Thinking About Paragraphing and Essay Structure

FORM VS. FORMULA

Too often, we think of structuring our writing as a formulaic act rather than a search for form. But writing isn’t usually a plug-and-play ordeal. The five-paragraph essay, or what Humble calls “the trainer essay,” is utilitarian – it offered some scaffolding when you were first starting to write essays – but it’s the equivalent of training wheels on your bike.  You’re likely ready for something more sophisticated.

A HUMBLE REVIEW

As you work on your draft, you’ll need to organize your ideas into a coherent piece of writing that supports the argument you present in your thesis.

  • Rule #1:  you should be able to connect every paragraph in your essay directly back to your thesis. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

In chapters 6 and 8, Humble discusses structure and gives you several examples of how you might organize your ideas on pp. 127-132.

Internal Patterns:

  • Chronological
  • Cause-and-effect
  • Problem/Solution
  • Spatial (Hint: a spatial pattern would probably work well for a spatial analysis!)
  • Visual
  • Textual

Logical Patterns:

  • Least-to-most or Most-to-least
  • Comparison (alternating vs. block pattern)

Most of the time, our ideas don’t flow onto paper already organized in a way that the reader can follow – this is why we write a shitty first draft and worry about structure during revision. The writer’s job is to create a structure to present his or her ideas so that the reader can follow the argument logically from one point to the next. You may know what you wanted to say, but did it make it onto the page for the reader?

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes:

  • Is there enough information to paint a clear picture? Remember what Humble says about details on pp. 140-141: “Details show readers what your summaries look like in the real world […and] give readers mental images, something that readers can see for themselves with their imaginations. “
  • Which points do we need to understand first? Second? Third?
  • What background information will we need to fully understand your main points?

Paragraphing

One of the keys to sound structure is paragraphing. Paragraphs are the building blocks for your essay. Each paragraph should have a clear purpose: think of each as a box with a label on it. Only information that relates to the label can go inside the box. Other information should go in another box, or perhaps needs to be cut entirely.

Topic Sentences

Most of us are tempted to make that topic sentence of a paragraph the first point. Resist! In reality, a topic sentence should present the overall idea of the paragraph, and subsequent sentences should break down that idea until you arrive at your main point, or claim, of the paragraph. Generally speaking, paragraphs tend to move from broader to more specific terms/examples.

MORE RESOURCES

Read more about structuring your argument in Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper.

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