Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Academic Writing: Writing an academic essay

1. The topic sentence usually comes at the beginning of a paragraph. It is generally the first sentence in a formal academic paragraph. Not only is a topic sentence the first sentence of a paragraph, but, more importantly, it is the most general or all-purpose sentence in a paragraph. What does the term ‘most general or all-purpose’ mean? It means that there are not many details in the sentence, but the sentence introduces an overall idea that you want to discuss later in the paragraph. Remember that the opening sentence establishes your style and sets the tone of your essay. It should be direct, brief and punchy. Brevity is the soul of wit. If your opening sentence is short and interesting, it will pull your reader right into your experience or the idea you are presenting.

2. Since the topic sentence is both general and all-purpose, details should appear later it the paragraph. The second and third sentences are called supporting sentences as they support or explain the idea expressed in the topic sentence. Of course, paragraphs in English often have more than two supporting ideas. On an average you should have at least five or seven sentences in your paragraph.

3. In formal paragraphs you may come across a sentence at the end of a paragraph which summarizes the information that has been presented earlier. This is the concluding sentence. You may like to think of a concluding sentence as a sort of topic sentence in reverse. Therefore a topic sentence may either come in the beginning or at the end of the paragraph. In some cases it might also come in the middle to give you an idea of what happened before and after.

4. A common image used for teaching paragraphs to students is called the hamburger. Consider a hamburger that you can buy at a fast-food restaurant. A hamburger has a top bun (a kind of bread), meat, cheese, lettuce, other ingredients in the middle of the hamburger and a bottom bun. If you examine the hamburger carefully you would notice that the top bun and the bottom bun are very similar. In a way, the top bun is like your topic sentence and the bottom bun like your concluding sentence. Both buns ‘hold’ the meat, onions and other ingredients. Similarly the topic sentence and concluding sentences ‘hold’ the supporting sentences in the paragraph.

5. Whenever possible, you should include enough details in your paragraphs to help your reader understand exactly what you are writing about. Why are details important? Consider the example of the hamburger mentioned above. If the hamburger buns are the topic and concluding sentences, then the meat, the cheese, the lettuce and the sauce are the supporting details. Without the food between the hamburger buns your hamburger would not be delicious! Similarly without the supporting details, your paragraph would not be interesting. To further make your paragraph interesting vary the length of your sentences.

6. In addition to having a particular type of structure, academic paragraphs are different from ‘ordinary writing, such as letter writing, in that certain kinds of expressions are not commonly used. For example in formal essays, you should not use contractions such as don't or aren't. Instead you should write out the words in full for example do not and are not.

7. Also in formal essays you should avoid the first and second person. That is, do not use the pronouns I or you unless you are writing an autobiography. The pronouns we and us are sometimes used in formal essays in some major fields but in general you should not use these unless you are certain that they are customary in your field and/or your professor allows them. It is safer simply to use the third person and write in the active voice.

8. While sentences provide the meat of a paragraph, there are three concepts in paragraph writing that may be considered the sauce. These ideas provide the conceptual framework that holds all paragraphs together:
A. Unity: it means that you fully explain or prove one key idea or subject in a paragraph.
B. Coherence: it implies that you repeat one key idea from sentence to sentence until it reaches its full development in the conclusion.
C. Development: it means that you adequately explain, illustrate, and provide details or proof for each point in the paragraph.

If you take one key idea and state it clearly, then follow it up with a sentence for each detail or piece of evidence, and finally restate your idea, then you can write acceptable, clear paragraphs. Always check spellings and grammar before submitting your essay.

Here are some resources on the web to help you with paragraph writing:
The 5-paragraph essay at
Paragraph writing at
Video at

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