Knowing how to write good paragraphs is a skill that can be learnt and should be taught.
You are too often seeing the essay before you see the paragraphs that build it. When you are asked to “write an essay on the French Revolution”, you will be likely to picture the end product: three pages of answer. I would propose that this is not a helpful way to approach the assignment.
Rather, think of an essay as a collection of paragraphs.
When you know what paragraphs you wish to write, the essay will assemble itself.
But: what is an “evidence-based paragraph”…?!
What is a paragraph?
Teachers will have their own ideas of how to write good paragraphs, and their definitions for a “paragraph”, but I will use this one:
A paragraph is a distinct section within a piece of writing,
containing one substantiated claim within an overarching argument.
Of course, paragraphs in fiction or newspapers will work differently, but we are concerned with academic paragraphs here.
This definition makes it clear that a paragraph is more than just something that is “indented”, more than a visible division of text. It is a also a division of sense, or argument, of what you are arguing in your paper.
A paragraph is then made up of a “claim” which needs to be “substantiated” and needs to be part of an “overarching argument.”
What is a “claim”?
The word “claim” is notoriously difficult to understand, but you can think of it this way: whenever you can put the phrase [In my opinion,] ahead of a sentence, you make a claim.
Think about it: [In my opinion,] signposts that you are expression an opinion on something – that you are presenting your version of the truth.
And that’s what a “claim” is: a “claim to know the truth”, which, be definition is open to discussion: someone else can also say [In my opinion,]….
A claim is the opposite of “fact”, because you cannot place the phrase [In my opinion,] in front of a fact.
Look at this example:
- The Eiffel Tower measures 324 metres from bottom to tip.
- The Eiffel Tower is more beautiful than London Bridge.
Which of these sentences is a claim and which is fact?
Make the test by placing [In my opinion,] in front of each:
- [In my opinion,] the Eiffel Tower measures 324 metres from bottom to tip. This makes no sense, because its height is not dependent on your view of it. It always is 324 metres.
- [In my opinion,] the Eiffel Tower is more beautiful than London Bridge. This is more like it: someone might disagree with you, right? This is a claim, and whoever it is that you said it to can demand some pretty good reasons why they should agree with you. London Bridge is beautiful, too…
What does this have to do with a paragraph?
Your paragraph really ought to start with what is often called the “topic sentence”.
I like “point” or “claim” a little better, because “topic sentence” suggests a descriptive sentence: the sentence will “describe” what the paragraph is about.
“Claim”, in the other hand, suggests a debatable sentence: the sentence will express an opinion about a topic and, as a consequence, is up for discussion.
As a check, use [In my opinion,] as a sentence starter for every new paragraph and then, when you edit your essay, delete [In my opinion,] again. What you are left with, is a “claim”.
A claim is always specific, and never general: you cannot argue with anyone about generalities, only specifics.
Your essay can ask a general essay question (“Can architecture be beautiful?”) but the claims within the essay must be specific:
- “The Eiffel Tower is more beautiful than London Bridge.”
- “Architecture should be evaluated as a skill, not an art.”
- “Architects is only a matter of function, not aesthetics.”
That all aside, how do we actually know if we should agree with you or not?!
Exactly: we ask you for some good reasons.
Read the next post in the series on how to write good paragraphs to know what a “substantiated claim” is.