Paragraph structure

By Dana P Skopal, PhD

Good paragraph structure is important when writing, be it in workplace documents or university assignments. However, it seems many writers struggle to get a coherent flow of information in a paragraph.

The first sentence in a paragraph is known as a topic sentence. Basically, the first sentence needs to tell your reader what issue that paragraph is going to cover. If you just printed out all the topic sentences, a reader should be able to see your document structure and main points. Indeed, many readers will skim read topic sentences when selecting what sections to read.

We previously wrote about beginning a sentence. Those principles apply when planning any paragraph. Our research has shown that if you place unknown or new information at the beginning of your sentence, or your subject is far too long (over 12 words), then you will most likely lose your reader.

When writing, make sure the subject of your sentence is not too long. Then follow the Given + New information structure (see the work of F Daneš and P Fries). Here is an example from my article in the journal Text & Talk.

The heading is public discourse, which then becomes given or known information. The next sentence states:

Public discourse often necessarily incorporates a blend of interdisciplinary, legal, procedural and other related discourses.

In that sentence, the new information is after the verb ‘incorporates’ and describes the different discourses. That blend of discourses then becomes known information, which you can use at the beginning of the next sentence.

The blend of discourses is formulated into written texts – public information documents.

So the new information in that sentence is again developed after the verb ‘is’. Aim for this kind of linking of ideas when writing a paragraph, as readers are lost if you place the new information at the beginning of your sentence.

When you have time read:

Skopal, D. P. & Herke, M. (2017). Public discourse syndrome: reformulating for clarity. Text & Talk, 37,  doi: 10.1515/text-2016-0041.

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