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Getting Smarter through Language

What is a Paragraph?

Learn what a paragraph is and how to plan and write good paragraphs.

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Basic reading level

Also available at intermediate/advanced reading level.

What Makes a Paragraph a Paragraph?

To write a paragraph, it is not enough just to put a few sentences together. Those sentences must be related to one topic. They must also say something specific about the topic.

The specific idea about the topic is called the controlling idea of the paragraph. The controlling idea is what the writer has to say about the topic. It “controls” or limits what ideas you can include in the paragraph.

Let’s look at an example of a topic and possible controlling ideas.

Example of a topic with different controlling ideas

Topic: Coffee

“Coffee” is a very broad topic. You can write a whole book about coffee.

If you add a controlling idea to this topic, you can limit what you can say about it when you write a paragraph.

  • Topic + controlling idea 1: Coffee has a long history.

Now if you write a paragraph about “coffee,” it only includes information about its history.

  • Topic + controlling idea 2: Coffee is good for your if you drink it in moderation.

Again, you can write a good paragraph about coffee now if you include only information about how coffee is good for you and how much you should drink it.

  • Topic + controlling idea 3: Coffee has many uses in cooking and baking.

Can you see how the controlling idea limits what you can say about the topic? You can still write about coffee here, but now you must “control” or limit the content of your paragraph. You must talk about how coffee is used in cooking and baking.

How to Write a Paragraph

From the information above, you can tell what you need to write a good paragraph.

Your paragraph needs a well defined topic. It is equally important to have a clear controlling idea, as shown in the earlier examples.

The controlling idea will then guide you as a writer, “telling” you what details you may include in the paragraph. The details must support the main idea you want to express in the paragraph, that it, the topic and controlling idea.

Check Your Understanding

Examine Paragraph 1 below. It is not a good paragraph because two sentences in it make the paragraph incoherent. Which two sentences do not belong in it?

Paragraph 1

1 My sister, Anna, is very intelligent. 2 She is 5 years old, and she can already read children’s books very well. 3 She understands difficult concepts in mathematics such as fractions and percentages. 4  When she hears or reads new words, she learns them very quickly and uses them correctly. 5  She enjoys playing with other children. 6  She is learning Spanish and Vietnamese because some of her friends speak these languages around her.

Sentence 1 presents the topic (the writer’s sister, Anna) and the controlling idea (she is very intelligent). It limits the ideas you can write in the paragraph.

Sentences 2, 3, and 4 are good sentences for this paragraph. They tell you why the writer thinks Anna is intelligent.

Sentence 5 is a problem! It is about something Anna likes to do, but the paragraph is not about that! You cannot include this sentence in the paragraph.

Sentence 6 is about how Anna learns languages easily, so it is a good sentence for this topic and controlling idea.

Try Another

Now examine Paragraph 2 below. Which sentence does not belong in it? Pay attention to the topic and the controlling idea.

Paragraph 1

1 When you write an email, you should include a few things. 2 Yet, many people still make mistakes when writing professional email messages. 3 For example, a professional email message should start with a greeting such as “Good morning” or “Hello, everyone.” 4 A message with spelling and grammar errors comes across as unprofessional and careless.5 Email makes communication among coworkers quick in today’s fast-paced workplace.6 Finally, a professional message should end with a simple “Thank you” or “Regards, and the sender’s signature.

How to Write a Good Paragraph

Putting it all together, here are some simple steps to write a good, coherent paragraph.

  1. Choose a specific topic.
  2. Decide what you want to say about the topic by using a controlling idea.
  3. Plan, or organize, the ideas you want to include to support your topic and controlling idea. Each detail must support both the topic andthe controlling idea.
  4. Write your paragraph, paying attention to the topic and controlling idea.

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