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Writing is much more than producing correct sentences. How you structure and organize the sentences to express your thoughts is what writing is all about.

The sentence is the basic unit of grammar;

the paragraph is the basic unit of writing.

Good paragraphs also have an underlying structure. I also like to say that the paragraph is the basic unit of thinking. This unit should have a structure like the skeleton gives shape to the body. The ideas in your paragraph need to be organized around a structure. There are many possible types of paragraphs that you may use in your writing.

TASK: Browse this site:

You should think of a paragraph as a single unit. If it is a unit, it should hold together. In writing books, we call this coherence.

Paragraph analysis

There are many structures we can use to write paragraphs.

Once we have a clear structure, there are many ways we can improve our paragraphs.


The first strategy is called the TOPIC SENTENCE


"Topic sentences appear most frequently as the first sentence in a paragraph. This position helps readers become oriented immediately to the paragraph's topic and facilitates communication (e.g., an estimated 95% of paragraphs in professional/technical writing begin with their topic sentences)” source:


Level of generality test

One way to check your paragraphs is to look at the level of generality.

By analyzing this, you can see if they are well supported or not. If you have two sentences in your paragraph that are the most general statements, you should probably split it into two paragraphs and provide more support for each part.

If the first sentence is the topic sentence, then it should be labeled as a level "1," because in a sense, it is the most "general" statement in the paragraph. Sentences labeled as level "2" support or continue to explain the idea in the topic sentence; they are less general than the topic sentence because they focus on something specific that is related to the topic sentence. Sentences labeled as level "3" support or continue to explain level "2" sentences. Sentences labeled as level "4" support or continue to explain level "3" sentences, and so on.

TASKRead this explanation.

If you change a level of analysis, you should often include a transition signal.

TASKChoose a paragraph from your own paper and analyze it using this method. Number the sentences from 1 to 4. What does it tell you about your paragraph?

TASKanalyze a paragraph from your writing. Is there one main point for each paragraph?

Unclear  Pronouns

In order to write clearly, you should help the reader to identify the subject of your sentence. Most dangerous are unclear references. This happens most often with pronouns like it these, that and they.

TASK: Read

Read but do not scroll down.

On way to solve this problem is to use "This" + a term or Noun Phrase summarizing the previous sentence. This links one sentence to the next one.

Summary Nouns (source: SWALES)

Using this plus a summary noun  is a clear and effective way to make your writing more readable. It is used to continue a topic from a previous sentence. Using only "this", "it", these or other types of pronouns can make it unclear what you are talking about exactly. Here are some examples of summary nouns from Engineering papers. Check for examples from your own reading. This shift, This capability, This method, These two approaches, These view-specific templates, This theory, This problem etc.

TASK: Read the introduction of your model paper. Scan for any summary nouns and underline them. Then delete or cross out the noun and see how much more difficult it is to read.

Key nouns

Another way is to repeat the key nouns in the paragraph.

TASK: Read repeat key nouns.

We present a newly developed strategy for automatically segmenting movies into logical story units. A logical story unit can be understood as an approximation of a movie episode, which is a high-level temporal movie segment, characterized either by a single event (dialog, action scene, etc.)

Source: Automated high-level movie segmentation for advanced video-retrieval systems - Hanjalic et al.

If the author had used “They” instead of repeating “logical story unit”, it could be unclear whether we were talking about “strategy” or logical story unit.

Not only do you have to make it clear what you are talking about, but also you have to make it clear when you have changed the subject. Transition signals give clues to the relationship between sentences or paragraphs.


Transition Signals 

One of the most important ways to write more effectively is to have clear transition signals. Transition signals give your reader a kind of roadmap to where you are going with your writing.

TASK: Skim briefly to get the idea of what is a transition signal.
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TASK: Using your pen, underline any transition signals in the discussion or conclusion section of your Model Paper. Also, mark any repeated key words the author uses to make their writing clearer.

TASKLook at a paragraph of your model paper and find the transition signals. Copy and paste the text onto a new page if possible. Remove the transition signals from the paragraph. Do not even leave blank spaces. Then, read the paragraph and see if you can identify where and what kind of transition phrases should be in the paragraph.

Discourse Markers

This is a word that simply means telling the reader what you are going to talk about or reminding them of what you have already said. You can think of these phrases as commenting on the writing itself. Examples include: In section 4 we will discuss the importance of…, will be examined in chapter five…,  as previously stated, as mentioned in the preceding section etc.

These types of comments are especially important in long pieces of writing such as a thesis, dissertation or textbook.


Sentences should vary in type and length.

TASK: Read:  and

TASKCopy and paste some text from your writing. Highlight each sentence from a paragraph. Use the word count tool to count the number of words in each sentence. Take a color pencil and analyze the type of sentences and length of your writing: short, medium or long (22+ words). Write down the number. Is there variety? What is the average length?

TASKDo the same exercise on a paragraph from your model paper that seems to read very well. See what the pattern is.

TASK: Analyze a long paragraph of your writing. Color each different type of sentence in your paragraph.

Simple Yellow; Compound Orange; Complex Green; Compound-complex Blue.

TASKLater, compare it with a well-written paragraph from your field from your model paper. A well-written paragraph should be a colorful mix but not too much blue!

Variety in using quotations 

Use a variety of ways to introduce quotations. This is most important for social science and humanities papers but it is a good general principle to follow. Remember that each field has its own style of citation so the following link may not be in the correct format for your field.

TASKRefer to this page when needed for APA style:


TASKLook at the Literature review of your model paper introduction. Circle the names of the authors that have been quoted or referred to. Are they in the text of the sentence or at the end of the sentence? The subject of the sentence? Passive or active verb?

TASK: Analyze a page of your own writing to see if there are many differences in style.



Analysis of Coherence
A very useful analysis of a NYT article

Types of paragraph structures

Forecasting statements

Harvard website Transition advice

Technical writing transitions, great list

An example of the importance of revising with transitions

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