The Ultimate Guide to the 5-Paragraph Essay

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  • M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
  • B.A., History, Armstrong State University

A five-paragraph essay is a prose composition that follows a prescribed format of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph, and is typically taught during primary English education and applied on standardized testing throughout schooling.

Learning to write a high-quality five-paragraph essay is an essential skill for students in early English classes as it allows them to express certain ideas, claims, or concepts in an organized manner, complete with evidence that supports each of these notions. Later, though, students may decide to stray from the standard five-paragraph format and venture into writing an  exploratory essay  instead.

Still, teaching students to organize essays into the five-paragraph format is an easy way to introduce them to writing literary criticism, which will be tested time and again throughout their primary, secondary, and further education.

Writing a Good Introduction

The introduction is the first paragraph in your essay, and it should accomplish a few specific goals: capture the reader's interest, introduce the topic, and make a claim or express an opinion in a thesis statement.

It's a good idea to start your essay with a hook (fascinating statement) to pique the reader's interest, though this can also be accomplished by using descriptive words, an anecdote, an intriguing question, or an interesting fact. Students can practice with creative writing prompts to get some ideas for interesting ways to start an essay.

The next few sentences should explain your first statement, and prepare the reader for your thesis statement, which is typically the last sentence in the introduction. Your  thesis sentence  should provide your specific assertion and convey a clear point of view, which is typically divided into three distinct arguments that support this assertation, which will each serve as central themes for the body paragraphs.

Writing Body Paragraphs

The body of the essay will include three body paragraphs in a five-paragraph essay format, each limited to one main idea that supports your thesis.

To correctly write each of these three body paragraphs, you should state your supporting idea, your topic sentence, then back it up with two or three sentences of evidence. Use examples that validate the claim before concluding the paragraph and using transition words to lead to the paragraph that follows — meaning that all of your body paragraphs should follow the pattern of "statement, supporting ideas, transition statement."

Words to use as you transition from one paragraph to another include: moreover, in fact, on the whole, furthermore, as a result, simply put, for this reason, similarly, likewise, it follows that, naturally, by comparison, surely, and yet.

Writing a Conclusion

The final paragraph will summarize your main points and re-assert your main claim (from your thesis sentence). It should point out your main points, but should not repeat specific examples, and should, as always, leave a lasting impression on the reader.

The first sentence of the conclusion, therefore, should be used to restate the supporting claims argued in the body paragraphs as they relate to the thesis statement, then the next few sentences should be used to explain how the essay's main points can lead outward, perhaps to further thought on the topic. Ending the conclusion with a question, anecdote, or final pondering is a great way to leave a lasting impact.

Once you complete the first draft of your essay, it's a good idea to re-visit the thesis statement in your first paragraph. Read your essay to see if it flows well, and you might find that the supporting paragraphs are strong, but they don't address the exact focus of your thesis. Simply re-write your thesis sentence to fit your body and summary more exactly, and adjust the conclusion to wrap it all up nicely.

Practice Writing a Five-Paragraph Essay

Students can use the following steps to write a standard essay on any given topic. First, choose a topic, or ask your students to choose their topic, then allow them to form a basic five-paragraph by following these steps:

  • Decide on your  basic thesis , your idea of a topic to discuss.
  • Decide on three pieces of supporting evidence you will use to prove your thesis.
  • Write an introductory paragraph, including your thesis and evidence (in order of strength).
  • Write your first body paragraph, starting with restating your thesis and focusing on your first piece of supporting evidence.
  • End your first paragraph with a transitional sentence that leads to the next body paragraph.
  • Write paragraph two of the body focussing on your second piece of evidence. Once again make the connection between your thesis and this piece of evidence.
  • End your second paragraph with a transitional sentence that leads to paragraph number three.
  • Repeat step 6 using your third piece of evidence.
  • Begin your concluding paragraph by restating your thesis. Include the three points you've used to prove your thesis.
  • End with a punch, a question, an anecdote, or an entertaining thought that will stay with the reader.

Once a student can master these 10 simple steps, writing a basic five-paragraph essay will be a piece of cake, so long as the student does so correctly and includes enough supporting information in each paragraph that all relate to the same centralized main idea, the thesis of the essay.

Limitations of the Five-Paragraph Essay

The five-paragraph essay is merely a starting point for students hoping to express their ideas in academic writing; there are some other forms and styles of writing that students should use to express their vocabulary in the written form.

According to Tory Young's "Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide":

"Although school students in the U.S. are examined on their ability to write a  five-paragraph essay , its  raison d'être  is purportedly to give practice in basic writing skills that will lead to future success in more varied forms. Detractors feel, however, that writing to rule in this way is more likely to discourage imaginative writing and thinking than enable it. . . . The five-paragraph essay is less aware of its  audience  and sets out only to present information, an account or a kind of story rather than explicitly to persuade the reader."

Students should instead be asked to write other forms, such as journal entries, blog posts, reviews of goods or services, multi-paragraph research papers, and freeform expository writing around a central theme. Although five-paragraph essays are the golden rule when writing for standardized tests, experimentation with expression should be encouraged throughout primary schooling to bolster students' abilities to utilize the English language fully.

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This form of writing goes by different names. Maybe you've heard some of them before: "The Basic Essay," "The Academic Response Essay," "The 1-3-1 Essay." Regardless of what you've heard, the name you should remember is "The Easy Essay."

Once you are shown how this works--and it only takes a few minutes--you will have in your hands the secret to writing well on almost any academic assignment. Here is how it goes.

Secret #1—The Magic of Three

Three has always been a magic number for humans, from fairy tales like "The Three Little Pigs" to sayings like “third time’s a charm.” Three seems to be an ideal number for us--including the academic essay. So whenever you are given a topic to write about, a good place to begin is with a list of three. Here are some examples (three of them, of course):

Topic : What are the essential characteristics of a good parent? Think in threes and you might come up with:

  • unconditional love 

Certainly, there are more characteristics of good parents you could name, but for our essay, we will work in threes.

Here's a topic that deals with a controversial issue:

Topic : Should women in the military be given frontline combat duties?

  • The first reason that women should be assigned to combat is equality. 
  • The second reason is their great teamwork. 
  • The third reason is their courage.

As you see, regardless of the topic, we can list three points about it. And if you wonder about the repetition of words and structure when stating the three points, in this case, repetition is a good thing. Words that seem redundant when close together in an outline will be separated by the actual paragraphs of your essay. So in the essay instead of seeming redundant they will be welcome as signals to the reader of your essay’s main parts.

Finally, when the topic is an academic one, your first goal is the same: create a list of three.

Topic: Why do so many students fail to complete their college degree?

  • First, students often...
  • Second, many students cannot...
  • Finally, students find that...

Regardless of the reasons you might come up with to finish these sentences, the formula is still the same.

Secret #2: The Thesis Formula

Now with your list of three, you can write the sentence that every essay must have—the thesis, sometimes called the "controlling idea," "overall point," or "position statement." In other words, it is the main idea of the essay that you will try to support, illustrate, or corroborate.

Here’s a simple formula for a thesis: The topic + your position on the topic = your thesis.

Let’s apply this formula to one of our examples:

Topic: Essential characteristics of a good parent Your Position: patience, respect, love Thesis: The essential characteristics of a good parent are patience, respect, and love.

As you see, all we did was combine the topic with our position/opinion on it into a single sentence to produce the thesis: The essential characteristics of a good parent are patience, respect, and love.

In this case, we chose to list three main points as part of our thesis. Sometimes that’s a good strategy. However, you can summarize them if you wish, as in this example:

Topic: Women in combat duty in the military Your Position: They deserve it Thesis: Women deserve to be assigned combat duty in the military.

This type of thesis is shorter and easier to write because it provides the overall position or opinion without forcing you to list the support for it in the thesis, which can get awkward and take away from your strong position statement. The three reasons women deserve to be assigned combat duties--equality, teamwork, courage--will be the subjects of your three body paragraphs and do not need to be mentioned until the body paragraph in which they appear.

Secret #3: The 1-3-1 Outline

With your thesis and list of three main points, you can quickly draw a basic outline of the paragraphs of your essay. You’ll then see why this is often called the 1-3-1 essay.

  • Supporting Evidence for Claim 1    
  • Supporting Evidence for Claim 2
  • Supporting Evidence for Claim 3

The five-paragraph essay consists of one introduction paragraph (with the thesis at its end), three body paragraphs (each beginning with one of three main points) and one last paragraph—the conclusion. 1-3-1.

Once you have this outline, you have the basic template for most academic writing. Most of all, you have an organized way to approach virtually any topic you are assigned.

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Essay Writing: Structuring the 5-Paragraph Essay

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"Five-Paragraph Essays"

Structuring the five-paragraph essay.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Begins with a sentence that captures the reader’s attention

1) You may want to use an interesting example, a surprising statistic, or a challenging question.

B. Gives background information on the topic.

C. Includes the THESIS STATEMENT which:

1) States the main ideas of the essay and includes:

b. Viewpoint (what you plan to say about the topic)

2) Is more general than supporting data

3) May mention the main point of each of the body paragraphs

II. BODY PARAGRAPH #1

A. Begins with a topic sentence that:

1) States the main point of the paragraph

2) Relates to the THESIS STATEMENT

B. After the topic sentence, you must fill the paragraph with organized details, facts, and examples.

C. Paragraph may end with a transition.

III. BODY PARAGRAPH #2

B. After the topic sentence, you must fill the paragraph with organized details, facts, and examples.

IV. BODY PARAGRAPH #3

3) States the main point of the paragraph

4) Relates to the THESIS STATEMENT

V. CONCLUSION

A. Echoes the THESIS STATEMENT but does not repeat it.

B. Poses a question for the future, suggests some action to be taken, or warns of a consequence.

C. Includes a detail or example from the INTRODUCTION to “tie up” the essay.

D. Ends with a strong image – or a humorous or surprising statement.

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Proofreading with SWAPS

S entence Structure:

  • Be sure that every sentence in paragraph supports the topic sentence.
  • Avoid run-on sentences.
  • Avoid sentence fragments.

W ord Usage:

  • Be sure you have used the correct words (homophones)          eg: there/they’re/their or to/too/two
  • Avoid slang words
  • Avoid pronoun overuse

A greement:

  • Be sure that subjects and verbs agree in number (singular/plural)
  • Keep verb tense consistent (present, past, future)

P unctuation:

  • Be sure that all sentences have ending punctuation.
  • Use commas after items in lists except for the last item.
  • Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction.

S pelling & Capitalization:

  • Check for spelling errors (manually or with a computer program)
  • Begin each sentence with a capital letter.
  • Check homophones.
  • Capitalize proper nouns.
  • Be sure apostrophes are used in contractions and possessives

Downloadable Worksheet: Choosing and Narrowing Your Topic

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What is a Thesis Statement?

The final sentence in your Introduction paragraph should be your  Thesis Statement. 

Begin your paragraph wi th a single, clear and concise sentence stating the Topic  of your essay; then, g ive your reader a roadmap for the main points you will use to support your thesis . Include the limits of your argument.  End by summing up your  essay’s main idea or argument with your Thesis Statement .

More help with Thesis Statements is available on  this page from Rasmussen College Library . 

SAMPLE INTRODUCTORY PARAGRAPHS with HIGHLIGHTED THESIS STATEMENT

 All countries are unique. Obviously, countries are different from one another in location, size, language, government, climate, and lifestyle. Some countries, however, share some surprising similarities. In this case, Brazil and the United States come to mind. Some may think that these two nations have very little in common because they are in different hemispheres. On the contrary, the two countries share many similarities.

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5.1: 5¶E – What is the 5 Paragraph Essay?

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You may not know what I mean when I say 5 Paragraph Essay, but even if the name is unfamiliar, the concepts of it are probably something you recall doing often in your prior education.  In short, it is an essay where the following format was used:

  • Intro Paragraph (with a thesis statement in the last sentence or two…sometimes underlined)
  • Body #1 (the first point of the larger subject that you will address and likely mentioned in the thesis)
  • Body #2 (the second point of the larger subject that you will address and likely mentioned in the thesis)
  • Body #3 (the third point of the larger subject that you will address and likely mentioned in the thesis)
  • Conclusion (reiterate what you have already written and restate the thesis)

Does this look familiar now?  Most of you probably used it extensively throughout high school (if that was your last educational experience) regardless of the subject/class you were in.  It was likely a catch-all and worked for any and all subject matters from history to social studies.  The question is whether this same format will work in college.  The following are notes to consider as to the merits and/or downfalls of this familiar essay format:

5¶E (Five Paragraph Essay)

Two missing, most important factors which are integral and necessary in all good writing:

To whom are you writing?

Why are you writing?

The Five Paragraph Essay is devoid of any consideration of AUDIENCE and PURPOSE since the audience is always the teacher and the purpose largely revolves around getting a good grade by pleasing the teacher.  The idea that you are writing to a teacher for a grade is not realistic in real world writing and will not likely work for all of your paper assignments in college.  That said, you need not abandon ship on it all together, but there is a real likelihood that it will not work in all instances, even in academic settings.  AUDIENCE and PURPOSE are key in all quality writing and the Five Paragraph Essay does not account for these.  If one considers these two factors, it can help shape how you approach writing and how the structure will unfold.  To demonstrate, consider the following:

1) You’re writing an email to a friend asking him/her to come visit this weekend.

2) You got pulled over recently and you’re writing a letter to the judge to ask for clemency.

What would both of these writing instances sound/look like?  Would the tone and structure be the same for each of these instances?  The Five Paragraph Essay assumes they would, and thus you should be able to switch out the writing in each situation.  Do you think you’d write a formal email to your friend or an informal letter to the judge?  This is why AUDIENCE and  PURPOSE are so important to succeeding in writing.

  • 5u00b6E - What is the 5 Paragraph Essay?. Authored by : Jason Brown. Provided by : Herkimer College. Project : AtD OER Course. License : CC BY: Attribution

A clear, arguable thesis will tell your readers where you are going to end up, but it can also help you figure out how to get them there. Put your thesis at the top of a blank page and then make a list of the points you will need to make to argue that thesis effectively.

For example, consider this example from the thesis handout : While Sandel argues persuasively that our instinct to “remake”(54) ourselves into something ever more perfect is a problem, his belief that we can always draw a line between what is medically necessary and what makes us simply “better than well”(51) is less convincing.

To argue this thesis, the author needs to do the following:

  • Show what is persuasive about Sandel’s claims about the problems with striving for perfection.
  • Show what is not convincing about Sandel’s claim that we can clearly distinguish between medically necessary enhancements and other enhancements.

Once you have broken down your thesis into main claims, you can then think about what sub-claims you will need to make in order to support each of those main claims. That step might look like this:

  • Evidence that Sandel provides to support this claim
  • Discussion of why this evidence is convincing even in light of potential counterarguments
  • Discussion of cases when medically necessary enhancement and non-medical enhancement cannot be easily distinguished
  • Analysis of what those cases mean for Sandel’s argument
  • Consideration of counterarguments (what Sandel might say in response to this section of your argument)

Each argument you will make in an essay will be different, but this strategy will often be a useful first step in figuring out the path of your argument.  

Strategy #2: Use subheadings, even if you remove them later  

Scientific papers generally include standard subheadings to delineate different sections of the paper, including “introduction,” “methods,” and “discussion.” Even when you are not required to use subheadings, it can be helpful to put them into an early draft to help you see what you’ve written and to begin to think about how your ideas fit together. You can do this by typing subheadings above the sections of your draft.

If you’re having trouble figuring out how your ideas fit together, try beginning with informal subheadings like these:

  • Introduction  
  • Explain the author’s main point  
  • Show why this main point doesn’t hold up when we consider this other example  
  • Explain the implications of what I’ve shown for our understanding of the author  
  • Show how that changes our understanding of the topic

For longer papers, you may decide to include subheadings to guide your reader through your argument. In those cases, you would need to revise your informal subheadings to be more useful for your readers. For example, if you have initially written in something like “explain the author’s main point,” your final subheading might be something like “Sandel’s main argument” or “Sandel’s opposition to genetic enhancement.” In other cases, once you have the key pieces of your argument in place, you will be able to remove the subheadings.  

Strategy #3: Create a reverse outline from your draft  

While you may have learned to outline a paper before writing a draft, this step is often difficult because our ideas develop as we write. In some cases, it can be more helpful to write a draft in which you get all of your ideas out and then do a “reverse outline” of what you’ve already written. This doesn’t have to be formal; you can just make a list of the point in each paragraph of your draft and then ask these questions:

  • Are those points in an order that makes sense to you?  
  • Are there gaps in your argument?  
  • Do the topic sentences of the paragraphs clearly state these main points?  
  • Do you have more than one paragraph that focuses on the same point? If so, do you need both paragraphs?  
  • Do you have some paragraphs that include too many points? If so, would it make more sense to split them up?  
  • Do you make points near the end of the draft that would be more effective earlier in your paper?  
  • Are there points missing from this draft?  
  • picture_as_pdf Tips for Organizing Your Essay

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout will help you understand how paragraphs are formed, how to develop stronger paragraphs, and how to completely and clearly express your ideas.

What is a paragraph?

Paragraphs are the building blocks of papers. Many students define paragraphs in terms of length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a paragraph is half a page long, etc. In reality, though, the unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph. A paragraph is defined as “a group of sentences or a single sentence that forms a unit” (Lunsford and Connors 116). Length and appearance do not determine whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. For instance, in some styles of writing, particularly journalistic styles, a paragraph can be just one sentence long. Ultimately, a paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences that support one main idea. In this handout, we will refer to this as the “controlling idea,” because it controls what happens in the rest of the paragraph.

How do I decide what to put in a paragraph?

Before you can begin to determine what the composition of a particular paragraph will be, you must first decide on an argument and a working thesis statement for your paper. What is the most important idea that you are trying to convey to your reader? The information in each paragraph must be related to that idea. In other words, your paragraphs should remind your reader that there is a recurrent relationship between your thesis and the information in each paragraph. A working thesis functions like a seed from which your paper, and your ideas, will grow. The whole process is an organic one—a natural progression from a seed to a full-blown paper where there are direct, familial relationships between all of the ideas in the paper.

The decision about what to put into your paragraphs begins with the germination of a seed of ideas; this “germination process” is better known as brainstorming . There are many techniques for brainstorming; whichever one you choose, this stage of paragraph development cannot be skipped. Building paragraphs can be like building a skyscraper: there must be a well-planned foundation that supports what you are building. Any cracks, inconsistencies, or other corruptions of the foundation can cause your whole paper to crumble.

So, let’s suppose that you have done some brainstorming to develop your thesis. What else should you keep in mind as you begin to create paragraphs? Every paragraph in a paper should be :

  • Unified : All of the sentences in a single paragraph should be related to a single controlling idea (often expressed in the topic sentence of the paragraph).
  • Clearly related to the thesis : The sentences should all refer to the central idea, or thesis, of the paper (Rosen and Behrens 119).
  • Coherent : The sentences should be arranged in a logical manner and should follow a definite plan for development (Rosen and Behrens 119).
  • Well-developed : Every idea discussed in the paragraph should be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the paragraph’s controlling idea (Rosen and Behrens 119).

How do I organize a paragraph?

There are many different ways to organize a paragraph. The organization you choose will depend on the controlling idea of the paragraph. Below are a few possibilities for organization, with links to brief examples:

  • Narration : Tell a story. Go chronologically, from start to finish. ( See an example. )
  • Description : Provide specific details about what something looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like. Organize spatially, in order of appearance, or by topic. ( See an example. )
  • Process : Explain how something works, step by step. Perhaps follow a sequence—first, second, third. ( See an example. )
  • Classification : Separate into groups or explain the various parts of a topic. ( See an example. )
  • Illustration : Give examples and explain how those examples support your point. (See an example in the 5-step process below.)

Illustration paragraph: a 5-step example

From the list above, let’s choose “illustration” as our rhetorical purpose. We’ll walk through a 5-step process for building a paragraph that illustrates a point in an argument. For each step there is an explanation and example. Our example paragraph will be about human misconceptions of piranhas.

Step 1. Decide on a controlling idea and create a topic sentence

Paragraph development begins with the formulation of the controlling idea. This idea directs the paragraph’s development. Often, the controlling idea of a paragraph will appear in the form of a topic sentence. In some cases, you may need more than one sentence to express a paragraph’s controlling idea.

Controlling idea and topic sentence — Despite the fact that piranhas are relatively harmless, many people continue to believe the pervasive myth that piranhas are dangerous to humans.

Step 2. Elaborate on the controlling idea

Paragraph development continues with an elaboration on the controlling idea, perhaps with an explanation, implication, or statement about significance. Our example offers a possible explanation for the pervasiveness of the myth.

Elaboration — This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their mischaracterization in popular media.

Step 3. Give an example (or multiple examples)

Paragraph development progresses with an example (or more) that illustrates the claims made in the previous sentences.

Example — For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha poised to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman.

Step 4. Explain the example(s)

The next movement in paragraph development is an explanation of each example and its relevance to the topic sentence. The explanation should demonstrate the value of the example as evidence to support the major claim, or focus, in your paragraph.

Continue the pattern of giving examples and explaining them until all points/examples that the writer deems necessary have been made and explained. NONE of your examples should be left unexplained. You might be able to explain the relationship between the example and the topic sentence in the same sentence which introduced the example. More often, however, you will need to explain that relationship in a separate sentence.

Explanation for example — Such a terrifying representation easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear.

Notice that the example and explanation steps of this 5-step process (steps 3 and 4) can be repeated as needed. The idea is that you continue to use this pattern until you have completely developed the main idea of the paragraph.

Step 5. Complete the paragraph’s idea or transition into the next paragraph

The final movement in paragraph development involves tying up the loose ends of the paragraph. At this point, you can remind your reader about the relevance of the information to the larger paper, or you can make a concluding point for this example. You might, however, simply transition to the next paragraph.

Sentences for completing a paragraph — While the trope of the man-eating piranhas lends excitement to the adventure stories, it bears little resemblance to the real-life piranha. By paying more attention to fact than fiction, humans may finally be able to let go of this inaccurate belief.

Finished paragraph

Despite the fact that piranhas are relatively harmless, many people continue to believe the pervasive myth that piranhas are dangerous to humans. This impression of piranhas is exacerbated by their mischaracterization in popular media. For example, the promotional poster for the 1978 horror film Piranha features an oversized piranha poised to bite the leg of an unsuspecting woman. Such a terrifying representation easily captures the imagination and promotes unnecessary fear. While the trope of the man-eating piranhas lends excitement to the adventure stories, it bears little resemblance to the real-life piranha. By paying more attention to fact than fiction, humans may finally be able to let go of this inaccurate belief.

Troubleshooting paragraphs

Problem: the paragraph has no topic sentence.

Imagine each paragraph as a sandwich. The real content of the sandwich—the meat or other filling—is in the middle. It includes all the evidence you need to make the point. But it gets kind of messy to eat a sandwich without any bread. Your readers don’t know what to do with all the evidence you’ve given them. So, the top slice of bread (the first sentence of the paragraph) explains the topic (or controlling idea) of the paragraph. And, the bottom slice (the last sentence of the paragraph) tells the reader how the paragraph relates to the broader argument. In the original and revised paragraphs below, notice how a topic sentence expressing the controlling idea tells the reader the point of all the evidence.

Original paragraph

Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Revised paragraph

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Once you have mastered the use of topic sentences, you may decide that the topic sentence for a particular paragraph really shouldn’t be the first sentence of the paragraph. This is fine—the topic sentence can actually go at the beginning, middle, or end of a paragraph; what’s important is that it is in there somewhere so that readers know what the main idea of the paragraph is and how it relates back to the thesis of your paper. Suppose that we wanted to start the piranha paragraph with a transition sentence—something that reminds the reader of what happened in the previous paragraph—rather than with the topic sentence. Let’s suppose that the previous paragraph was about all kinds of animals that people are afraid of, like sharks, snakes, and spiders. Our paragraph might look like this (the topic sentence is bold):

Like sharks, snakes, and spiders, piranhas are widely feared. Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless . Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. If the fish are well-fed, they won’t bite humans.

Problem: the paragraph has more than one controlling idea

If a paragraph has more than one main idea, consider eliminating sentences that relate to the second idea, or split the paragraph into two or more paragraphs, each with only one main idea. Watch our short video on reverse outlining to learn a quick way to test whether your paragraphs are unified. In the following paragraph, the final two sentences branch off into a different topic; so, the revised paragraph eliminates them and concludes with a sentence that reminds the reader of the paragraph’s main idea.

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, for the most part, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ first instinct is to flee, not attack. Their fear of humans makes sense. Far more piranhas are eaten by people than people are eaten by piranhas. A number of South American groups eat piranhas. They fry or grill the fish and then serve them with coconut milk or tucupi, a sauce made from fermented manioc juices.

Problem: transitions are needed within the paragraph

You are probably familiar with the idea that transitions may be needed between paragraphs or sections in a paper (see our handout on transitions ). Sometimes they are also helpful within the body of a single paragraph. Within a paragraph, transitions are often single words or short phrases that help to establish relationships between ideas and to create a logical progression of those ideas in a paragraph. This is especially likely to be true within paragraphs that discuss multiple examples. Let’s take a look at a version of our piranha paragraph that uses transitions to orient the reader:

Although most people consider piranhas to be quite dangerous, they are, except in two main situations, entirely harmless. Piranhas rarely feed on large animals; they eat smaller fish and aquatic plants. When confronted with humans, piranhas’ instinct is to flee, not attack. But there are two situations in which a piranha bite is likely. The first is when a frightened piranha is lifted out of the water—for example, if it has been caught in a fishing net. The second is when the water level in pools where piranhas are living falls too low. A large number of fish may be trapped in a single pool, and if they are hungry, they may attack anything that enters the water.

In this example, you can see how the phrases “the first” and “the second” help the reader follow the organization of the ideas in the paragraph.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Lunsford, Andrea. 2008. The St. Martin’s Handbook: Annotated Instructor’s Edition , 6th ed. New York: St. Martin’s.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Paragraphing (Length Consistency)

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Paragraphs are units of thought with one adequately developed idea. Listed here are some rules of thumb to use when paragraphing. As your writing improves, you'll be able to break these "rules" to meet your own needs. Until then, these suggestions can be helpful.

  • Put only one main idea per paragraph.
  • Aim for three to five or more sentences per paragraph.
  • Include on each page about two handwritten or three typed paragraphs.
  • Make your paragraphs proportional to your paper. Since paragraphs do less work in short papers, have short paragraphs for short papers and longer paragraphs for longer papers.
  • If you have a few very short paragraphs, think about whether they are really parts of a larger paragraph—and can be combined—or whether you can add details to support each point and thus make each into a more fully developed paragraph.

You can check on whether your paragraphs are balanced by looking at your paper.

Some balanced pages:

These images show text that is balanced on pages. The left image shows text that is left-justified. The right image shows text that is centered.

Paragraph Balance

Unbalanced pages with ideas not equally developed:

These images show text in unbalanced boxes to illustrate the need to balance paragraphs and sections in your paper.

Unbalanced Paragraphs

Use the following graphics as a tool to organize your paper with one main idea in each box. Use as many pages and boxes as needed.

These images contain line drawings of three boxes one on top of the other. The first box on the page contains the word introduction. The last box on the page contains the word conclusion.

Graphics to Help with Balance and Organization

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