Paragraph Focus, Coherence, and Development
(adapted from The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers, second edition)
Every time you begin a new paragraph, you send a signal to readers: you tell them to watch for a shift in topic, a different perspective, or a special emphasis. You make promises, too: you will develop ideas and details in ways appropriate to your writing task, and you’ll link sentences and ideas in ways that make their relationships clear.
Whether you’re writing a short documented essay for a history class, a business letter at work, or a grant proposal for the soccer team you coach, you need to create paragraphs with a clear focus (unity), coherence among sentences, and adequate development of ideas and content. If you fail to do these things for your readers, they might not follow your reasong from sentence to sentence.
Use the following questions to help identify unfocused paragraphs and to guide your revisions.
• What is my main point in this paragraph?
• How many different topics does this paragraph cover? Are all of these topics related?
• Have I announced my focus to readers? Where? How?
• Do statements in the paragraph elaborate on the main idea? Do details fit within the topic?
One way to keep a paragraph focused as you write and to help readers recognize that focus is to state your topic and your main idea or perspective in a single sentence, a topic sentence. As you write, you can use a topic sentence as the focal point for the other sentences in a paragraph. When you revise, you can often easily improve an unfocused paragraph by adding a topic sentence and placing it in an effective position in the paragraph. You can then easily omit or relocate sentences that are not relevant to your topic sentence.
Look over your drafts by scanning paragraphs and reading just the topic sentences. Check for missing, misleading, or inadequate topic sentences. When you find such paragraphs, decide whether they also need revision for focus. In addition, this is a good way to identify paragraphs that take the discussion in misleading or irrelevant directions.
When your readers can move from sentence to sentence within a paragraph without any trouble following your train of thought or explanation, the paragraph displays coherence. Lack of coherence means abrupt changes in topic or idea from sentence to sentence (sometimes referred to as “choppy” sentences/paragraphs). It means there is a lack of transitions or other devices to guide readers from statement to statement.
Use the following questions to determine whether your paragraphs create adequate coherence for readers.
• Does the paragraph highlight and repeat words naming the topic and main points?
• Do transition words alert readers to relationships between sentences?
• Do parallel words and structures highlight similar or related ideas?
• Do sentence beginnings identify a topic and stick to it?
Once you have identified coherency problems within or even between paragraphs, you may apply the following revisions:
• Use transitional words and phrases
• Announce your purpose
• Provide boundary statements
• Create transition paragraphs
After focusing your paragraphs and making sure they are coherent, you may find that the information they contain isn't quite enough to effectively convey your purpose for writing. The paragraphs may be lacking in information or simply uninteresting. The next step in your writing or revising process is to develop your paragraphs. Paragraph development provides the examples, facts, concrete details, or explanatory statements that make a paragraph informative and validate or support your ideas and opinions.
Here are some ways to develop a paragraph:
• Use Examples. Use brief, specific examples or an extended, detailed example.
• Include Concrete Details. Invoke the five senses. Re-create sights, sounds, tastes, smells, movements, and sensations of touch.
• Include Facts and Statistics. Offer precise data from your own field research or from authoritative sources, perhaps in numerical form. Summarize the results, or quote your sources. Facts and statistics are the kinds of evidence many readers consider convincing proof of generalizations and opinions. They also help readers understand complicated social and natural phenomena.
• Summarize. Summarize other people's opinions, conclusions, or explanations. Tell how they agree with and support your conclusions. Or point out their omissions and weaknesses as a way of arguing for your conclusions or insights.
• Add Quotations. Use statements you have gathered from field, electronic, or library research as ways of supporting your conclusions or as ways of taking your discussion more dramatic and memorable.
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