Let’s look at an example of a topic and possible controlling ideas.
Example of a topic with different controlling ideas
“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 you 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.
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.
Examine Paragraph 1
Paragraph 1 below is not a good paragraph because one of the sentences in it make the paragraph incoherent. Which sentence does not belong in it?
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.
Now examine Paragraph 2 below. Which sentence does not belong in it? Pay attention to the topic and the controlling idea.
1 Nowadays, communicating by email is very important for everyone.
2 When you write a professional email, you should include a few things.
3 For example, the message should start with a polite 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 it possible for coworkers to communicate quickly 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.
Sentence 1 is just an introduction. It tells the reader that the paragraph is about emails.
Sentence 2 has the exact topic (writing a professional email) and the controlling idea (you should include a few things).
All sentences tell the reader what you should include in a professional email, except Sentence 5. This sentence says something about emails, but it does not tell you what you should include in a professional email.
Putting it all together, here are some simple steps to write a good, coherent paragraph.
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