Paragraphing, CEA, and Transitions

Paragraphs

Paragraphs are the building blocks that make up any organized essay.  Each new paragraph is a signal to the reader that indicates further progress, or a shifting of ideas. They move the reader along to the next stage of your essay.  Generally, in academic writing, a paragraph contains one main idea, usually expressed in a topic sentence; the rest of the paragraph concerns itself with explaining, supporting, or developing that idea.  A single paragraph should not contain multiple main ideas, nor should it switch topics in midstream.  (In narrative writing, there will likely be fewer topic sentences, or none at all.) 

However, is most situations, the most important aspect of your paragraphs should be unity: a paragraph focused on one clear idea or topic, without extraneous or irrelevant details.

Examples of situations when to start a new paragraph:

  • When you introduce a new point in a narrative, a separate description, a new explanation or argument, or another idea altogether.
  • When a single idea is so long or complex that it may present difficulties for the reader in one, long paragraph.
  • When alternating dialogue exists, a new paragraph is required every time the speaker changes.
  • In a narrative, if a character changes his or her course of thought.
  • When writing introductions and conclusions (each is its own paragraph).
  • In a “process” or “how-to” paper, each step might be its own paragraph.
  • When you wish to introduce a dramatic break in your writing.
  • To make the page aesthetically pleasing to the reader, so that no page is one solid block of writing.

Claim, Evidence, Analysis (CEA)

Often in academic writing, using the “CEA” approach to structure your body paragraphs (or series of paragraphs) can be effective.  This kind of writing requires that the author balance his or her own voice with the voices of others (other sources, authors, etc.) while still effectively supporting claims or arguments. 

If we use the CEA approach to a sample body paragraph in an academic/research essay, it might look something like this:

  • The first sentence will be the topic sentence of that paragraph, and as such, it will also be your CLAIM. This topic sentence (claim) is valuable real estate and should be in your own voice—your words.  You should generally not use evidence, summary, or quotes as topic sentences.  This topic sentence functions like a mini-thesis statement for that paragraph; it sets the tone and controls the conversation in that paragraph.  It also directly ties in and supports your essay (overall) thesis statement. 
  • What follows the topic sentence/claim is the EVIDENCE you believe effectively supports your claim. This is where you will be introducing other voices into your essay.  Do so carefully, and be selective about the voices you include.  The evidence you choose to include can take many forms: summarized or paraphrased passages from various sources, quotes that clearly relate and support the topic sentence of that paragraph, key examples or details you’ve located through research, etc.  If you have a great deal of evidence—too much for one paragraph—don’t overstuff that paragraph.  Continue the discussion into the following paragraph.
  • Finally, the last “part” (couple or several sentences) are devoted to ANALYSIS. Here, we come back to your own voice as the author of the paper.  What comments, connections, or observations do you wish to make concerning your evidence?  How does your evidence clearly support your claim?  This must be explained fully.  Again, because this is valuable real estate, never rely on summary, quotes, or the evidence alone to make the case.  Your analysis must tie everything together—your voice.

Transitions

Just as readers appreciate a smooth flow of information from one sentence to another in a paragraph, they also expect and need, like signposts on a highway, transitions (bridges or connections) between paragraphs.  Otherwise, readers (like travelers) get lost, and once this happens, it’s difficult to reconnect with them.  A new paragraph is supposed to signal a new topic or idea, but not necessarily one that is completely different.  Lead your readers over the gaps between paragraphs; don’t ask or expect them to make those jumps themselves.   Each paragraph should logically and smoothly follow the one before it, and connect to the one after it—like links in a chain.  Transitions help make these connections (but they do not replace an essay that is already disorganized).   

Try using one or more of these transition word/phrases to help bridge those gaps:
Examples
Accordingly Hence Nevertheless Thereafter Of course
Also However Next Therefore As a result
Anyway Incidentally Nonetheless Thus In other words
Besides Indeed Now Undoubtedly Conversely
Certainly Instead Otherwise In addition Subsequently
Consequently Likewise Similarly In contrast Whereas
Finally Meanwhile Still For example Eventually
Furthermore Moreover Then For instance in fact
Just as Namely Notably Rather That is

In almost all situations, when we begin a sentence with one of these transition words (called conjunctive adverbs) or phrases, we need a comma directly afterward:

Examples:

  • Consequently, she missed the bus and was forced to walk all the way home.
  • Moreover, scientists are convinced that global warming is indeed happening right now.
  • Eventually, all evidence of the crime was examined thoroughly by the prosecution.
  • Incidentally, the politician never admitted to any crime, even before he was sentenced.
Important note: There are situations when a simple word or phrase is not sufficient to transition to a new paragraph.  Sometimes, the change of topic or idea is so substantial or abrupt that an ENTIRE SENTENCE is needed to make that transition.  When one word simply won’t do, you’ll need to create an entire sentence (or two) that effectively bridges bigger gaps in your essay.