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Building Better Body Paragraphs in an Academic Essay

Once the introductory paragraph has sufficiently engaged and set the scene for the reader, the real development happens.

Teaching students to really develop their ideas meaningfully is essential to communicating in writing.

Many students understand what needs to be present in these paragraphs but many don't know the depth or have the skill to select evidence and analyze it to support their ideas.

So they spend a lot of time repeating the same thing or stating good ideas, but not going deeply enough into them to sufficiently convince a reader.

Inside of every paragraph, the writer should consider a "mini-thesis" that directly supports the argument in the paper.

It's good to write the thesis section on a post-it note and leave it affixed to the laptop or computer screen for easy reference. Remind the writer to ask his/herself at the end of each paragraph, "Does this support my thesis? How?" If the answer is no, encourage the writer to revise the information reminding him/her that cohesion relies on proper organization and connection.

We can't put everything into an essay, only the information that is most relevant, no matter how good it sounds when it is written.

After setting the plan in place with the mini-thesis, the writer should consider some developing sentences before transitioning into any supportive material or evidence. The sentences should be well crafted and thoughtful, leading the reader into the evidence.

Then the writer should add well-selected evidence (either a full direct quote properly cited using MLA or APA citation) or parts of the text. Remind students that they don't need to use a full piece of text, just what is needed. Paraphrasing is acceptable and necessary at times in lieu of direct quotes. This too needs to be cited appropriately.

As a general rule, there should always be twice as much of the writer's idea to the cited text so that the paper remains original and not overly cited. This ratio ensures that the writer is staying true to his or her ideas. Too often young writers will rely on large chunks of evidence and merely place a transitioning sentence or so between in order to puzzle together the paragraph.

After the evidence and analysis are put together in the proper ratio and the ideas are fully developed. The student should clearly connect the information in the paragraph to the thesis and then go one step further to talk about the impact of the information on the reader.

Once the meat of the paragraph is laid down, the writer should then consider transitions. Rather than just using simple transitional phrases at the front of a paragraph, the writer should foreshadow the topic that is coming next to smooth the transition into the next topic sentence.

For longer papers, the transition can be as large as a paragraph depending on how distant the ideas are.

Students will need to practice this and will need to see models of how it can be done. Since writing is so personal, there is no one right way to do it, the writer must be encouraged to use his or her unique voice to develop the argument.

Repeat the above steps for each of the following paragraphs until all of the topics from the thesis section are addressed in the order they were mentioned.

Some quick tips:

  • don't just mention an idea and not support it adequately

  • fight redundancy by not repeating the same idea in different terms in multiple places

  • refer to the thesis and outline while writing to ensure connected ideas and organization

  • be cognizant of cohesion in the order the ideas are placed throughout the essay

  • remember depth of meaning comes from adding value through analysis which comes from explaining how or why not what necessarily

  • always connect ideas back to the thesis statement and remember the impact on the reader

Writing academic essays is a process. Encourage students to outline, then draft, then revise and review and then edit before submitting. Working through the process of writing will ensure the best product any writer can hope for.

How do you help students develop their ideas in the paragraphs of their essays either in English class or content area classes? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in December 2015.


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