Building an Essay with Paragraphs

The inventor of the paragraph devised a simple way to steer readers through a piece of writing. Each new paragraph alerts readers to get ready for a shift of some kind, just as your car”s directional blinker tells other drivers that you”re about to turn.

Yet, not every new paragraph signals a drastic change. The writer may simply want to nudge the discussion ahead to the next step. Some paragraphs spring directly from those that preceded them. The paragraph you are now reading, for instance, is linked to the one before by the connecting word Yet. The connection was meant to alert you to a change in thought, but it was also intended to remind you that the two paragraphs are related. Abrupt starts may be useful from time to time to keep readers on their toes. But good writers avoid a string of sudden turns that can transform surprise into confusion.

In an essay, paragraphs usually play a primary role and one or more secondary roles. An introductory paragraph, for instance, launches the essay and makes the intent of the essay clear to the reader. The concluding paragraph leaves the reader with a thought to remember and provides a sense of closure. The majority of paragraphs, however, are developmental. They carry forward the main point of the essay by performing any number of functions, among them:

• Adding new ideas to the preceding discussion

• Continuing or explaining in more detail an idea presented earlier

• Reiterating a previously stated idea

• Citing an example of a previously stated idea

• Evaluating an opinion stated earlier

• Refuting previously stated ideas

• Providing a new or contrasting point of view

• Describing the relationship between ideas presented earlier

• Providing background material

• Raising a hypothetical or rhetorical question about the topic

Whatever its functions, a paragraph should contribute to the essay”s overall growth. A paragraph that fails to amplify the main idea of the essay should be revised or deleted. Similarly, any idea within a paragraph that doesn”t contribute to the development of the paragraph”s topic needs to be changed or eliminated.


Whether readers skim your paragraphs or slog doggedly through every word, they need to find sentences now and then that, like landmarks, help them to know where they are. Such guiding sentences differ from others because they define the paragraph”s main topic; hence the name topic sentence.

Most, but not all, paragraphs contain topic sentences. The topic of some paragraphs is so obvious that to state it would be redundant. Then, too, groups of paragraphs can be so closely knit that one topic sentence states the most important idea for all of them.

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Use topic sentences to guide readers through your essay.

Topic sentences come in a variety of forms. What they all have in common is their helpfulness. Consider them landmarks. To drive from your home to school, for example, you turn left at the stop sign, take a half right under the railroad trestle, and a right at the Exxon station. Each landmark tells you where to turn. Similarly, in a piece of writing, a topic sentence often marks a turning point that tells readers the direction they”ll be going for a while.

Most topic sentences come first in a paragraph, but they can be located anywhere. And some paragraphs don”t even need a topic sentence. Instead, the main idea can be strongly implied by an accumulation of details and ideas. For instance, a description of a fast-food restaurant might detail the crowd, the noise, the overflowing garbage cans, the smell of cooking oil, the lines of people, the crumb-strewn tables, and so on. A reader would certainly get the picture. To state explicitly “It was a busy day at Burger King” would serve no purpose.

Practice in Developing Topic Sentences


Directions: The following paragraphs have been taken from longer essays. Highlight the topic sentence in each. Some paragraphs may have an implied topic sentence.

1. [1] My family has moved so often I sometimes feel like a gypsy. [2] The first time we moved I was only four years old, and it didn”t bother me. [3] It seemed as though we just got settled, though, when my father announced a new transfer—to California, where I got to start school and where we stayed for three years. [4] But then we heard it was time to move on, and we settled in Minnesota. [5] Just as I began to make friends and get used to the Midwest, the company sent us to Georgia. [6] From there it was two years in England and a year in Washington, D.C. [7] We”ve been in Massachusetts for almost six months now, and my main problem is answering that question, “Where are you from?”

2. [1] Another difficulty is that a person with a police record may have a hard time getting or renewing a driver”s license. [2] A conviction for a felony can prevent a person from being able to enter a profession such as medicine, law, or teaching. [3] It can also make it difficult to get a responsible position in business or industry. [4] Special hearings are required before an ex-convict can hold a government job.

3. [1] Music blasts from twenty boom boxes. [2] Children screech while splashing their friends at the edge of the sea. [3] Teenagers throw frisbees at each other. [4] The waves rush up the sand, gurgle a bit, stop, and retreat. [5] A single-engine plane, trailing a long sign—EAT PIZZA AT SAL”S—buzzes overhead. [6] A vendor shouts, “Hey, cold drinks here, getcha cold drinks.” [7] During the summer the beach is a noisy place.

4. [1] Clothing designers create new styles every year. [2] Therefore, consumers rush out and buy the new styles and cast away last year”s designs even before the clothes are worn out. [3] Forgotten styles hang in closets gathering dust. [4] They”ll never be worn again. [5] People fall in love with new cars and sell their old models long before they are obsolete. [6] Just for the sake of flashy style and shiny good looks, they scrimp and save their money or go deeply into debt. [7] And for what? [8] Just to look good. [9] All the money goes into the pockets of the manufacturers. [10] If people would get in the habit of buying goods only when they need replacement, waste would become an exception in America instead of a way of life.

5. [1] Perhaps it”s true that “all the world”s a stage,” as Shakespeare said, because I have noticed that I act one way with one group of people and another way with a different group. [2] With one person I may act like a little kid. [3] I may act very shy or silly. [4] It”s as though I can”t control what I”m doing. [5] The circumstances just make me act that way. [6] Then, at another time with different people, I am the life of the party. [7] I won”t stop talking, and people think I am about 20 years old. [8] I feel that I can pretend so realistically that I sometimes convince myself that I really am what I”m pretending to be. [9] That”s a very scary thought.

6. [1] During these years, my family has had about sixty foster children come into our house to live. [2] We have had children from all backgrounds, races, and religions. [3] Each child brought to our door brings a different tale of misfortune. [4] These stories have gradually grown worse over the years. [5] When we first started, the parents of the child usually wanted him or her but were temporarily unable or unprepared to care for their son or daughter. [6] Now, it is not unusual for the mother to be sixteen years old, a drug addict, or a convict. [7] Most of the time the mother is a combination of those. [8] Right now, we have two children living with us. [9] Three of their four parents are in jail, and one of the fathers is unknown. [10] Truly, as time goes on, caring for foster children has become more challenging.

7. [1] True totalitarianism champions the idea that everyone should be subservient to the state. [2] All personal goals and desires should be thrown aside unless they coincide with the common good of society. [3] Freedom for the individual is sacrificed so that the level of freedom for all can be raised. [4] With this philosophy, drastic improvements may be made in a relatively short time. [5] Almost by edict from the head of the society, education and literacy rates can be improved, and unemployment and crime rates may decrease.

8. [1] During adolescence the most obvious change that occurs is physical. [2] Childlike boys and girls suddenly blossom into young men and women. [3] Besides undergoing physical changes, though, this period is usually the time when personal values are explored and molded. [4] Decisions need to be made about what is important and what is not. [5] A struggle takes place within the mind of every adolescent to form a moral and intellectual code that determines the quality of the lives they will have in both the immediate and long-range future.

9. [1] The story by Stephen Crane raises the question whether a soldier who runs away from inevitable death in battle must be considered less of a man than one who stays and dies. [2] To answer the question, one must first define “man.” [3] Consider the stereotypical options. [4] There is the Arnold Schwarzenegger type who solves all of life”s problems with physical strength and advanced weapons. [5] Then there is the Howard Roark type, a character from The Fountainhead, who climbs to the top by using his brilliant mind and integrity. [6] Finally, there is the Willy Loman type, a character in Death of a Salesman, who struggles his whole life pursuing an illusion. [7] At the end, he realizes that he has fought a hopeless battle, but at least he has fought.

10. [1] In World War II, the United States dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki, in order to defeat the Japanese. [2] American history textbooks justify the bombings as something that needed to be done in order to prevent even more deaths during a longer war. [3] Our history books also say that the death toll was about 50,000, while the Japanese claim the bombs took almost twice that many lives. [4] If the United States had lost the war, then the bombings would have been thought to be criminal actions. [5] But since we won, the judgment of history is that the end justifies the means. [6] In fact, throughout history, the war crimes of the victors have repeatedly been justified.


Directions: Topic sentences have been deleted from the following paragraphs. After reading each paragraph, write an appropriate topic sentence. Omit a topic sentence if none is needed.


My mother”s nature is very outgoing, emotional, and impulsive. She enjoys dancing, going to parties, being with lots of people, and spending money freely. My father, on the other hand, is quiet, reserved, and controlled. He looks at things logically and practically, not giving in to his emotions. He feels more comfortable with only one or two friends, if any, and is content reading a book or going on a solitary walk for recreation.


This was especially true in track and field. As other countries learned American techniques of training, however, their runners improved. Now athletes from all over the world win as many as or even more medals than American track and field athletes.


One example of a self-destructive monopoly was the auto industry in the twentieth century. In order to maintain their grip on the domestic market, Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford squelched the competition. Inventions that might have helped them in the long run were ignored. Automobiles were changed very little from year to year. Millions of dollars more were budgeted for advertising than for improving either the cars themselves or the process of building them.


An angry crowd thrust its way into the palace courtyard. Hundreds of people wielding sticks and knives and pastry rollers screamed at the figure who emerged on the balcony. “We need bread,” they shouted, “we need bread!” The aristocratic figure above straightened her perfumed hair, wrapped her ermine shawl more tightly around her shoulders, and with a lift of her chin, turned and muttered to one of her ladies in waiting, “Let them eat cake.”


From the first page to the last, I couldn”t put it down. The author must have lived with the family in the book because she describes the members in lifelike detail. She tells what they ate, how they felt about religion, housing, politics, and sex. By the end, you know them as though they were your own brothers and sisters.


One day I was smoking in the boys” bathroom when a teacher walked in. He took me down to the principal”s office, where I was given a three-day suspension. My mom grounded me for a month, and I didn”t get the loan my dad had promised me to buy my friend”s used car.


Probably the most important part of this new life is learning to get along with your roommates, the people you see most often. Finding the perfect roommate may be impossible. The person should be a nonsmoker and have similar interests to mine. She (it must be a she) should be considerate, courteous, generous, thoughtful, studious when I want to study, fun-loving when I want to party, respectful of privacy and personal property, and finally, she should have a great sense of humor. In a nutshell, she should be like me.


In childhood I never hesitated to take chances, to jump over wide cracks in the rocks. Sometimes I made it across with no problems; at other times I was not so lucky. I scraped my knees, bled a little, but came back daring to try again. But now that I”m older, I increasingly find myself shying away, afraid to fail, fearful of getting hurt. I live a style of life in which being in control and on top of things is paramount, where being the best and being perfect is what I yearn for. I am afraid to make mistakes, afraid to bleed, and afraid of being powerless. I take fewer chances.


He knew that he grew irritable more frequently. Why shouldn”t he, when nurses spoke to him as though he was seven years old, pronouncing their words deliberately and slowly. They must have thought he was hard of hearing or didn”t understand. They constantly forced medicine on him and did everything for him as though he was incapable of helping himself. Sometimes he grew angry about the way he was ignored after he asked for something. His words were nothing to them, just as he was nothing.


They did not have written language, but by 1000 A.D., they had built preplanned apartment houses four and five stories high. The foot-thick walls of oven-baked adobe brick, plastered over smoothly with clay, kept the occupants warm in winter and cool in summer. But by far their greatest architectural achievement was the intricate system of canals and reservoirs that irrigated their fields and brought water for miles across the desert directly into their homes.


Directions: What follows is a three-paragraph excerpt from the journal of a visitor to the South Pole. On separate blank pages, write a topic sentence that is suitable for each paragraph.

Antarctic Adventure


Bellies flattened on the snow, they pant and claw their way across miles and miles of frozen landscape. On downhills, they have to be braked and kept under control by winding ropes around the runners of the sleds. After a day”s run, the dogs eat supper and sleep soundly. The next morning, they bark and yip cheerfully, as though to shame their weary masters.


The scale is unreal, almost as if it were a landscape from another planet. Away from the coast, no life exists, and therefore, no bacteria, no disease, no pests, no human interference. It is antiseptic and can only be compared with life under the ocean or in space.


Although snow offers shelter, insulation, drink, building material, and a highway, its friendliness is a dangerous illusion. Ice blocks and sinister piles of snow tell a tale of avalanches tumbling regularly from the mountains all around. A person on skis could suddenly disappear in a cavern of deep, glistening powder. On foot, sunk to the hips in snow, you might cover less than a mile before dropping from exhaustion. Sudden snow squalls will blind you, cause you to lose your bearings and balance, trapping you hopelessly inside a drift that may ultimately be your burial mound.


Directions: Print out or photocopy an essay you”ve written recently. On one copy underline all the topic sentences. Let a friend do the same on the second copy. Then compare your answers. If you agree, you can be pretty sure that your topic sentences are doing what they are supposed to do.