Effective paragraphing is a central skill in academic writing. Many writers have been told a paragraph
should contain a single idea; many have heard paragraphs have to be a minimum lengthâ€”three sentences,
for instance. In reality, paragraphs come in different shapes and sizes, and some so-called â€œrulesâ€ may put
writers in a straightjacket that unnecessarily hampers their ability to convey their ideas as needed in a
particular piece of writing. Nevertheless, grasping the general form of a paragraph provides a good
foundation. Once you have this basic building block at your command, you can vary from it by conscious
choice when needed.
One way to envision a body paragraph is as a â€œcomplete MEAL,â€ with the components being the
paragraphâ€™s Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Link back to the larger claim.
The Main Idea
The main idea is the paragraphâ€™s central thrust. In academic writing, that thrust is often argumentativeâ€”a
paragraph makes an assertion thatâ€™s part of the writerâ€™s larger claim. Often the main idea appears in the
paragraphâ€™s first sentence, where it is sometimes called the â€œtopic sentence.â€ However, some paragraphs
offer their main idea in the second, third, or last sentence; some donâ€™t have a single sentence that
encapsulates the main idea. That said, your reader should come away from each paragraph with a clear
understanding of its main idea. He or she shouldnâ€™t have to stop and reread the paragraph, trying to figure
out what itâ€™s saying.
Itâ€™s true that a paragraph should usually focus on a single ideaâ€”paragraphs are, after all, the bite-sized
chunks into which you break your argument so that your reader will be able to digest it easily. But keep in
mind that, to some degree, you can bring unity to a paragraph that seems to contain two or three ideas by
showing how those ideas really fit under the same umbrella. The way a paragraph conveys its claim, in
other words, dictates whether your reader will see it as a coherent idea or as a hodge-podge of different
Evidence and Analysis
Evidence and analysis are a paragraphâ€™s main course; they are what allow you to prove that your
paragraphâ€™s main idea is plausible. Your evidence could be information from journal articles youâ€™ve
found in the library; it could be data from research or interviews youâ€™ve conducted yourself; it could be a
quotation or paraphrase from a work of literature; it could be an image; it could be a chain of logical
reasoning you have developed; in some types of papers, it might be an anecdote or personal experience.
However, evidence shouldnâ€™t be plopped down in a paragraph and left to â€œspeak for itself.â€ If you leave
your evidence unexplained, your reader may interpret it differently than you intended, and if that happens,
your main idea doesnâ€™t get the support it needs. Therefore your paragraph should carefully analyze the
evidence it provides; it should, in other words, explain exactly how the evidence youâ€™ve cited proves what
you think it proves. Often a paragraphâ€™s â€œEâ€ and â€œAâ€ are hard to separate: you might provide some
evidence, analyze it, and then provide more evidence and analysis. Sometimes individual sentences will
contain both evidentiary and analytic elements. But in most academic writing, both evidence and analysis
are essential to a paragraphâ€™s well being.
Duke Writing Studio 2
Link Back to the Larger Claim
A paragraphâ€™s link back to the larger claim is often implicitâ€”it can be awkward to wrap up a paragraph
with a really heavy-handed link (â€œThis idea is important to my claim because of X, Y, and Zâ€).
Nevertheless your reader should get a good sense of how your paragraph fits into the larger scheme of
your paperâ€™s argument. He or she shouldnâ€™t finish reading the paragraph and think, â€œWhy did the writer
put this paragraph in this paper? I donâ€™t see how this idea is relevant!â€ An effective paragraph will clarify
its own place in the essayâ€™s (or sectionâ€™s) larger claim.
Hereâ€™s an example of a paragraph drawn from an essay in Deliberations: A Journal of First-Year Writing
at Duke University; the column on the left maps the parts of the paragraphâ€™s â€œcomplete MEALâ€:
M: Danielson here uses a
sentenceâ€ that lays out
the paragraphâ€™s overall
E: His evidence is
indirect, drawn from a
work on Roman history.
A: His analysis links the
historical evidence to his
own assertion about the
United States by
outlining the two
L: He uses the central
terms of his paperâ€™s
argument to remind his
reader of the paragraphâ€™s
It is here that indeed one may foresee a new union between Church
and State, one that the â€œreligious rightâ€ may not completely predict:
the complete eradication of all forms of traditional religion from
government, to be replaced by the Worship of Government itself.
This seemingly far-fetched idea finds its historical roots in an obvious
and powerful reality: the ancient Roman Empire. According to early
twentieth century historian Louis Sweet, the â€œWorship of Romaâ€ was
indeed quite common in the Roman Empire. This worship, which
Sweet refers to as the â€œRoma-cult,â€ started most clearly â€œimmediately
after the entrance of the Romans into Asiatic affairs. The similarities
between such ancient, pagan patriotic worship and the current
American situation cannot be overlooked. Just as Rome developed
nation-worship after its conquest of Asian lands, so the United States
seems to be entering a similar stage of paganism during its conquest
of the Middle East. â€œThe Roma-cult is interlocked from the beginning
with the imperial,â€ Sweet reminds his readers. Will the vague
patriotic monotheism of America, stripped of traditional religion,
become her vague patriotic paganism as she continues on her
imperialistic crusade? (14)
Danielson, Donald Kyle. â€œImperium Dei: Americaâ€™s New Religion.â€ Deliberations: A Journal of First-
Year Writing at Duke University. Fall 2006: 10-16.