5.5 Paragraphs and Lists: Effective Separation and Transition

5.5.1 Structured and Fully Developed Paragraphs

‘Paragraphs are units of thought reflecting the development of the author’s argument, and no absolute rules control their length’ (Ritter, 2005, Section 1.3.6). Paragraph writing is therefore far from an exact science, but, generally speaking, the first sentence should introduce the main idea (or ‘unit of thought’) that will be discussed in the paragraph, the following sentences should develop that idea in a variety of ways and the last sentence should bring the paragraph and its main idea to an effective close, ideally in a manner that guides the reader on to the next paragraph and thus to the next main idea. You will very likely not be able to obtain much advice from either university guidelines or your supervisor about writing paragraphs that effectively separate and develop your thoughts, but you will no doubt find that you are nonetheless expected to write your thesis in well-structured and fully developed paragraphs because paragraphing has a powerful effect on the logic and movement of an argument. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that a student who has advanced to the doctoral level will already know how to write perfect paragraphs, yet this is not always the case, and even seasoned and well-published academic and scientific authors struggle at times with separating their material into paragraphs and creating smooth transitions between them that clarify the movement of their thoughts. For those composing their first long piece of text and/or working in a language not their own, writing effective paragraphs that include clear and accurate transitions can be a significant challenge.

Although there are ‘no absolute rules’ regarding the minimum length of a paragraph, strictly speaking, a single sentence does not make a paragraph. This does not mean that a single sentence cannot stand alone in a thesis chapter, but that it should only do so if the context and information justify such special treatment. You may, for instance, have written a number of sentences, each of which outlines the findings you obtained through the use of a specific instrument or method of analysis, and formatted each of these sentences as a separate paragraph. This is not incorrect and, occasionally, a thesis committee or department will even ask that results and related data be presented in this way, most likely because such a structure separates and therefore clarifies the information, so do look into whether this format is acceptable for your thesis or not. In addition, short paragraphs (like short sentences) can be a great deal more effective than overly long ones, but since a paragraph should focus on developing an idea, gathering a string of single-sentence paragraphs that report the findings of different methods into one longer paragraph (or perhaps two paragraphs, clustering similar results in each) can, in many cases, be a more effective means of discussing the results of the trials, experiments, surveys and so on used in a doctoral study.

Just as the paragraphs in a thesis can be too short to be entirely effective, they can also be too long. The maximum length of a paragraph is indefinite as well, but, as a general rule, a paragraph that extends to two pages in length is too long (though line spacing and the layout of pages will make a difference here). Long paragraphs are often associated with complex thought and closely connected ideas, which is exactly the sort of content wanted in a thesis, but paragraphs that are too long often lose the reader’s attention because they tend to merge and develop a number of ideas instead of separating them for clarity, and such paragraphs can therefore lack (the appearance of) logical interconnection or coherence. Although even a very long paragraph can be effective if intellectually appropriate and very carefully written, the same material broken into shorter paragraphs, each of which addresses one aspect of the larger idea originally explored in the longer paragraph, can create a more defined structure for complex ideas and thus enhance the progression of your overall argument. By breaking long paragraphs into shorter paragraphs, you also make your text more accessible to your readers: you provide them with visual and intellectual breaks that offer them the chance to assimilate the idea(s) you have just discussed before they move on to the next paragraph, and you also make it easier for them to find material again when necessary.

Organising your thesis chapters into paragraphs of suitable lengths for the material you discuss will only be successful, however, if you write effective transitions between your paragraphs. When you turn to a different topic, adopt a different perspective or focus on a different idea as you begin a new paragraph, the transition needs to be smooth, logical and explained with precision. Specific discourse markers are highly effective for indicating a change of topic, a comparison or contrast, or a shift in focus, but there are many ways to make alterations and progressions of thought apparent to readers, so, once again, there are no definite rules. To avoid transitions that may seem abrupt, awkward, contradictory, illogical or unclear to readers, be sure to repeat or introduce the words and concepts necessary at the beginning of a new paragraph to connect it logically to the paragraph before it (see, for instance, the first sentence of this paragraph, in which I mention the length of paragraphs discussed in the preceding paragraph before introducing transitions between paragraphs). As I mentioned in Section 5.4.2, pronouns such as ‘this,’ ‘that’ and ‘they’ should be avoided at the beginning of a new paragraph, even if the antecedent seems obvious – even, for example, if that antecedent appears in the heading immediately above the paragraph. When the antecedent is not obvious (and it may not be as obvious to your readers as it seems to you), the result is not only poor style, but also confusion for readers exactly when clarity is most necessary to advance your argument, so it is always best to use a noun or noun phrase at the beginning of a paragraph (or a sentence for that matter).

A number of formatting issues should also be considered while laying out paragraphs on the page. Paragraphs should, for one, be clearly separated so that the reader can tell where one ends and the next begins. This can be done by indenting the first line of each paragraph or by providing a line space between paragraphs (I use an unusual combination of the two in this book to ensure that it is clear to readers whether a new paragraph begins or not even after examples and quotations surrounded by line spacing). Guidelines provided by your university, department or committee members may indicate a preference for one of these methods, so do ask your supervisor which method would be most appropriate and then use it consistently throughout your thesis. In some style guides, the beginning of the first paragraph immediately after a title or heading is not indented, but all other paragraphs are, so you should also check any guidelines you are using for detailed instructions of this kind. Sometimes paragraphs are numbered, either because the author is enumerating long points in an argument, in which case a numbered list format using simple Arabic numerals is appropriate for the paragraphs concerned (see Section 5.5.2 for further information on formatting lists), or because they are numbered as part of the overall structure of a thesis, in which case the sections and subsections of chapters are usually numbered as well (see Section 6.1) and the paragraphs tend to serve as the lowest section level and use multiple numbers (‘,’ ‘,’ ‘’ etc.). Such a numbered system is particularly effective for extremely detailed information or for material in which a great deal of cross-referencing is done – see, for instance, the Chicago Manual of Style (2003), in which each paragraph bears a double number referring to the chapter and the specific paragraph – so it is appropriate for many theses, and some university or department guidelines may require it.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

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