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Essay writing: Main body

“An appropriate use of paragraphs is an essential part of writing coherent and well-structured essays.”

Don Shiach,  How to write essays

The main body of your essay is where you deliver your argument. Its building blocks are well structured, academic paragraphs. Each paragraph is in itself a smaller argument and when put together they should form a clear narrative that leads the reader to the inevitability of your conclusion.


The importance of the paragraph

A good academic paragraph is a special thing. It makes a clear point, backed up by good quality academic evidence, with a clear explanation of how the evidence supports the point and why the point is relevant to your overall argument which supports your position. When these paragraphs are put together with appropriate links, there is a logical flow that takes the reader naturally to your essay's conclusion. 

As a general rule there should be one clear key point per paragraph, otherwise your reader could become overwhelmed with evidence that supports different points and makes your argument harder to follow. If you follow the basic structure below, you will be able to build effective paragraphs and so make the main body of your essay deliver on what you say it will do in your introduction.


Paragraph structure

PEEL acronym - Point, evidence, explanation, linkAn academic paragraph needs to contain:

  • A topic sentence – what is the overall point that the paragraph is making?
  • Evidence that supports your point – this is usually your cited material.
  • Explanation of why the point is important and how it helps with your overall argument.
  • A link (if necessary) to the next paragraph (or to the previous one if coming at the beginning of the paragraph) or back to the essay question.

This is a good order to use when you are new to writing academic essays - but as you get more accomplished you can adapt it as necessary. The important thing is to make sure all of these elements are present within the paragraph.

The sections below explain more about each of these elements.

The topic sentence (Point)

This should appear early in the paragraph and is often, but not always, the first sentence.  It should clearly state the main point that you are making in the paragraph. When you are planning essays, writing down a list of your topic sentences is an excellent way to check that your argument flows well from one point to the next.

Evidence

This is the evidence that backs up your topic sentence. Why do you believe what you have written in your topic sentence? The evidence is usually paraphrased or quoted material from your reading. Depending on the nature of the assignment, it could also include:

  • Your own data (in a research project for example).
  • Personal experiences from practice (especially for Social Care, Health Sciences and Education).
  • Personal experiences from learning (in a reflective essay for example).

Any evidence from external sources should, of course, be referenced.

Explanation (analysis)

This is the part of your paragraph where you explain to your reader why the evidence supports the point and why that point is relevant to your overall argument. It is where you answer the question 'So what?'. Tell the reader how the information in the paragraph helps you answer the question and how it leads to your conclusion. Your analysis should attempt to persuade the reader that your conclusion is the correct one.

These are the parts of your paragraphs that will get you the higher marks in any marking scheme.

Link

Links are optional but it will help your argument flow if you include them. They are sentences that help the reader understand how the parts of your argument are connected. Most commonly they come at the end of the paragraph but they can be equally effective at the beginning of the next one. Sometimes a link is split between the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next (see the example paragraph below).

Paragraph structure video

Length of a paragraph

Academic paragraphs are usually between 200 and 300 words long (they vary more than this but it is a useful guide). The important thing is that they should be long enough to contain all the above material. Only move onto a new paragraph if you are making a new point. 

Many students make their paragraphs too short (because they are not including enough or any analysis) or too long (they are made up of several different points).