Developing Effective Paragraphs with Topic Sentences and Supporting Details

Think back to the most impressive monuments and structures that you have heard of. The Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines—all of these are considered by many to be the manmade wonders of the world. They are awe-inspiring, not just because of their majesty, but also because of how much work was involved in creating them.

Have you ever heard of the saying, “Rome was not built in a day?” Whenever we see something as massive and marvelous as the aforementioned structures, we may not realize just how long they took to be built, how many people were involved, how many resources were used, and how much effort was put in. All we see is the finished product. But as you see, these structures began with a brick or stone that eventually became a beautiful building. The structure underwent a process before it was finished.

Writing an essay is similar to constructing a building. We may not see right away how putting two bricks together can form a wall, or how this wall will be part of a taller structure. But as you saw in the previous lessons, using pre-writing strategies, finding a thesis statement, and making outlines are helpful as you write your essay. They function as a blueprint to guide you in your writing. A blueprint alone does not make a building—its design needs to be executed on the raw materials with which the building is built. As such, paragraphs are the building blocks of essays. This lesson will teach you how to write effective paragraphs by defining paragraphs, differentiating their parts, and enumerating the characteristics of effective paragraphs. 

Defining Paragraphs

A paragraph is a group of sentences that deals with one particular idea. Paragraphs are defined by the point that they support, the controlling idea, and not just by how long they are. This is the fundamental rule in writing paragraphs: only one idea should be discussed per paragraph.

Put together, paragraphs are used as building blocks in organizing longer pieces of text into prose. They basically function it I order to introduce a new idea, develop an old one, compare and contrast information, or provide readers with a pause. 

Identifying the Parts of a Paragraph: The Topic Sentence

To compose a paragraph effectively, you should be familiar with its parts: the topic sentence and supporting details.

A topic sentence tells the reader the main idea of your paragraph. It reveals what you generally plan to propose, argue, or explain. When it is part of a longer essay, the topic sentence contains a main point that supports the thesis statement. Think of the topic sentence as a mini thesis statement for the paragraph. In the following paragraph, the topic sentence has been underlined:

The circumstances which brought about the Filipino’s adoption of the [American] jeep are nearly providential. For here was an ideal, economic carrier suited to the extremes of tropic heat and rain and the bumpiness of Philippine highways, narrow dirt roads, and towpaths. In the farms, it became an indispensable wheelhorse, unresisting despite all kinds of inhuman abuses. In the city, the jeep evolved into something its inventors never dreamed of. the phenomenon that has been rattling around Manila for decades-the jeepney.

–Emmanuel Torres, Jeepneys

As you can see, the details in the paragraph expound the circumstances surrounding the Filipino’s adoption of the American jeep. The topic sentence can be found anywhere in the paragraph: in the beginning, at the end, or in the middle. The topic sentence in the previous paragraph is found in the beginning. It is usually a good practice to include the topic sentence near the start of the paragraph so your readers have an idea of what you are talking about early on.

A topic sentence can be explicit, or clearly states the ideas that will be elaborated on in the paragraph. The previous paragraph makes use of an explicit topic sentence, which plainly reveals to the reader what the paragraph will be about.

However, a topic sentence can also be implied. Read the paragraph below for an example:

Called the jeep, it was small in stature, easy to operate, hardy and compact, practical. Its capacity for carrying any kind of cargo—animal, vegetable, or mineral—in just about any shape or size, just so you could cram it all in, was practically limitless. In the early days of the Liberation, we wide-eyed children starved for gum and Hershey bars would watch uniformed soldiers gallivant all over town in these jeeps loaded with GI goodies, like tinned K-rations, cigarettes, duffel bags bulging with beer cans, and sometimes women. In time the American servicemen disappeared, but the jeep remained.

–Emmanuel Torres, Jeepneys

A topic sentence is implied if there is a clear controlling idea of what the paragraph is about. The reader will be able to determine the focus of the paragraph because all of the details, as seen above, are linked by an organizing theme. In the case of the given example, the implied topic sentence is how the American servicemen used the jeep for carrying cargo.

Also, a good topic sentence reveals your attitude toward the subject. It is helpful to include details like facts and examples that turn the topic sentence into something more specific and concrete.

Identifying the Parts of a Paragraph: Supporting Details

Every paragraph needs supporting details to elaborate on the topic sentence. These supporting details may range from facts, examples, or instances. Good supporting details expound on the main idea and act as adequate support; they are specific and stem from the general idea established by the topic sentence. How much detail you should include in a paragraph depends on your purpose and the topic sentence.

Examine the paragraph below, taken from the same essay. The implied topic sentence is about the types of passengers one encounters when riding a jeepney. What are the supporting details in this paragraph? How do they develop the topic sentence?

As every jeepney rider knows, sitting in a packed jeepney can be both awkward and uncomfortable, if not actually perilous, specially where the passenger crowd includes housewives with their market baskets loaded with vegetables and fish, parents with smelly, yelping brats, provincianos lugging their boxes and burl bags, fat persons with enormous backsides, etc. The passenger list does not always include the hoi polloi or the bakya crowd. It also includes middle class commuters with white-collar jobs and sometimes residents who own cars and even a house in San Lorenzo Village. At any rate, one never knows beside whom one is sitting. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to sit next to a shapely co-ed, side by side in a packed jeepney. So you see, a jeepney ride can be a good instance of democratic togetherness, where the have and the have-not, the literate and illiterate, may sit elbow to elbow tolerating each other’s presence without much of a sign of social discontent as a sneeze.

–Emmanuel Torres, Jeepneys

The supporting details in the previous paragraph give specific details about the types of passengers in the jeepney. These examples give you a better idea of such passengers; in fact, they enable you to picture yourself sitting beside a variety of interesting characters from all walks of life.

Making Your Paragraphs Effective

Now that you have identified the parts of the paragraph, the following characteristics will help you develop your paragraphs into more effective ones.

The first characteristic of an effective paragraph is unity. Unity simply means that all of the sentences in the paragraph are related to the topic sentence. The whole paragraph should begin and end with one focus only. Each of the details should have a clear and consistent connection to the topic sentence. Read the following sample paragraph. The paragraph lacks unity because the underlined point does not support the main idea.

Ordinary Filipinos can easily promote our country to foreigners via social media by supporting the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign. First, they can share and like official publicity materials from the DOT’s Facebook page. Each time a post is shared and liked, it becomes increasingly visible on Facebook and can reach a wider audience. Next, they can tweet their experiences in various local tourist destinations on Twitter using the hashtag like #ItsMoreFunInPH. When many users tweet using a specific hashtag, it becomes a trending topic and can be viewed by Twitter users around the world. They can also tell stories to their foreign friends by talking to them and volunteering to tour them around in our top tourist destinations. Finally, they can share their own travel photos on Instagram. Because pictures can be worth a thousand words, their pictures can reveal to foreigners the beauty of the travel destinations the Philippines is blessed with. These, and so much more, are just some examples of how Filipinos can participate in the DOT’S campaign through social media.

The second characteristic of an effective paragraph is adequate development. The topic sentence in the paragraph should be elaborated on using concrete evidence, different examples, relevant facts, and specific details. Having specific details helps your readers become interested in your topic, understand your message, and convince them of the validity of your topic sentence.

The following are two versions of a paragraph:

I dislike Physical Education (PE). Why is it that we have to waste class time playing sports that we have no choice in? Who said basketball is the best sport? I dislike PE because it makes me tired. It makes my skin dark. Finally, I dislike it because I look stupid when I play sports.

The first paragraph has vague ideas; the writer has enumerated reasons for disliking PE but did not explain them sufficiently. Meanwhile, the second paragraph below provides specifics; therefore, is more engaging and informative:

I am one student who has a strong dislike for PE. First, I do not like how we have little choice in the sports we play in. We usually play basketball, volleyball, or other team sports. I am someone who prefers one-on-one games because I am shy and 1 find it hard to work in a team. Second, most sports we choose involves outdoor settings. My skin is sensitive to the sun and I get allergies and become dark easily when exposed to sunlight for too long. Finally, most sports we play are spectator sports. They are meant to be played before a cheering audience. As someone who is self-conscious when playing sports (especially since I am not sporty), I am uncomfortable when all eyes are on me. Overall, I believe I will enjoy this subject more if we had more options in the sports that we take up.

The third characteristic of an effective paragraph is coherence. This means that the sentences are arranged in a logical manner, making them easily understood by the reader. Coherence is achieved when ideas flow smoothly within and between paragraphs. Your paragraph can become more coherent through the use of logical order and signal devices.

First, the details of a paragraph can be organized according to chronological, spatial, or emphatic order. When a paragraph’s arrangement is in chronological order, the details are arranged in the order in which they happened. Meanwhile, spatial arrangement is when the sentences of a paragraph are arranged according to geographical location, such as left to right, up to down, etc. Finally, emphatic order is when the information found in a paragraph is arranged to emphasize certain points depending on the writer’s purpose.

Imagine that you were to write an essay on the difficulties that a new high school freshman might face when he/she first enters high school. Consider how you might arrange the supporting details depending on the angle on the topic you are considering.

If your topic sentence were something like “The everyday life of a high school freshman can be exhausting,” you might use a chronological approach to provide an account of the student’s routine: waking up early to go to school, listening to different lectures, collaborating on many group projects, joining extra-curricular activities, and answering many assignments.

    Another paragraph with the topic sentence “The high school classroom has many differences from the grade school classroom that can be surprising to the freshman” might utilize a spatial approach to detail arrangement. You might first talk about the small tables and chairs in the grade school classroom, then the colorful bulletin boards at the back of the room with familiar cartoon characters stuck on them. In contrast, the high school classroom has bigger tables and chairs, and a plainer looking bulletin board at the back wall.

    Next, you can also achieve coherent paragraphs through the use of signal devices, or words that give readers an idea of how the points in your paragraph are progressing. The following are examples of signal devices:

    1. Transitions (these are words and phrases that connect one idea to another)
      • Time (first, immediately, afterward, before, at the same time, after, earlier, simultaneously, finally, next, in the meantime, later, eventually, then, meanwhile, now, subsequently, etc.)
      • Sequence (moreover, furthermore, next, also, finally, last, another, first, second, third, besides, additionally, etc.)
      • Space (above, next to, below, behind, beside, etc.)
      • Illustration (for instance, specifically, for example, namely, in this case, to illustrate, etc.)
      • Comparison (similarly, also, in the same way, still, likewise, in comparison, too, etc.)
      • Contrast (but, despite, however, even though, yet, on the other hand, although, on the contrary, otherwise, conversely, etc.)
      • Cause and Effect (because, as a result, consequently, then, so, since, etc.)
      • Conclusion (thus, therefore, in conclusion, in short, etc.)
    2. Repetitions (repetitions of main ideas keep continuity and highlight important ideas)
    3. Synonyms (these are words similar in meaning to important words or phrases that prevent tedious repetitions)
    4. Pronouns (words that connect readers to the original word that the pronouns replace)
    5. Parallelism (using similar sentence structures)

    Examine the paragraphs below. Locate the topic sentence. If it is explicit, copy it on the blank. If it is implied, create a topic sentence and write it on the blank.

    1. Topic Sentence: ______________________
      After driving through a stretch of eerie darkness, the mansion at the end of the winding driveway is an illuminating sight. Lights spotlight the colonial facade and the brick walk leading to an open patio that fans out into the front door. A leaning tree shelters the edge of the patio. On the right side of the wide foyer is the edge of the living room, a rectangular expanse under a high ceiling. The dining room runs parallel to the entire length of the living room. This divides into conversation groupings furniture done in satin beige and peach with draperies to match. The thick rugs mute footsteps on the black marble floors.
      –Leticia Jimenez-Magsanoc, “Double Jeopardy,” Philippine Daily Inquirer (September 26, 1987)
    2. Topic Sentence: ______________________
      Proclaiming Ninoy a hero does not guarantee that the race will remember. But it should help. It should help that, as a hero, his life and deed are engraved in textbooks, relived in skits and songs, and taught in school, We need only to recall again the letter Jesus Luis de Leon-Borbon wrote here last month to see how vital—no, how desperate—this undertaking is. De Leon, a half-Spaniard, was looking at the statue of Isidro Torres in Malolos when a group of kids came over and began wondering who Torres was. Surprised, De Leon volunteered that Torres was a hero who fought by the side of Gregorio del Pilar. “This del Pilar,” said one of the kids, “is he also one of our heroes?”
      –Conrado de Quiros, “Hero Worship” in There’s the Rub, Philippine Daily Inquirer (August 20, 1993)
    3. Topic Sentence: ______________________
      When she was teaching, she would relish the weekends for the endless tasks which she found to be done in her home. Clothes sorted, darned, set aside for renovation, and she, in close company with the sewing woman whom she hired for the day. The closets had to be cleared, the plants to be inspected, the unhealthy and the dying to be made well again, the lush and the flowering to be enjoyed. The kitchen to be given the week’s check-up, marketing, children and husband to be fussed over, enjoyed.
      –Lina Espina-Moore, “The Mansion” in A Lion in the House (1980)