36 Writing the Essay Body: Supporting Your Ideas

Whether the drafting of a paragraph begins with a main idea or whether that idea surfaces in the revision process, once you have that main idea, you’ll want to make sure that the idea has enough support. The job of the paragraph body is to develop and support the topic. Here’s one way that you might think about it:

  • Topic sentence: what is the main claim of your paragraph; what is the most important idea that you want your readers to take away from this paragraph?
  • Support in the form of evidence: how can you prove that your claim or idea is true (or important, or noteworthy, or relevant)?
  • Support in the form of analysis or evaluation: what discussion can you provide that helps your readers see the connection between the evidence and your claim?
  • Transition: how can you help your readers move from the idea you’re currently discussing to the next idea presented? For more specific discussion about transitions, see the following section on “Transitions.”

For more on methods of development that can help you to develop and organize your ideas within paragraphs, see “Patterns of Organization and Methods of Development” later in this text.

Types of support might include

  • Reasons
  • Facts
  • Statistics
  • Quotations
  • Examples

Now that we have a good idea what it means to develop support for the main ideas of your paragraphs, let’s talk about how to make sure that those supporting details are solid and convincing.

Strong vs. Weak Support

What questions will your readers have? What will they need to know? What makes for good supporting details? Why might readers consider some evidence to be weak?

If you’re already developing paragraphs, it’s likely that you already have a plan for your essay, at least at the most basic level. You know what your topic is, you might have a working thesis, and you probably have at least a couple of supporting ideas in mind that will further develop and support your thesis.

So imagine you’re developing a paragraph on one of these supporting ideas and you need to make sure that the support that you develop for this idea is solid. Considering some of the points about understanding and appealing to your audience (from the Audience and Purpose and the Prewriting sections of this text) can also be helpful in determining what your readers will consider good support and what they’ll consider to be weak. Here are some tips on what to strive for and what to avoid when it comes to supporting details.

Strong Support Weak Support
  • Is relevant and focused (sticks to the point).
  • Is well developed.
  • Provides sufficient detail.
  • Is vivid and descriptive.
  • Is well organized.
  • Is coherent and consistent.
  • Highlights key terms and ideas.
  • Lacks a clear connection to the point that it’s meant to support.
  • Lacks development.
  • Lacks detail or gives too much detail.
  • Is vague and imprecise.
  • Lacks organization.
  • Seems disjointed (ideas don’t clearly relate to each other).
  • Lacks emphasis of key terms and ideas.

Breaking, Combining, or Beginning New Paragraphs

Like sentence length, paragraph length varies. There is no single ideal length for “the perfect paragraph.”  There are some general guidelines, however.

Some writing handbooks or resources suggest that a paragraph should be at least three or four sentences; others suggest that 100 to 200 words is a good target to shoot for.

In academic writing, paragraphs tend to be longer, while in less formal or less complex writing, such as in a newspaper, paragraphs tend to be much shorter. Two-thirds to three-fourths of a page—or seven to twelve sentences—is usually a good target length for paragraphs at your current level of academic writing.

The amount of space needed to develop one idea will likely be different than the amount of space needed to develop another. So when is a paragraph complete? The answer is: when it’s fully developed. The guidelines above for providing good support should help.

Signs to end a paragraph and start a new one:

  • You’re ready to begin developing a new idea.
  • You want to emphasize a point by setting it apart.
  • You’re getting ready to continue discussing the same idea but in a different way (e.g., shifting from comparison to contrast).
  • You notice that your current paragraph is getting too long (more than three-fourths of a page or so), and you think your writers will need a visual break.

Signs to combine paragraphs include:

  • You notice that some of your paragraphs appear to be short and choppy.
  • You have multiple paragraphs on the same topic.
  • You have undeveloped material that needs to be united under a clear topic.

Finally, paragraph number is a lot like paragraph length. You may have been asked in the past to write a five-paragraph essay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a five-paragraph essay, but just like sentence length and paragraph length, the number of paragraphs in an essay depends upon what’s needed to get the job done. There’s really no way to know that until you start writing. So try not to worry too much about the proper length and number of things unless those are specified in your assignment. Just start writing and see where the essay and the paragraphs take you. There will be plenty of time to sort out the organization in the revision process. You’re not trying to fit pegs into holes here. You’re letting your ideas unfold. Give yourself—and them—the space to let that happen.

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