5 steps to writing an effective paragraph

hemingway.jpgWe have already discussed why writing an effective title is the key to getting your paper read. But the title of a paper is paint and trim on your house. The paragraph is its bricks and mortar. Each paragraph is a self-contained logical argument, crafted to stand on its own (like an abstract, or a letter to the editor of Nature) or to be strung together to form a larger thing of persuasive beauty: a well-written scientific manuscript. All the best writers in science write gorgeous, tight paragraphs. Most of the good science writers I know personally take great pride in the fact that they write well. Furthermore, they are constantly on the lookout for ways to hone their style. Here are some key principles toward making your paragraphs sparkle.

1) Have a compelling and descriptive topic sentence. You saw this one coming, didn’t you? Most of teaching can be summed up in one directive: tell’em what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell’em what you said. The topic sentence is the guidepost that tells the reader what to expect. It sets up the coming argument. The topic sentence needn’t necessarily be the first sentence, but it should obviously come early. Here’s two ways of recognizing a good topic sentence:

1) Is the rest of the paragraph about the topic sentence?

2) If you go through your manuscript, highlighting just the topic sentences, is the manuscript still coherent?

2) A paragraph has an inevitable logic. The topic sentence raises expectations. Now you follow through with the meat of your argument: a set of logically connected sentences that clearly and concisely builds your case. If you’ve slaved over a paragraph and are still not getting the response you want from your readers, it’s often the case that your logic is flawed. Put another way, writing is one of the best ways of discovering what you do not understand about your topic. But a logically well-constructed paragraph is worth slaving over. Nothing else makes you feel so much like, well, an academic.

3) The juicy example. Remember, you are teaching your reader about something. The logic may be exact and true, but sans a compelling example that connects in multiple ways to your logic, your argument risks being a perfect, abstract thing: lovely to look at but without substance. Adding a juicy example to a paragraph is akin to scotch-taping a wolverine to the cover of this book.


(Note added in proof: Wolverines-Animal Scavengers reminds the uninitiated that the brown food web can be a pretty dicey neighborhood.)

4) Mixing up your sentence structure–One knock on scientific writing, besides the jargon (more on that later), is the interminably long, latinate sentences. Yet when constructing a logical argument full of if/then/or statements it is inevitable that the sentences can go on, and on, and on… The solution is not to go all Hemingway (unless you are really, really good). You know what I mean by that. Just spitting out a staccato series of noun-verb-noun sentences hoping that your reviewer doesn’t secretly enter you in some faux Hemingway contest. But you can mix it up a bit. Give your readers some opportunities to catch their breath as your brilliant logic rolls over them like the waves in From Here to Eternity.

5) Summary sentence. Sometimes your example is so stunning in its power that it will seal the deal. More often than not a strong summary statement is required. It serves two purposes. First, the summary sentence is your opportunity to introduce some repetition precisely where your reader is expecting it (remember: tell’em, teach’em, tell’em again). Second, the summary sentence can point the reader to where you want to go next. The best science writers do both in a single provocative sentence. In short, the topic sentence telegraphs your manuscript’s logic, but the summary sentence gives your manuscript its flow.

So when you’re working on your next essay, remember that the best manuscripts are built one paragraph at a time. Writing an effective paragraph is perhaps the single most important communication skill to acquire in your first years of grad school. It is a skill that the best scientists hone and one that we all universally admire. And that’s a big step toward getting your ideas out there.

We close with the a quote gleaned from Copyblogger’s Ernest’ Hemingway’s top 5 tips for writing well:

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”


39 Responses to 5 steps to writing an effective paragraph

  1. […] even more editing. That is a large part of your job: crank out elegant sentences, combine them into tight paragraphs that tell a story, link together these paragraphs into a longer essay […]

    • A macro issue in writing has to do with each paragraph of section. Each should have (1) generalization and support, with a topic sentence or heading that states the generalization and subsequent sentences to suppose it and (2) signposts to clearly connect the ideas within each paragraph or section. Effective; First sentence is a generalization for all support sentences. This procedure consists of four steps. First, do this. Second, do that. Third, do the other. Finally, do this. Ineffective; first sentence is not a generalization: First, do this Second, do that, Third, do the other. Finally, do this.

    • Angela says:

      Thanks alot, this is so helpful 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    this was an absoulute help to me.

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks.. a big help- especially with the “writing an effective title .”
    More power.

  4. Anonymous says:

    how to make a pragraph

  5. Anonymous says:

    wow!it nice

  6. yapi says:

    tnx for this article,, it helps me a lot,,!

  7. jajajaja says:

    thanks 4 a lot…its help for my study..hehhehe

  8. This is a great post. Just added this to my bookmarks as I know I’ll want to refer to it in future. Thx!

  9. Nice post! i like it , so interesting…Thank you for sharing it.

  10. bonna says:

    Nice post ! thanks for the helping me!!….

  11. ana mae says:

    brief and concise.

  12. Thank you for a very thorough guide. What I can add is not to overflow your writing with too may new ideas you want to convey to your reader – one strong and original point is the best solution.

  13. neri okafor says:

    thanks for this impressive breakdown on paragraphing, i hope to see more of in my mail.

  14. mommikins says:

    Great article! Very informative! Thanks so much! It must have taken some time to put this all together but it was definitely worth it.

  15. I think that you have a very nice post. I think that you will get a lot of requests.

  16. Regina Matthews says:

    This was very interested i really enjoyed it.

  17. Obonyo Brian says:

    Thanks so much mr. for that lecture I will need to read more about it to increase my effectiveness in this field.

  18. Books says:


    […]5 steps to writing an effective paragraph « Getting Things Done in Academia[…]…

  19. yes, absolutely! i also like to think of writing ventures as congruent versions of this same concept: take this same idea for the 5 paragraph essay & you get about a page-long paper. Duplicate each of these 5 paragraphs & you get a 2-page paper. Either of those two ideas will get you a decent introduction to say, a 15-20 page paper. I tend to write my 15-20 page papers as a series of 5-page essays using this type of breakdown.

    I haven’t yet embarked on publications/dissertating, but I plan to at least start with the same idea.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Debbie Merrigan This posting will be a tremendous help for me in improving my writing skills and making my writing more interesting and exciting for whoever reads what I compose. Thanks for this very valuable information.

  21. Randall Joy says:

    All a good help one good lesson usually leads to a nother, like in this case RJ

  22. Anonymous says:

    very informative. It cleared up alot for me. Thanks!!

  23. zola says:

    information on was great for under graduate student, please continue giving such wonderful material.

  24. Shaytoria McDuffie says:

    This information is very important as well as helpful. Who would have ever thought that there are so many techniques to writing.

  25. Anonymous says:

    i think this is very helpful because now i know i will gat a good grade when it is time to write. nikkile

  26. anaya says:

    no it is not helpful for me.

  27. uzma afreen says:

    really helpful…thank you.

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  29. Anonymous says:

    This was very helpful to me. I tried to remember what I learned in high school. This really helped me

  30. […] – of note at that previous link is Survive and Thrive in Grad School’s post on five steps to effective paragraphs: […]

  31. Debra Walton says:

    D Walton, I like the strategy of writing, but it would be nice if you gave an example of a subject like printing a guide on survival for hiking

  32. thank you very much sir….i needed that

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