next paragraph, which explores how population levels are determined by peoples' value systems.]
- Where do you see the author's opinion most clearly?
- Where do you see the evidence within the paragraph?
- Where do you see interpretation?
- Of the three (opinion, evidence, interpretation), what makes up the bulk of the paragraph? Why might that be a good thing?
A Basic Recipe for Beautiful Paragraphs
- Identify the point of argument for the paragraph.
- Identify your opinion about that point of argument.
- Write a topic sentence that includes both the point of argument and your opinion about that point.
- Make a list of the bits of evidence that best support that point.
- Arrange those bits of evidence in the order you would like to present them.
- Following the topic sentence, introduce your first bit of evidence with a simple phrase such as "for example" or "for instance".
- As you move through your items of evidence, include interpretive phrases/sentences that reflect the opinion of your topic sentence (e.g. "we see further evidence of *** in how..." or "the author emphasizes this point of *** by stating***"). These phrases are the glue that hold the bits of evidence together, reminding the reader of their relevance to the paragraph.
- Close the paragraph by rephrasing the topic sentence and foreshadowing your next topic sentence.