Paragraph Structure

Has your instructor asked you to improve the structure of your paragraphs? This is not uncommon, because the first few drafts of most essays are usually disorganized.

Poor paragraph structure can also happen because we desire to be really creative in our writing and decide to steer away from the standard form. To new writers, structure seems boring and uncreative. But structured does not equal boring.

That is a harmful misconception!

Structure and Creativity

Every good paragraph should contain a basic design to include three things:

  • a topic sentence
  • supporting sentences with evidence or explanations
  • a transition sentence or a conclusion

This three-part form provides a logical flow that is pleasing to the eye and brain. If a teacher tells you that you need to fix your paragraphs, your paragraphs are not following this simple structure, and they need to be “tightened up” to conform to this formula.

But many creative students have a big problem with this: to these emerging writers, it just seems wrong to conform to a standard paragraph structure. After all, how can a paragraph be interesting if it follows the format of every other paragraph?

While writers my want to express themselves in creative ways, it is wrong for them to mistake structure for a lack of creativity. In fact, structure provides a foundation for creativity.

It may be helpful to think of your paragraphs as buildings. Before an architect can create a beautiful building, she must create a foundation out of cement and beams.

It’s the material and the form that she attaches to the  base that makes the building beautiful and unique.

Consider the paragraph below, taken from a descriptive essay about the intimidation we feel when sitting down to a fancy place setting. You will see that it contains a topic sentence (in bold), supporting sentences, and a transition. But it isn’t boring at all!

The silverware taunted me as if it could sense my panic. Three forks lay there to the left of the plate, resting in military-style precision, with a single, perfect inch separating them from one another. The largest fork hunkered in the middle, smirking like a schoolyard bully. It taunted me like a game show host, daring me to pick it up and use it as I stabbed the first leaf of my salad. The smug spoons were no help; they cowered in the outskirts of the dinner arrangement and avoided my stare. The big one sat like a fat, warty frog on the far left and the tiny one simpered like an earthworm above the dessert fork. And the plates? They were no better.

While it follows a standard form, it certainly is creative! Do not be afraid to use structure as you design a paragraph. And you should think of your paragraph as a piece of art that you design!

Structure from Chaos

Some students aren’t worried about creativity at all. Instead, they just don’t know how to “chop” a long essay into little sections that make sensible paragraphs.

It may help to think of paragraphs as single thoughts. Each paragraph should express a single idea that can be summed up with a title. For example, the paragraph below is from a how-to essay called “Learning to Drive,” and the paragraph itself could be titled “first gear.”

In order to put the car in motion, you will need to put the car into gear. First you will use your left foot to press on the clutch, which is the pedal to the far left of the passenger side floor. The clutch must be pressed all the way to the floor. With your foot on the clutch, you will use your right had to push the gear shift upward into the “first gear” position. Once you have engaged your car in first gear, you will use both feet at the same time: one to release the clutch and the other to press on the gas pedal. This will put your car into motion. Your next challenge is to shift gears as the car is moving.

Again, this paragraph follows the standard format just as the silverware paragraph did, but it doesn’t resemble that paragraph at all! Paragraphs with structure can be very unique.

If your essay is a meandering mess that needs to be crafted into a sensible series of paragraphs, just take a few moments to write down several main ideas you’re trying to convey. Then re-arrange your sentences into several clumps or paragraphs that conform to the proper structure.

Make sure you state your main idea as a topic sentence, then back it up with supporting sentences. Make your essay flow from one paragraph to another using transition sentences at the end of each paragraph.

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