Supporting Your Ideas
All of the sentences in a paragraph should develop and support the main idea of the topic sentence. Here’s one way that you might think about the of a paragraph:
- Topic sentence: the main claim of your paragraph; the most important idea that you want your readers to take away from this paragraph
- Sentences that give support in the form of evidence: proof that your claim or idea is true (or important, or noteworthy, or relevant)
- Sentences that give support in the form of analysis or evaluation: discussion that helps your readers see the connection between the evidence and your claim. This section is also called the “warrant;” you will learn more about this in ENGL 121.
- Transition: signposts to help your readers move from the idea you’re currently discussing to idea in the next paragraph. For more specific discussion about transitions, see our chapters on Transitions and Transition Words & Phrases ~ Useful Lists.
For more on methods of development that can help you to organize and support your ideas within paragraphs, see our Rhetorical Modes for Paragraphs & Essays chapter.
Types of evidence might include:
Now that we have a good idea what it means to develop support for the main ideas of your paragraphs, let’s talk about how to make sure that those supporting details are solid and convincing.
Good vs. Weak Support
Consider your audience. What questions will your readers have? What will they need to know? What supporting details will be strong? Why might readers consider some evidence to be weak?
Imagine you are developing a paragraph and you need to make sure that your support for your main idea is solid. Here are some tips on what to strive for and what to avoid when it comes to supporting details.
Breaking, Combining, or Beginning New Paragraphs
Like sentence length, paragraph length varies. There is no single ideal length for “the perfect paragraph.” There are some general guidelines, however. Some writing handbooks or resources suggest that a paragraph should be at least three or four sentences; others suggest that 100 to 200 words is a good target to aim for. Audience, purpose, and context will be important factors in your decision about paragraph length. In academic writing, paragraphs tend to be longer, while in less formal or less complex writing, such as in a newspaper, paragraphs tend to be much shorter. Two-thirds to three-fourths of a page is usually a good target length for paragraphs at your current level of college writing. If your readers can’t see a paragraph break on the page, they might wonder if the paragraph is ever going to end or they might lose interest.
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that the amount of space needed to develop one idea will likely be different than the amount of space needed to develop another. So when is a paragraph complete? The answer is, when it’s fully developed. The guidelines above for providing good support should help.
Some signals that it’s time to end a paragraph and start a new one include:
- You’re ready to begin developing a new idea.
- You want to emphasize a point by setting it apart.
- You’re getting ready to continue discussing the same idea but in a different way (e.g. shifting from comparison to contrast).
- You notice that your current paragraph is getting too long (more than three-fourths of a page or so), and you think your writers will need a visual break.
Some signals that you may want to combine paragraphs include:
- You notice that some of your paragraphs appear to be short and choppy.
- You have multiple short paragraphs on the same topic.
- You have undeveloped material that needs to be united under a clear topic.
Finally, paragraph number is a lot like paragraph length. You may have been asked in the past to write a five-paragraph essay. There’s nothing wrong with a five-paragraph essay, but just like sentence length and paragraph length, the number of paragraphs in an essay depends upon what you need to explain your ideas. There’s really no way to know that until you start writing. So try not to worry too much about the “proper” length and number of sentences and paragraphs. Just start writing and see where the essay and the paragraphs take you. There will be plenty of time to sort out the organization in the revision process. You’re not trying to fill out a worksheet. You’re letting your ideas unfold. Give yourself—and your ideas—the space to let that happen.