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Paragraphs: the stepping stones in your argument

Trevor Day

Whether you are an undergraduate writing an essay or a postgraduate penning an academic paper for publication, you are inevitably building an argument. Each paragraph represents a step along the way. A paragraph has typical ingredients, such as a topic sentence at or near the beginning, which may connect to the previous paragraph: for example, ‘Taking Regina’s (2010) proposition, Ahmadi (2014) tested her predictions systematically.’ Sentences giving evidence and reasoning are likely to follow, with a concluding statement to draw the paragraph to a close. Regardless of how the paragraph is constructed, it should focus on a particular idea.

I find the ability to step back from the detail of the text, and gain an overview, is invaluable in spotting other people’s arguments — as well as developing your own. In reading or writing courses for postgraduates, I use the following activity to demonstrate how to follow an argument.

Get hold of an academic paper or a book chapter by a writer you like in your discipline. Skim read the first six paragraphs and work out the main idea conveyed in each paragraph. Can you reduce the idea in each paragraph to a phrase or sentence? Examples might be:

  • Why this topic is important, and for whom
  • Why the topic is controversial
  • Defining key terms
  • Setting out the key problem
  • Introducing one possible solution.

If the piece is clearly written, you should be able to plot the flow of the argument from your paragraph summaries.

Now turn to your own work and check whether you can reduce your paragraphs into statements that represent logical steps in your argument. You may have written the main idea for each paragraph in your essay plan or in the outline for your journal paper. Have you stuck to your plan? If not, is the flow of ideas still logical? Perhaps the text is working better than in your original plan! But if you find a gap in the logical flow, you’ll need to adjust the points you are making or perhaps swap paragraphs around.

Swiftly reading your own or other people’s work for the flow of ideas across paragraphs is a great way to improve your argumentation. Try it with your next assignment.

23 January 2020


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