Advanced Writing for the College-Bound

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2010-11: Thursday 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM Eastern Time

Unit 0:
A Preliminary Assessment

Unit 1:
The Right Question

Unit 2:
Purpose and Audience

Unit 3:
Getting Ideas

Unit 4:

Unit 5:

Unit 6:

Unit 7:
Supporting Your Claim

Unit 8:
Bad Reasoning

Unit 9:
Forestalling Counter-Arguments

Unit 10:
Research and Documentation

Unit 11:
Organizing: Overview

Unit 12:

Unit 13:

Unit 14:

Unit 15:
Beginnings and Endings

Unit 16:

Unit 14: Paragraphs

Tiny differences in input could quickly become overwhelming differences in output.... In weather, for example, this translates into what is only half-jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect — the notion that butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.

— James Gleick, Chaos, Prologue

Burrowing down into the finer structure

As you may have noticed, we have dealt now with the overall organization of ideas and are moving to examining the details of organization within the components of the essay, the paragraphs. We need to be able to present the ideas within these paragraphs in an organized manner, while remembering to link ideas to the main topic and the larger structure of the overall essay. If we let in stray ideas, ambiguous phrases, or inappropriate examples, we will not only distract our readers (and ourselves), but may wind up with a conclusion that does not follow from our thesis statement.

main points for this unit

Topic Sentences

Each paragraph of your essay is like a little essay in itself. It should have a main point that supports the thesis of the essay, and the rest of the paragraph should speak to that main point. Information that is interesting but doesn’t advance the main point of the paragraph doesn’t belong in the paragraph. You have to learn to recognize, and have the self-discipline to edit out, all the phrases and sentences that are not related or do not directly support your main points. Sometimes this means getting rid of your favorite and most clever phrase. (You may want to start a notebook or file of the “good phrases” that you have had to eliminate from a particular essay. You can use these at the beginning of brainstorming sessions for other assignments, and you may even find a more appropriate home for them someday.)

We usually express this main point in the topic sentence, which is often — but not always — the first sentence of the paragraph. It’s usually a good idea to put the topic sentence first when you are writing in support of a particular argument; that way, you can state your position clearly for the reader, then flesh out the paragraph with supporting details. When writing a conclusion or summary, you may want the topic sentence to be the last sentence in the paragraph.

In some cases, there is no single sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph. The main idea may be in a particular phrase within a sentence, or never explicitly expressed at all. Nevertheless, the main point should be obvious to the reader and should drive the organization of the paragraph.

Paragraph structure

Within the paragraph, as within the essay as a whole, ideas should be arranged in a comprehensible and sensible order. There are several well-recognized patterns for paragraphs and for essays as a whole:

Parallel structure allows the symmetry of sentence organization to convey a complex set of relationships, emphasizing similar connections between various items. The parallels can lie in the choice or terms and can especially be reflected in word order.

If Jim goes to England, he will be able to see the Tower of London. If he goes to France, he will be able to see the Palace at Versailles. Jim needs to figure out which is more interesting to him.

Parallel structures can be considerably more complex and multi-layered. Consider Romans 6:5-11 (NIV):

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul uses a sequence of parallel structures to emphasize the cause and effect relationship between Christ’s experience and our own. In verse 5, he sets up his first parallel: "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his." In verse 8, he adds another, itself parallel to the first: "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him." By the time we get to verse 10, "The death he died, he died to sin", we realize that Paul is driving us toward the conclusion that we are also dead to sin, even before he states it in verse 11. The repetition of terminology and the repetition of verbal patterns add to the sense that this conclusion is the inescapable outcome of the original situation in verse 5.


Transitions signal the relationship between different sentences within the paragraph, and sometimes also from one paragraph to the next. We use transition terms — most commonly adverbs or adverbial phrases — to signal, among other concepts:

Consider the difference between the first and second versions of this history lesson:

Caesar left Gaul for England in 55 B.C. His troops met with some resistance. The Romans established a major presence in Britain about a century later. They withdrew in the mid fifth century A.D. Rome’s resources were needed to defend Italy against invasions. The Romans left behind fortifications and roads that have lasted to this day.

Caesar left Gaul for England in 55 B.C. Upon his arrival, his troops met with considerable resistance, but about a century later, the Romans established a major presence in Britain that lasted until the mid fifth century, when they were forced to withdraw because Rome’s resources were needed to defend the Italy against invasions. Even so, they left behind fortifications that are still visible, and roads that are used even today.

In the second version, the transition terms help establish the both the chronological and causal relationships between events.


  1. Identify the topic sentence or phrase, in each of the paragraphs below. What kind of organization pattern does each one use?
    1. Every area on earth is at the mercy of the weather, which makes it an important factor for all living things. We consider meteorology, the study of weather, an important branch of science. But the way we study the weather raises some important issues about how we apply the scientific method. If one of our goals in science is to determine natural laws that allow us to describe and predict behavior, how do we deal with apparently chaotic and uncontrollable weather phenomena? When do we know that we have a pattern we can use for predicting future weather events?
    2. Our study of weather is divided into two parts: weather phenomena and climate. Weather is the day-to-day series of events, climate is the general long term pattern or condition of sunlight, rainfall, and temperatures for a given area. In most science courses, we would start with a discussion of climate and the general theories we now have for how weather behaves; but here I’d like to start with weather phenomena as we experience them directly.
    3. It is unlikely that our ancestors in the prehistoric period had the concept of air masses of different temperatures and humidity colliding, even when they could see thunder clouds building. There were no records going back a hundred years to give them an idea of the average temperature for their area. The idea that phenomena are a result of a natural force that can be characterised and measured is part of modern science, not something we directly observe. The concept of average comes from experience with a range of phenomena over time--and records that measure quantities we can use to determine averages. In the beginning, the explanations follow the observations: we observe first, and try to make sense of the observations later.

  2. In the following example, there is no explicit topic sentence. Determine and state the implicit topic of the paragraph. Then rearrange the sentences in the paragraph into a more rational order.
    (1) Other forms of human experience, such as divine revelation or poetic inspiration, might be valid sources of information to the individual, but because they were subjective and personal experiences, they couldn’t be verified and so are not considered scientific knowledge by this modern definition. (2) Sometime in the eighteenth century, people began to use "science" to refer to the information that they thought could be known with certainty: objective, measured knowledge about natural phenomena, verified by the application of a special scientific methodology. (3) The word science comes from the Latin scire, which means "to know", but it originally put no limitation on what kind of thing was known. (4) In the Middle Ages (roughly 400 - 1400 AD), the "division of sciences" was the organization of all knowledge into separate disciplines or teaching areas, and it included everything from theology (the highest science) to agriculture (a basic practical science). (5) All knowledge was a science. (6) The most basic sciences of the ancient world were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, which had to be mastered first and which formed an introduction to all other areas of knowledge.
  3. Pick one of the subjects from the list below and write three different 3-5 sentence versions of a paragraph addressing the subject. Explain why you chose the organizational patterns you used in each case.
  1. All my classes this term are very demanding.
  2. In the last two books that I have read for my literature course, the main characters had at least one common problem.
  3. The definition of matter has changed since Thales first said "All is water!"
  4. My home state has several unusual geographical features.
  5. Different forms of government result in different levels of personal freedom.