Paragraph Structure

Paragraph Structure

Effective paragraphs are significant in all types of writing. Your paragraphs guide your reader through the paper by helping to explain, substantiate, and support your thesis statement or argument. Each paragraph should discuss one major point or idea. An effective paragraph has three parts: claim, evidence, and analysis.

Claim

This is also sometimes called a topic sentence. This will be your way of announcing the main concentrate of your paragraph; it should tell the reader what your paragraph will be about.

It may be helpful to think of your claims as mini arguments that support the paper’s main argument or thesis. Just as in the thesis statement, your topic sentences should be debatable. In other words, they should be arguable claims that you will attempt to “prove” with your evidence.

If you get stuck developing these claims, attempt to think of reasons why your thesis is true. Each claim should be a reason why the reader should believe your paper’s main idea. For example, perhaps you’re writing an essay about whether people should drink soy milk instead of cow’s milk. Your “reasons” for this might include health benefits, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness, and safety, so you would concentrate one paragraph on each of these topics.

One of the most common mistakes is to present a topic sentence that is actually an observation of facts or a description of events rather than an active argument. When you make a claim based on a fact or event in your topic sentence, you aren’t presenting an arguable claim that you can back up with your evidence in that paragraph.

Here are some sample claims for the “health benefits of soy” paragraph:

  • Claim based on a fact or event (feeble): Soy milk contains healthy isoflavones and nutrients.
  • Claim based on an active argument (stronger): The isoflavones and nutrients in soy milk help to protect the bod from disease and promote good health, so soy is a better choice.
  • The very first example is powerless because it presents facts that cannot be disputed; the 2nd example is stronger because it uses those facts to make an argument. As you can see, the 2nd example not only tells the reader that soy contains healthy isoflavones and nutrients, but it also argues that these facts make soy milk a better choice.

To evaluate whether your paper contains effective claims in each paragraph, read only the very first sentence of each paragraph. You should be able to go after the development of the paper’s thesis by reading only the claim sentences. These should tell you the main points that you are making across the paper. Your claims will also prepare the reader for the 2nd section of your paragraph.

Evidence

This is how you support, or back up, your claims. The evidence will help to “prove” each claim to the reader.

In a paper that incorporates research from secondary sources, your evidence may include information from articles, books, electronic sources, or any of the research you gathered. The evidence may take the form of a direct quotation, paraphrased material, statistical data, or any other information from one of your sources that helps to support your claim.

Attempt to incorporate information from several sources into each paragraph. Avoid just “retelling” the information from a single author or article. Aim to represent a diversity of opinions and views. This way, you’re not just telling the reader what one pro says, but you’re explaining how your claim is supported by research from several experts in your field.

Here are some examples of powerless and strong evidence sections:

Evidence that includes information from one source (feeble evidence):

According to Collins, soy milk has more protein than cow’s milk, and doesn’t contain the saturated fat or cholesterol (1). Soybeans are “accomplish protein” because they contain all eight amino acids (Collins 1). Collins points out that “as little as 25 mg of soy protein a day may decrease levels of LDL cholesterol and Triglycerides” (1) and this may reduce the chance of heart disease. Since soy is a “low-glycemic index” food, it may help people attempting to lose weight “feel more sated and less greedy until your next meal, which is beneficial for weight management and control” (1).

Evidence that includes information from a diversity of sources (stronger evidence):

Scientists believe that soy milk has the potential to balance cholesterol levels in humans: “A diet with significant soy protein reduces Total Cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides” (Tsang 1). Since soy milk is one of the easiest ways to incorporate soy into the diet, this is a good choice for people seeking to lower their LDL and triglycerides. Soy milk also may reduce the potential for heart disease. Asian countries, which traditionally consume more soy protein, have a much lower incidence of heart disease and many types of cancer (Berkeley Four). The benefits of soy aren’t just limited to the heart, however. Soy milk and cheese made from soy milk may help with weight loss since they contain less saturated fat than regular dairy products, albeit they contain about the same amounts of fat as reduced-fat milk and cheese (Collins 1). Some researchers even believe that soy may help to stimulate the metabolism (Duke Four).

Note that the 2nd example seems more “balanced,” because the author demonstrates skill of the subject and incorporates several pro opinions to back up the claim.

Sometimes your assignment will not require you to conduct research into secondary sources, and you may need to use your own ideas or practices as evidence to back up your claims. Attempt to be very specific. If you include detailed examples and explanations, your evidence will be more interesting and more persuasive to the reader, and you will seem like more of an authority on your topic:

Evidence that isn’t specific (feeble evidence):

My mother’s cholesterol was bad, and the doctor said that soy might help with this. Our family commenced eating more soy and soy milk, and her levels eventually got much better. During this time, all of us also lost fairly a bit of weight.

Evidence that is specific (stronger evidence):

Two years ago, my mother’s LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level was 242, and her HDL (“good”) cholesterol was 37, so she was considered “high risk.” Since she was hesitant to take cholesterol-lowering medications, her internist suggested that she attempt to incorporate more soy into her diet. He believed that it was worthwhile to attempt this before placing her on medications. In order to support her, our entire family commenced drinking soy milk and walking in the evenings. After six months, her LDL dropped to 198 and her HDL rose to 45, which was a dramatic improvement. Our family all lost fairly a bit of weight, as well: my mother lost fifteen pounds and my father lost more than twenty. Her doctor tells her that if she resumes this lifestyle switch, she will significantly reduce her chance of heart problems in the future.

The 2nd example not only contains more information, but it presents it in a believable and interesting way. By including specific details, the author emerges to be an “accomplished,” so the evidence is more persuasive.

Analysis

Your analysis or concluding observation is your way of “wrapping up” the information introduced in your paragraph. It should explain why the evidence supports your claim and why this supports the main thesis in your paper.

It’s significant to end with your own analysis of the information rather than with evidence. This keeps you “in control” of the paper; if you end with evidence, you’re emphasizing ideas from your sources rather than your own. The reader relies on you to analyze the evidence in the paragraph and explain why it matters to the claim and to the rest of the paper.

Here are some examples of powerless and strong analysis/concluding observation sections:

Analysis that is truly evidence (powerless): Experts at Duke University’s School of Medicine agree that soy milk is a healthy choice.

Analysis that doesn’t relate evidence to claim and thesis statement (powerless): Soy milk therefore prevents disease.

Analysis that explains why evidence supports the claim and why this is significant to the paper’s thesis (strong): The disease-fighting and health-promoting components of soy milk have the potential to switch people’s health and to improve their lives by affecting both cholesterol and weight. This makes soy milk an significant factor in heart health, so people should consider switching to soy milk.

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