Short Takes

Let's start out with the short papers. You may be asked to condense all your knowledge on a subject into a pithy essay or abstract, or even into a single paragraph. It's okay. Take a deep breath. You can do it, and here's how.

All in One: A Single Paragraph

Let's start out small. If you must get your thoughts across in only a single paragraph, you should pay attention to the central thought of your paragraph and the details that support that thought. The most important part of a single paragraph is its topic sentence, which contains the paragraph's main idea. The topic sentence is often (but not always) the first sentence. All the other sentences in the paragraph should support the topic sentence in some way. If they don't, cut them.

Some one-paragraph compositions also end with a summary sentence that restates, reviews, or emphasizes the main idea of the paragraph (using different words, of course).

Some writers who have been confused about the organization of a single paragraph have found this military analogy helpful: A paragraph has a topic sentence as its general; all the rest of the sentences “report to” the topic sentence. If a sentence goes AWOL (if it strays from the main idea of the paragraph), it should be court-martialed (or crossed out).

Some writers have trouble understanding how to show support of a main idea. If you're one of them, think about ways that you can:

  • elaborate on your topic sentence

  • explain or clarify your topic sentence

  • give details about your topic sentence

  • provide factual information or proof about your topic sentence

  • help define your topic sentence

A good topic sentence lets your readers know what to expect from the rest of the paragraph. Read this topic sentence:

While April is the favorite time of year of many people, I dread it because my allergies are aggravated by blooming plants, I'm under a lot of tension to get my taxes finished by the fifteenth, and I have to attend seven birthday parties for various family members.

After you read this topic sentence, you know that the rest of the paragraph will give you more details about the allergies, the tax-related tension, and the birthday parties.

Don't forget to use transitional words or phrases within your paragraph. These help show your reader the connection between the various ideas you state or points you make.

Room for Expansion: The Five-Paragraph Essay

After single paragraphs, beginning writers often proceed to five-paragraph essays. These works follow a prescribed form (could you guess that it has five paragraphs?) of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.

Just as a topic sentence is the main focus of a single paragraph, five-paragraph essays are centered around a thesis statement (or thesis sentence), the central view or argument of the whole essay. Your thesis statement may be either argumentative or informative, depending on the direction you take in your body paragraphs, and it should be a summary of what the rest of your essay will contain. By your thesis statement alone, readers should know either the direction of the rest of your essay or the individual points you'll make.

Make sure your thesis statement is narrow enough to cover a five-paragraph essay. For example:

The United States should increase its aid to Jamaica, Bosnia, and Namibia.

This statement is much too broad because you'd need far more than five paragraphs (maybe five books?) to explain why additional aid is needed for those countries.

Your introductory paragraph should contain your thesis and also give a clear indication as to what your body paragraphs will be about. Some instructors or style guides mandate that your thesis statement be the first or last sentence of your introductory paragraph; some will allow it to be in any position in your first paragraph. Whichever format you follow, be sure that your first paragraph contains more than just your thesis statement; it should also include sentences that develop on or build up to your thesis statement.

Your body paragraphs give more elaborate support for your thesis statement. Each of your body paragraphs should contain a topic sentence (a sentence that tells what that particular paragraph is about) that must be directly related to your thesis statement. In other words, one subtopic (one individual point) can be developed in each of your three body paragraphs. Some writers find that they stay more focused if they list these three subtopics in their thesis statement. Read this example:

I will no longer fly Zebra Airlines because its online reservation system isn't reliable, its support staff isn't helpful, and its departures and landings are rarely on time.

From the thesis statement alone, readers know the first body paragraph will elaborate on the complaint about the reservation system, the second body paragraph will elaborate on the problems with the support staff, and the third body paragraph will elaborate on the unreliability of the schedules.

If you arrange the information in your body paragraphs in chronological order, be sure that you word your thesis statement chronologically. Or if you arrange your body paragraphs so that the most important or most emphatic reason or example comes last, word your thesis statement in the same way. Some instructors or style guides specify that you write a certain minimum number of sentences in each paragraph of the essay; some leave this up to the individual writer. Be sure you're aware of any requirements that apply to your essay.

As with every kind of writing, including transitions in your five-paragraph essay is extremely important. Each of your body paragraphs should have some sort of word or phrase that ties together what you said in the preceding paragraph with the subtopic you're beginning in that paragraph.

One common problem in essays is body paragraphs that don't pertain to the thesis statement. To remedy this problem, (1) reread the thesis statement, (2) read each body paragraph separately, and (3) ask if what's written in each paragraph directly relates to the thesis statement. If the paragraph doesn't relate, you've veered away from your focus and you need to revise that paragraph.

Your concluding paragraph is a summary of what you've stated in your body paragraphs (of course, with different wording). The information in your concluding paragraph gives you the opportunity to recap what you stated in the preceding paragraphs and give additional emphasis to your individual points. You should be careful not to introduce any new material in your concluding paragraph.

Some writers find that restating (again, in different words) their thesis statement is a straightforward way to begin their concluding paragraph. If you're having trouble writing your concluding paragraph, try starting out with the phrase In conclusion or To summarize. Don't keep the phrase after you finish your paragraph, as readers find phrases like these to be trite. But using one of the phrases in writing your first draft may be enough to help you get started.

Some writers find that composing a five-paragraph essay is easier when they see an outline for it and then fill in the parts.

OUTLINE OF A FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY

  • Introductory Paragraph

    Has the thesis sentence (check if it must be in a specific place in this paragraph)

    Has sentences that follow or lead up to the thesis sentence

  • Body Paragraph #1

    Has a transitional word or phrase connecting the preceding paragraph and this one

    Begins with a topic sentence

    Has other sentences that support, elaborate on, or give specific evidence for the topic sentence

    Has transitional words or phrases throughout the paragraph

  • Body Paragraph #2

    Has a transitional word or phrase connecting the preceding paragraph and this one

    Begins with a topic sentence

    Has other sentences that support, elaborate on, or give specific evidence for the topic sentence

    Has transitional words or phrases throughout the paragraph

  • Body Paragraph #3

    Has a transitional word or phrase connecting the preceding paragraph and this one

    Begins with a topic sentence

    Has other sentences that support, elaborate on, or give specific evidence for the topic sentence

    Has transitional words or phrases throughout the paragraph

  • Conclusion

    Has several sentences

    Has transitional words or phrases

    Might contain a summary

    Might contain general closing remarks

    Might restate the idea of the thesis sentence

Summing It All Up: The Abstract

Don't worry — there's actually nothing at all abstract about writing an abstract. In an abstract (usually written in just one paragraph), you summarize the methodology, essential sections, and main points (or conclusion) of research or a manuscript. By examining your abstract alone, readers should be able to determine what information the complete manuscript contains.

Different instructors, publications, and companies use different styles for abstracts, so ask about particular requirements. General points concerning abstracts include these:

  • The purpose of an abstract is to summarize a longer work (commonly a literary, scientific, or historic work, although it might be something in another field) and any methods the work described or conclusions it reached.

  • If you have a specific word limit, be sure to write as close as possible to that limit without going over it. Abstracts that exceed a specified word limit will often be rejected because they can't fit in certain databases or summary formats.

  • Be sure you emphasize the primary discoveries and major conclusions of the work and include the key words of the research or work (that is what will be used in databases).

  • Your wording should be as concise as possible and all irrelevant details should be omitted.

Have someone who is experienced in writing abstracts take a look at yours before you submit it. They will be able to catch any missteps you don't see yourself.

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