Ah, the oft-misunderstood paragraph. Most of us learned the basics of standard paragraph construction during our elementary school years and beyond. The first sentence should contain your main point and the following sentences should substantiate that point. Simple, right? 

As straightforward as paragraph development seems, I often see dissertation writers struggling with this construct. The result is sprawling paragraphs with main points that shift several times throughout or underwritten paragraphs with a substantial idea never fully supported.

A paragraph is a small story unto itself: Think of it as a mini-thesis. It should be meaningful and (to some degree) stand alone as a key contributing thread to your overall research story.  

Pointers for a Clear and Concise Paragraph

1. Identify the goal of your paragraph. When you understand the overarching goal of your paragraph (instead of figuring out as you go along), you’ll find paragraphs naturally fall more naturally into place. What is your main point? How will you validate that point effectively? How does this paragraph fit with the paragraphs before and after it?

2. Provide strong evidence. This is your “just the facts” section. Support your point with relevant qualitative and/or quantitative evidence, such as paraphrased text, stats and quotations. Keep these choices directly related to the main goals of that paragraph. You may be tempted to go off course here and enter the proverbial rabbit hole. Resist. (And of course, remember to cite correctly.)

3. Support the evidence with a clear, concise explanation. Just because a dissertation is written in an academic register, don’t take the reader on a journey into the obscure. Elaborate on a citation and clarify a fact. Help the reader understand the data you used in layman’s terms. Remember that, even at the doctoral level, signposts and a road map are a committee’s best friends. 

4. Close your paragraph correctly. Return to your main point by showing how the supporting data verified and bolstered it. 

Some other key tips to consider while writing strong paragraphs:

Read your paragraph aloud. Nothing helps you realize that a paragraph needs improvement more than reading it aloud. If you’re losing breath or stumbling through a dense forest of subordinate clauses as you read, there’s a good chance you have overwritten a sentence. Divide it into more manageable chunks. Note also how the active voice creates a strong and direct tone in comparison to the passive voice. Check out a useful article on active vs passive here: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/active_versus_passive_voice.html

* Dare to write smaller paragraphs. Academic writing doesn’t mean each paragraph needs to challenge “Beowulf” in depth and breadth. Small paragraphs can be equally effective and break up your writing so the reader isn’t drowning in a sea of words. Similarly, varying your sentence length can help generate interest and engagement. 

The best part of a solidly written paragraph is that the next paragraph is that much easier to write. Why? Because a well-written paragraph serves as a base, an effective jumping-off point for the next paragraph.

If you think about it, your dissertation emerges much like a mosaic or puzzle: in the beginning, the pieces seem disparate and unwieldy. Gradually, each considered piece is fitted in and lays the groundwork for the whole. This leads to a beautiful result we can all agree on:  Dissertation DONE!