A paragraph is a step in an argument. Like a good step in a staircase, it should be clearly delineated, and take you in smooth and even stages towards your goal. Each step should be big enough for your foot to securely stand on it, but not so big you need to walk between risers. It should have enough of a lift for you to make progress, but not be so large that you need to struggle or jump to get from stage to stage. The whole staircase should be aligned, and well-lit so that you can see your way forward.
Not every stair in the whole journey needs to be exactly the same though. You might have stairs that need to go around corners, or use different materials. With very long or complex staircases you may not be able to see all the way to your destination from the first step, but you should be able to see at least the first flight.
The reason this post is not just rehashing everyone else’s advice is this concept of the ‘flight of stairs’, which hopefully further advances and nuances our understanding of paragraphs in academic writing. Paragraphs are hardly an original topic, after all, and Inger, Shaun and I have already covered it at length in Academic Writing Trouble. But here I argue that each step is part of a larger set of stairs, the flight.
So, paragraphs are parts of sections. And the sections make up your chapter, and the chapters make up the thesis.
A section might be delineated by numbering or a header, or just by an extra topic sentence added to the first paragraph. Sometimes sections are very distinct, for example as you move from context to methods, or from reporting your data to analysing it. Sometimes the sections will be very similar in theme, content and structure, for example if you are using them to show development over time, or comparing results across locations.
So there is a lot of freedom in how you make a section relate to other sections. But within a section, the writing should be consistent in purpose, tone and structure.
Sometimes a single flight of stairs will take you from one floor to the next, but often you will need to turn on a half-landing or navigate a mezzanine. These ‘flat’ spaces are also essential: they allow you to efficiently get more height out of a staircase with a smaller footprint, and allow a reader to pause and survey the next flight more comfortably.
The flat spaces also allow for transitions between sizes or types of stairs. In my Victorian-era house, the stairs from the front hall up to the half-landing are wide and gracious. The less public stairs from the landing to the first floor are much narrower and less grand, which gives us more space in the bedrooms. You may want to be adjusting your paragraphs as you move from one section to another. Within each flight, the stairs are consistent though.
Okay, so that’s the metaphor. How do we do that in writing?
1. You should be able to see the whole step before you proceed. In writing paragraphs, this means you need a topic sentence: an overview that tells you what’s in the paragraph, how it relates to the overall argument, and how it makes progress towards your final goal. This will usually be kind of obvious from the context, but no-one likes to have to put their foot on a step they can’t see! So always include a topic sentence.
2. A step should have solidity. A step that is not robust, well-supported by evidence or theory, and coherent with the rest of the argument, will feel loose and unsafe. Anchor your paragraph with information from your methodology, theory or data.
3. A step should make progress towards your goal. How does this step advance your argument? If it doesn’t advance your argument, is it necessary?
Still, progress towards your goal will be incremental, step-by-step. If you cram too much into a single paragraph, you have to jump from step to step and that’s too tiring if you have to keep it up for a whole chapter or thesis. So keep the steps small enough.
4. A step should be smoothly continuous with the steps before and after. If there is a step missing, that is terrifying for the reader! If your reader ever has to make a dizzying jump across a gap in your argument, they may decide it’s safer to back out—not something you want an examiner or reviewer to consider!
5. Generally your paragraphs should be about the same length. Consistency leads to a smoother reading experience. Uneven steps mean you are more likely to trip or stumble.
If your reader is skimming, rather than plodding, through the text, these safety strategies are even more important. A skim reader is more likely to stumble or get lost if your paragraphs are mismatched or incomplete.
For a body paragraph, where we’ve already been in this section for a while and are clearly here for a while longer, there is often no need to wrap up the paragraph or link forward to the next paragraph. Simply by placing another small step immediately after this one, you create a sense of continuity and forward motion.
If you end-stop your paragraphs too much, you interrupt the flow of stepping through the section as a whole. Unless there’s a reason to take a pause mid-staircase, just let me keep on moving. There’s a lot of thesis left to read before my deadline! On the other hand, a section introduction should definitely link forward and a conclusion should absolutely finish conclusively.
So 6. It should be obvious when you move from steps to landings. Signal clearly when we need to turn a corner, or when the steps have finished and we have arrived at the next floor. Always signpost when you are changing direction or coming to a stop.
7. Use other safety rails to keep the reader on track and help them regain their footing if they need it. Being consistent with your terminology, formatting and numbering, for example, or clear and descriptive section headings, will give your reader more security.
PhD thesis staircases are technical, very long and only accessed by experts. Imagine your stairs as the practical metal kind that snake up a high-rise scaffold or zigzag down the retaining wall of a reservoir. Extra safety features will become more important the longer your text is.
Keep each step solid, economical and consistent. Don’t waste a lot of words fancying up your paragraphs. Keep it lean and based on your evidence. If you have extra words in your budget, use them to further secure your theoretical foundations, connect your work more firmly to your argument, or clarify what is in scope for the project.
I love a grand marble sweeping staircase, with marble balustrades and lit with chandeliers. I miss navigating them in heels and clutching a program at the Opera Garnier. I have fond memories of hiking in the bush, scrambling up uneven rises like in the Giant’s Staircase in the Blue Mountains. I am a huge fan of the mobile single step that can be used around the house to make me just tall enough to reach that shelf. But none of those are the right steps for academic writing.
As with all writing tasks, it’s important to fit the writing to the task at hand.
A thesis is not an essay, an email, a novel, or a poem. Academic writing is not a report, a newspaper article or a blog post. You need to understand how to write academic prose sentences, and use those effectively, to achieve the many different tasks you need to complete your writing.
If you’d like more advice on paragraphs see:
- Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD,
- Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals,
- Rachael Cayley’s Explorations of Style blog
- and Inger, Shaun and my How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble section 3.3, pp. 44-46.