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The Writing Guide

Planning, researching, writing, referencing and drafting your assignments

Writing effective sentences

The Core Components of a Sentence

The Sentence should include:

  • A subject (a noun or noun group) that is clearly and obviously the topic of the sentence (this may include a verb, but it is not what is "happening" in the sentence).
  • A clear verb (or verb group) which governs what is "happening" in that sentence.
  • If the action needs to "happen to" something or be "done to" something to make sense, then you also need an object (a noun or noun group) that is the recipient of the action. Sometimes, instead of an object, you will need a complement - extra information about how, where or when the verb was "done".
  • Enough information that it makes sense on its own.

The scientists working on the project identified six strains of bacteria.

Subject: The scientists working on the project
Verb: identified
Object: six strains of bacteria.

A placebo was given to the participants in the control group.

Subject: A placebo
Verb: was given
Complement: to the participants in the control group.

This is the heart of a clause. You can have more than one clause per sentence, but you should be able to identify a main clause - this is the most important part of the sentence. If you stripped away all other information, would you still have a good clause that gave the most important information?

In English grammar, the standard format for a clause is Subject-Verb-Object. The first letter of the sentence and any names must start with a capital letter, and the sentence must end with a full stop (or an exclamation mark or question mark).

Sentence structures

Sentences can be simple (one clause), complex (a main clause and a supporting clause that adds more information) or compound (two main clauses joined by a conjunction, a colon or a semicolon) - BUT, they should always be clear and easy to understand.

The patient reported a loss of sensation. (Simple)

The patient reported a loss of sensation, which was aggravated by cold weather. (Complex)

The patient reported a loss of sensation and his doctor stopped the treatment. (Compound)

At all times ask yourself if it is clear what is happening to whom. For instance, the sentence, "The boy was looking at the man with the telescope" is unclear, as you cannot easily tell who has the telescope.

If you have a sentence with more than one clause, the standard format is to put the main clause first, but you can invert this order as long as the main clause is still identifiable and the meaning is still clear. You will need to use a comma after the supporting clause in an inverted sentence.

The doctor stopped the treatment after the patient reported a loss of sensation. (Standard)

After the patient reported a loss of sensation, the doctor stopped the treatment. (Inverted)

Active vs Passive

If the subject of the sentence is "doing" the verb, the sentence is said to be "active". If the verb is happening to the subject, the sentence is said to be "passive".

The participants completed a short questionnaire. (Active)

A short questionnaire was completed by the participants. (Passive)

Note, in the second sentence above, the "by" - this shows you clearly that the sentence is passive. Not all passive sentences will have the "by":

A short questionnaire was completed. (Passive)

An easy way to check if you have a passive sentence/clause is to see if it makes sense if you add "by zombies":

A short questionnaire was completed by zombies.

A good rule of thumb is to have more active sentences than passive sentences in your assignment, but always choose the format that makes the most sense in the circumstances.

Questions to ask yourself about your sentences

  • Do I have a clear verb? Can everyone easily tell what is happening in this sentence?
  • Do I have a clear subject? Can everyone easily tell who or what is the "star" of this sentence?
  • Would this sentence make sense if it was on its own? (NB. This doesn't mean you have to include all of the background information in each sentence - "He passed it to her" makes sense, even though we don't know the details).
  • Is the sentence active or passive? Would it sound better if I changed it?
  • Am I missing any important punctuation?

Writing effective paragraphs

The Core Structure

The Paragraph Structure should include:

  • A topic sentence (which introduces the topic of the paragraph and the argument which will follow)
  • Supporting sentences (evidence or examples)
  • A concluding/linking sentence.

Each paragraph is essentially a mini essay. The topic sentence does the job of the introduction, the supporting sentences are the body and the concluding/linking sentence is the conclusion.

The Topic sentence controls the content of the paragraph. It should be able to stand on its own (without the rest of the paragraph) and still make sense. It lets readers know what to expect from the rest of the paragraph, and nothing should be addressed in the supporting sentences that isn't related to the topic sentence.

Supporting sentences should contain the points you wish to raise concerning this topic, as well as the evidence that supports these points. Remember, you need to show your reasoning and your justification using examples and evidence. They should have a logical flow, so that it makes sense to have these sentences in this order. If one of your sentences stands out in a way that breaks the flow, you will need to rewrite it or move it.

Concluding/linking sentences sum up the main argument of your paragraph and indicate what the next paragraph might cover. A good concluding sentence will answer the "so what?" question regarding the topic of your paragraph. It will also link the paragraph back to the thesis of your assignment, or to the next paragraph.

Types of Paragraphs

A paragraph should have a clear topic, but also a clear purpose.

Descriptive paragraphs outline or describe the topic. They focus on giving information, rather than analysing it. They might be Definition paragraphs, which could provide several definitions from across different sources, or establish the definition that will be used for the purpose of this assignment. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that this is simply showing "what you know", and doesn't need references. How do you know what you know? What did you read to gain your understanding of the topic so you could describe it? You will need to cite sources for every piece of information that does not stem from direct experience.

Expository paragraphs offer explanation and/or analysis. They might be Compare/Contrast paragraphs (which show the relationship between two or more elements) or Process paragraphs (which illustrate how something is done). Find examples and evidence in your research to support your claims and back you up.

Narrative paragraphs tell the events of what happened in a particular situation. When these are based entirely on personal experience, they do not require any citations at all (but connecting your experience to the theories in the research is always a good idea). Be very careful with the language you use for narrative paragraphs. You are still writing an academic assignment, so you still need to use academic language. Check with your lecturer if it is okay to use "I", "me" or other personal pronouns, and never use contractions or slang.

Persuasive paragraphs or Argument paragraphs lay out a point that you are trying to prove, show your logical argument, and provide evidence to back you up.

N.B. If you have a short assignment (say, a 1500 word essay) and you are struggling to think of a structure for your assignment, you might want to try the D-E-P pattern:

  1. Introduction - presents your thesis
  2. Body Paragraph 1 - Descriptive, what's the state of things as they are?
  3. Body Paragraph 2 - Expository, what's the big idea?
  4. Body Paragraph 3 - Persuasive, what's my argument and justification?
  5. Conclusion - shows how each paragraph leads to proving your thesis

Unity and Continuity

Paragraphs need to have a logical flow and make sense in and off themselves.

  • You should be able to pull each paragraph out of your assignment, give it to someone who hasn't seen your assignment question or the rest of your essay, and it will make sense to them.
  • If you introduce any ideas in your paragraph, make sure you deal with them in that paragraph - don't leave your reader hanging.
  • Don't clutter your paragraphs with too many concepts - keep them focused on a main, controlling idea (made explicit in your topic sentence), and make sure every point you raise in your paragraphs is logically connected to that idea.
  • Present the ideas in your paragraph in a way that flows smoothly. Think about describing a cat - you wouldn't describe the whiskers, jump to the tail and then describe the left front paw. Your ideas should build on each other as they progress through the paragraph.
  • Don't underestimate the concluding/linking sentence as this holds your paragraphs together in an overall unity.

Paragraphs need to fit together in a logical and meaningful way.

  • You aren't writing a bunch of paragraphs and putting them on the page in any order. Just as they have to make sense internally, they have to make sense in relation to each other.
  • The last sentence is called a "linking" sentence because it should link to the next paragraph. This doesn't mean that you blatantly say what the next paragraph is about, but think about the "flow" between the linking sentence of the last paragraph and the topic sentence of the next paragraph. If you pulled them out of the essay and read them next to each other, would they flow logically, or seem jarring?
  • Think about describing the cat for your overall structure as well as your internal paragraph structure. If your last paragraph was about the whiskers, what should your next paragraph be about?

Take Pride in Your Paragraphs

Remember, someone is going to be reading this assignment. Write well for them, just as you would write well for an audience.

Some advice offered to journalists by Joseph Pulitzer will also work for students writing paragraphs for assignments:

“Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”1

1. Joseph Pulitzer. Quoted by Henessey B. Writing Feature Articles. 4th ed. Berlington, MA: Taylor & Francis; 2013. Accessed July 4, 2019.

Paragraphs video

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