Writing To Learn From Paragraph To Essay

This is the VOA Learning English Education Report.

Many students say there is no easy way to write college papers. This may be especially true if English is not your first language. Most teachers agree that there is no single “correct” way to create a personal essay or a research paper. But there are methods to help you structure your papers.

One way often used to structure writing is the traditional five-paragraph essay. Many students learn this form in middle and high school. The paragraphs follow conventions, or established rules.

The first paragraph is introductory. It tells the reader what the paper is about. It is followed by three paragraphs containing evidence that support the writer’s argument. The final paragraph is the conclusion. It provides a reasoned opinion based on the evidence.

Allison Cummings teaches English at Southern New Hampshire University. She is among many professors who find this form too simple for college work.

Still, on the positive side, Ms. Cummings says the five-paragraph essay form teaches a student some tools for writing a paper. She says the form teaches the need for the opening statement, or thesis. This thesis tells the reader what will come next. In addition, students who have learned to write a five-paragraph essay know they must provide evidence. And Ms. Cummings says the writer will know a conclusion is required.

But she also says the five-paragraph essay falls far short of college writing needs.

“Most of the subjects that students are asked to write about are going to involve more paragraphs, and more points, and more complexities.”

So, if a traditional method for structuring a research paper does not work, what steps can help you structure your writing? Ms. Cummings’ students learn several ways learn to organize their papers. The pace at which they learn differs.

Ms. Cummings says doing research for a paper helps some students in their writing. The teacher says noting the way the research is structured can help students organize their own writing.

“They’ll read articles and see what other people argue about, whatever issue they’re writing on, and get a sense of what the points are out there, what the debates are out there, and then let that structure what they come up with.”

Allison Cummings offers sample outlines – examples for organizing papers.

“If they want to use them, they are free to follow that kind of standard template…”

Ms. Cummings also provides her students with examples of successful and unsuccessful student papers. That way, her class can see what works in a piece of writing and what does not.

And that’s the VOA Learning English Education Report. I'm Jeri Watson.

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Words in this Story

convention – n. a custom or a way of acting or doing things that is widely accepted and followed

introductory – adj. providing information about something that is about to begin

conclusion – n. a final decision or judgment: an opinion or decision that is formed after a period of thought or research

positive – adj. good or useful

thesis – n. a statement that someone wants to discuss or prove

pace – n. the speed at which someone or something moves

article – n. a piece of writing about a particular subject that is included in a magazine, newspaper, etc.

Now it’s your turn to use these Words in this Story. In the comments section, write a sentence using one of these words and we will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.

Step 5: Write the middle paragraphs

When you have revised your provisional thesis statement and mapped out the supporting points you will develop in your essay, you can start writing the body of the essay.

It’s advisable to begin with the middle paragraphs of the essay rather than the introductory paragraph because it’s the middle paragraphs that support the thesis statement and constitute the argument of the essay. The introductory paragraph leads up to your thesis statement and the concluding paragraph begins by restating your thesis and then wraps up the essay; first and last paragraphs function as a frame around your essay’s argument, but are not part of the argument. Once you have developed your argument through the middle paragraphs, you are better able to write an opening paragraph that positions the reader to engage with your argument.

Paragraphs

Keep the following points in mind when constructing your middle paragraphs:

  • A paragraph is a unit of thought.
  • Each paragraph should make one point.
  • A new paragraph signals to the reader that the writer has moved to a new topic or point of evidence.
  • Paragraphs should have internal cohesion.
  • Paragraphs should be linked logically to each other.

The length of a paragraph depends on the complexity of the topic, the purpose of the writing, the medium, and the anticipated needs of the reader. Because most academic writing is formal writing that involves complex topics and a critical reader, it is advisable to aim for at least 100 words (up to 200 words) when you write an academic paragraph.

Paragraph Structure

Structure is important not only in the essay as a whole but also in every paragraph that makes up the essay. There are three parts of a paragraph: the topic sentence, which introduces the paragraph’s topic; middle sentences, which constitute the body of the paragraph; and the wrap sentence, which concludes the paragraph.

To demonstrate this structure, we can look at the second paragraph of Model Essay One and the third paragraph of Model Essay Two.

Cohesion

An effective essay is a coherent whole, in which sentences within paragraphs and paragraphs themselves are connected, flowing on from one to another, leading the reader through the essay.

One of the ways to create cohesion between sentences is by using transition markers. Transition markers are words or phrases used to link sentences and paragraphs and to help the reader follow the direction of your argument.

A Few Transition Markers

Adding:
and, also, in addition, moreover, furthermore,

Contrasting:
however, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, by contrast,

Clarifying:
in other words, that is, in effect, to simplify,

Sequencing:
to begin with, firstly, secondly, lastly, finally

Exemplifying:
for example, for instance, in particular, to illustrate,

Conceding a point:
although true, even though, although, despite this,

Summing up:
to summarise, to conclude, in conclusion, clearly then

Endorsing:
clearly, in particular, importantly, naturally, obviously

Stating a logical conclusion:
therefore, thus, hence, as a result, consequently, accordingly, for that reason.

While transition markers are an effective way of emphasising for the reader the relationship between one sentence and the next, there is little value in using them when the logical relationship between the sentences is already clear. In fact, over-using transition markers reduces their effectiveness; save them for the places where you need to guide the reader.

Faulty Transitions

When using transition markers like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, or ‘consequently’, be careful that the sentence beginning with the marker really is a logical conclusion of the preceding sentence.

Faulty transition example

Over the last five years there has been an increase in cases of student plagiarism. However, universities need to impose heavier penalties on students who plagiarise.

In this example, the second sentence, although related, is not a logical contrast of the first sentence: imposing heavier penalties is a possible response that universities could make to the issue of plagiarism, but it is not an inevitable outcome of the issue.

Repeat Idea Transition

In a repeat idea transition, ideas from the first sentence are referred back to in the following sentence. The above faulty transition example can be revised using a repeat idea transition.

Writing From Sources

In developing your middle paragraphs, you will be using your lecture, tutorial, or reading notes to develop an argument or case supporting your thesis statement. Here, it’s useful to remember the process diagram from the Introduction of this course, in particular the arrow indicating the transformation needed to turn information into knowledge.

When your lecturer reads your essay, they are looking for evidence not only that you’ve attended lectures and tutorials and read the required textbooks and journal articles but also that you have been engaged in a learning process that transforms information into knowledge. To convince your lecturer that the learning process has been successful, you must express ‘in your own words’ what you have learned. If you use the words of the source text, your lecturer can’t tell whether you’ve understood the source material or whether you are just copying it.


Writing in your own words does not mean that you take what the author has written and change some of the original words. Rather, it involves a process of understanding the information carried by the source text, critically evaluating and selecting information relevant to your essay, processing it through notes, concept maps, and summaries, and incorporating this processed material into your essay. Your lecturer wants to hear your own ‘scholarly voice‘ through your writing. This voice is informed by the authority of the texts you have read on your topic but expresses your own way of thinking about the topic.


Getting the balance right between the authority of the source text and your own interpretation, perspective, and opinion takes some practice. Always remember that if your reader wanted to know what the source text says they would read the source text, but when they read your essay they want to know what you have to say. You take the raw material of the source text, but then you process this appropriated material so that you can use it for your essay.

The following diagram represents the appropriation of material from the source text and the incorporation into your text. Note in particular that there is no direct link between source texts and your essay. Everything that you take from a source text must be processedthoroughly before becoming part of your essay.

 


The following provides an audio-visual representation of the Writing from sources diagram.


The three most commonly used techniques for incorporating material from source texts into your own essay are:

  • quoting,
  • paraphrasing, and
  • summarising.

All of these techniques require citation within the text and in the bibliography or reference list at the end of the essay.

  • States the paragraph’s main point,
  • Should be clear and stand out from the rest of the paragraph to make it easier for readers to grasp the main point,
  • Usually comes first (except in the introductory paragraph, where the topic sentence is the thesis statement and comes last),
  • Connects to the wrap of the previous paragraph.
  • Justify, explain, clarify, support, elaborate, give evidence, examples, fill in details,
  • Constitute the body of the paragraph.
  • Closes the paragraph as a unit of thought,
  • Reinforces the paragraph’s main point,
  • Can assess the significance of what is established in the paragraph.

In the strategic plan, paragraph two had ‘focus’ as its topic. (Note that apart from its last sentence ‘the thesis statement’the introductory paragraph has not been written at this stage.)

Thesis statement:

A successful essay has three key elements: focus, organisation, and clarity.

Analysis

Sentence 1 (topic sentence) introduces the topic of ‘focus’, which is developed further in sentences 2, 3, and 4. Sentence 5 (wrap sentence) sums up how ‘focus’ can be achieved in writing the thesis statement.

In the strategic plan, paragraph three concedes (as the essay brief states) that essays are not written in the workplace, then counters the concession by asserting that the skills required are transferable to the workplace.

Thesis statement:

Setting essay assignments as a component of student assessment at university is a valid practice.

Analysis

Sentence 1 (topic sentence) introduces the topic of ‘professional performance’. Sentence 2 concedes the point that essay writing may seem irrelevant to professional performance. Sentence 3, signalling a change of direction with the transition marker ‘however’, shows the limitations of the conceded point, and presents the counter-argument that essay skills are transferable from an academic to a professional context. Sentence 4 identifies these skills, and sentence 5 (wrap sentence) affirms the relevance of essay writing to the professional skills identified.

Essay writing is difficult, demanding, and time-consuming. Nevertheless, it is worth mastering, because it is the basis of all academic writing.

In the example, the transition marker ‘nevertheless’ functions effectively to prepare the reader for a shift in direction from focusing on the negative characteristics of essay writing to focusing on the positive characteristics.

If you have a number of points to make, numeric transitions (first, second, etc.) are useful for signposting to the reader that each individual point should be considered separately.

Transition markers have many useful functions in academic writing. Firstly, they guide the reader through the writer’s development of ideas. Secondly, they create coherence in a paragraph or essay. Lastly, they add variety to sentence structures.

Over the last five years there has been an increase in cases of student plagiarism. One strategy that universities might employ to address this problem is to impose heavier penalties on students who plagiarise.

In this example, the words ‘this problem’ refer the reader back to ‘an increase in cases of plagiarism’, creating cohesion between sentences. Repeat idea transitions are also useful for creating coherence between paragraphs. Here, words in the first sentence of a new paragraph refer the reader back to ideas or information in the previous paragraph.

…the main reason that the essay failed was that its central argument was unclear.

Such a lack of clarity can be overcome by ensuring that the essay has a strong thesis statement and strategic plan.

The first paragraph (giving reasons for the essay’s failure) concludes by reinforcing the main point. The following paragraph (about how the problem can be overcome) begins by referring back to the problem.

Using transition phrases and idea transitions strategically to direct your reader through the stages of your argument or case helps you to convince them of the validity of your thesis statement. Cohesion within and between paragraphs reinforces the reader’s impression that you as the writer have control and authority over your material. This is exactly the impression you want to give your lecturer or marker, so mastering the use of transitions is very worthwhile.

Writing from sources diagram

Please view on a larger device

Write the middle Paragraphs


Writing an academic essay always involves:

appropriating information from the texts you read,

processing this information, and

incorporating it into your own writing.

Write the middle Paragraphs


It’s the middle step – the processing – that makes your essay original. This is what your lecturer is interested in – not just what you’ve read, but how you’ve interpreted it and used it to support your thesis statement. This is what demonstrates that information has been turned into knowledge.

appropriating information from the texts you read,

, and

incorporating it into your own writing.

Write the middle Paragraphs


The words you write in your essay are your own words, expressing what you know after reading, interpreting, selecting, and critically evaluating what you’ve read.

appropriating information from the texts you read,

, and

incorporating it into your own writing.



Reading
Interpreting
Selecting
Critically evaluating

Write the middle Paragraphs


Every essay begins with an assignment brief, from which you formulate a provisional thesis statement.

Write the middle Paragraphs


With this provisional thesis statement in mind, you consult source texts – textbooks, journal articles, or electronic material.

Write the middle Paragraphs


As you read, you make notes.

Remember to record bibliographical details so that you can correctly reference the material you appropriate from the source texts and incorporate it into your own essay.

Write the middle Paragraphs


If you use the appropriate note-making techniques, your notes will already be in your own words, but you may want to process them further through summaries or concept maps.

Write the middle Paragraphs


The point to remember is that what you appropriate from the source text is raw material only; it has to be processed and filtered through your own perspective before it can be incorporated into your essay.

This is what makes your essay original and demonstrates to your lecturer that learning has taken place.

Write the middle Paragraphs


As you can see from the diagram, there is no direct pathway from the source text to your assignment – material is never just copied – it has to go through the process of appropriation, processing, and incorporation.

Quoting means copying the author’s exact words directly from the source text. Use quotations when you want to add the power of an author’s words to support your argument or you want to highlight particularly powerful or effective phrases.

Guidelines

  • Keep direct quotations short.
  • Use direct quotations sparingly. To demonstrate your own understanding of a topic to your reader, it’s better to paraphrase or summarise in your own words.
  • Use quotations for a specific reason, not because it’s easier to quote the original text than to process it as a paraphrase or summary.
  • Reference quotations accurately both in-text and in your bibliography or reference list.
  • Always include page numbers in your in-text reference.

When quoting, always copy verbatim that is, always copy exactly what the author has written.

Original text

The green tree frog is found in the forests of eastern Australia. It is an attractive shade of green and grows up to ten centimetres long. It eats insects and spiders, which it catches with its long sticky tongue. Some Australian green tree frogs have been known to live up to twenty years.

When you quote from this original passage, you must keep the author’s original words.

Quotation

  • Croke (2004, 42) writes, ‘Some Australian green tree frogs have been known to live up to twenty years.’
  • Croke (2004 , 42) claims that ‘some Australian green tree frogs’ have been known to live up to twenty years.’
  • Claims have been made that Australian green tree frogs ‘have been known to live up to twenty years’ (Croke 2004, 42).

If you are in doubt about where to place punctuation in relation to quotation marks, consult a style manual such as Fowler’s Modern English Usage (review).

Spelling in quotations

You must keep the original spelling of quotations. If you normally use Australian spelling conventions, but the passage or phrase you want to quote uses American English, you must keep the American spelling.

Quatation

  • The work of New York abstract expressionist painter Jasper Shmirk is characterised by its bold colour contrasts. In the foreword of his Major Retrospective Catalogue (1984, 27) he writes, ‘The clash of colors in my “Nightsong Series” represents the experience of modern urban life.’

In this example, the writer is using the Australian spelling ‘colour’ in the text, but reproduces exactly Shmirk’s American spelling when quoting him. Note that you may use either single or double quotation marks (just make sure you use them consistently), but distinguish a quote within a quote as above. The following two versions are equally acceptable:

Quotation

  • “The clash of colors in my ‘Nightsong Series’ represents the experience of modern urban life.”
  • ‘The clash of colors in my “Nightsong Series” represents the experience of modern urban life.’

Omitting words from quotations

If you omit some words from the original text, you must alert the reader by replacing the omitted words with an ellipsis.

Original text

The green tree frog is found in the forests of eastern Australia. It is an attractive shade of green and grows up to ten centimetres long. It eats insects and spiders, which it catches with its long sticky tongue. Some Australian green tree frogs have been known to live up to twenty years.

When you quote from this passage, you can shorten it as:

  • ‘The green tree frog … eats insects and spiders, which it catches with its long sticky tongue.’

Preserving the original meaning

It is important that you preserve the meaning of the original sentence or passage when you omit words. The following is an example of what you must avoid. Imagine an original concert review stating,

Original text

Harvey Wallbanger’s come-back concert opened to rapturous applause from a packed stadium. However, the audience’s enthusiasm turned to anger and demands for a refund when the aging rock legend repeatedly forgot the words of his greatest hits, punched the bass guitarist in the face, and twice fell off the stage. It was a sad day for dedicated fans.

You distort the original author’s intention if you quote only the following fragment:

Quotation

  • ‘Harvey Wallbanger’s come-back concert opened to rapturous applause from…dedicated fans.’

Although you have used some of the original author’s words, you have not communicated the original message.

Changing words in a quotation

Sometimes you will want to change the form of a word so that the quoted material can be incorporated grammatically into your own sentence. You must signal to the reader any changes you make by enclosing the changed word or words in square brackets.

Original text

The predominant soil type in coastal areas of Sarawak is peat. Roads built on peat soils are particularly subject to subsidence and the development of corrugation. This makes road-building a continuing civil engineering challenge.

Quotation

  • Arshad and Chow (2004, 76) note that ‘the predominant soil type in coastal areas of Sarawak is peat…[making] road-building a continuing civil engineering challenge.’

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