21 Body Paragraph Basics

While body paragraphs can and should vary within your essay, there are some basic guidelines to follow when writing your paragraphs. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, include primary support and evidence, and wrap up with a concluding statement. Body paragraphs must have the following:

  • Unity—everything refers back to main point
  • Coherence—all points connect to form a whole; one point leads to another
  • Support—examples and details

Begin with a Topic Sentence

By definition, all sentences in the paragraph should relate to one main idea. This is referred to as unity. Unity is achieved when everything refers back to the main point.

  • All sentences should relate back to topic sentence & thesis.
  • Do not include any ideas that are irrelevant or off-topic.

The main idea should be clear and obvious to readers and is typically presented within the topic sentence. If another main idea comes up as you are drafting a paragraph, it’s time to go back to your outline to see where that idea fits in. If in revising a draft you notice that a paragraph has wandered into another main idea, you should consider splitting it into two paragraphs.

In academic writing, the topic sentence is usually the first sentence in a paragraph, but it does not have to be located there. The topic sentence is, in essence, a one-sentence summary of the point of the paragraph. All topic sentences should do the following:

  • Narrow the focus of the paragraph
  • Accurately predict the direction of the paragraph
  • Refer back to the Thesis statement

Use Transition Words

Coherence is achieved when all points connect to form a whole; one point leads to another. Coherence is mainly achieved through the use of transitions.

Transitions—words and phrases which connect your sentences so that your writing flows smoothly.

The first sentence of a paragraph always has to help a reader move smoothly from the last paragraph. Sometimes two paragraphs are close enough in content that a transition can be implied without actually using transition words.  Other times, specific transitions are needed.

Transition words are useful for more than just transitioning to a new paragraph. They can also help you connect ideas to each other within paragraphs. This table gives some ideas for how to use transitions to connect ideas in different ways:
Purpose Examples
To compare/contrast after that, again, also, although, and then, but, despite, even though, finally, first/second/third, etc, however, in contrast, in the same way, likewise, nevertheless, next, on the other hand, similarly, then
To signal cause/effect as a result, because, consequently, due to , hence, since, therefore, thus
To show sequence or time after, as soon as, at that time, before, during, earlier, finally, immediately, in the meantime, later, meanwhile, now, presently, simultaneously, so far, soon, until, then, thereafter, when, while
To indicate place or direction above, adjacent to, below, beside, beyond, close, nearby, next to, north/south/east/west, opposite, to the left/right
To present examples for example, for instance, in fact, to illustrate, specifically
To suggest relationships and, also, besides, further, furthermore, in addition, moreover, too

Introductory Sentences

When no transition is used, an introductory sentence is needed so the reader knows what is going on. If a transition sentence is used, it is logical to follow it with an introductory sentence or to have one joint sentence.

Here are some examples:

  • A transition sentence: Canned goods are not the only delicious foods available at a farmers’ market.
  • An introductory sentence: Farmers’ markets feature a wide variety of fresh produce.
  • A transition/introductory combination sentence: Along with canned goods, farmers’ markets also feature whatever produce is fresh that week.

Support the Topic Sentence

Finally, a body paragraph must have support. All sentences in the paragraph should present details that clarify and support the topic sentence. Together, all the sentences within the paragraph should flow smoothly so that readers can easily grasp its meaning.

Support is achieved through adequate examples and details. Each body paragraph should include at least two examples to support the main idea of the paragraph. In an essay in which you are incorporating outside sources, this means that you should have at least one citation in all body paragraphs. Each example should include at least one specific detail that further illustrates the point. Always follow-up quotes with your own thoughts, arguments, analysis, etc.

When you choose sentences and ideas to support the topic sentence, keep in mind that paragraphs should not be overly long or overly short. A half page of double-spaced text is a nice average length for a paragraph. At a minimum, unless you are aiming for a dramatic effect, a paragraph should include at least three sentences. Although there is really no maximum size for a paragraph, keep in mind that lengthy paragraphs create confusion and reading difficulty. For this reason, try to keep all paragraphs to no more than one double-spaced page (or approximately 250 words).

The Quote Formula

When using quotes to support your topic sentences, it’s important to follow the quote formula. Simply inserting a quote is not enough–you must explain to readers why you are using the particular quote and guide them in understanding how the quote pertains to your argument. There are three simple steps to incorporating quotes in your writing:

  1. Introduce the quote. Here, you tell readers what the author is doing.
  2. Give the quote. Here, you give an actual quote from the poem. Make sure to use quotation marks.
  3. Use a parenthesis after the quotation marks to include the source information.
  4. Explain the quote. Tell readers what the quote means.

To illustrate, take a look at the next paragraph in the paper quoted above. The parts of the quote formula are identified by using bold font for the introduction to the quote and italics for the explanation of the quote (note that the numbers in parenthesis indicate the lines of the poem being discussed):

Lawrence continues showing the gentler side of the snake by using similes. For example, Lawrence says, “He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do, / And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do” (16-17).  By comparing the snake to harmless, everyday farm animals, Lawrence is saying that he sees this snake as a harmless animal.  He continues showing the gentle side of the snake when he says, “He drank enough / And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken” (41-42).  An evil animal would not look “dreamily” and satisfied like a person whose thirst has been quenched.  He also shows the snake to be more of a person when he says, “How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough / And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless” (28-30).  By using the word “guest”, Lawrence shows that he does not think the snake is invading his yard but is welcome to come and help himself.  Then Lawrence sees an even greater side of the snake when he says, “[a]nd [the snake] looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air” (45).  Quite opposite of the snake representing the evil devil, Lawrence compares the snake to a god.  And, like most gods described in mythology, the snake is arrogant.  When Lawrence says the snake “looked around…unseeing” (45), it seems as if everything around the snake is beneath him, not worthy of his notice. The use of similes throughout the poem enhances the idea that the snake is gentle and even god-like.

Don’t Forget to Wrap the Paragraph Up!

Each paragraph needs a final sentence that lets the reader know that the idea is finished and it is time to move onto a new paragraph and a new idea. A common way to close a paragraph is to reiterate the purpose of the paragraph in a way that shows the purpose has been met.

Here’s an example body paragraph from a student paper. In this paper, the student is analyzing a poem. Note that the parts of the paragraph are identified as follows:

Hook: Bold

Support: Regular text

Wrap up: Italics

By using personification throughout the poem, Lawrence depicts a gentle snake that is more like a person than a creature.   Lawrence begins the poem by telling how a snake came to drink at his water-trough.  Instead of describing the snake as an animal or using “it” to talk about the snake, Lawrence says that he “…must wait…for there he was at the trough before me” (6).  Lawrence continues to show a softer side of the snake when he says “[the snake] rested his throat upon the stone bottom… / He sipped with his straight mouth, / Softly drank… / Silently” (9-13).   Instead of a thrashing, dangerous creature, here is a quietly drinking person.   Lawrence continues this image in the very next line.  “Someone was before me at my water-trough, / And I, like a second comer, waiting” (14-15).   Throughout these lines, the snake becomes less of an animal and more of a person coming to drink.

Note how the last sentence tells the reader what his examples show. Also note that the in text citation shows the LINE of the poem only.

Exercise 1

1. Choose a paragraph in an essay. You may use either an essay that you find online or one that you have written. Identify the topic sentence, supporting sentences, and wrap up sentence.

2. Write a short paragraph about the importance of time management. Chose a quote from THIS site (or use any quote about time management) and incorporate the quote by using the quote formula.


  • “Begin with a Topic Sentence,” “Use Transition Words,” and “Support the topic Sentence” adapted from “Creating Paragraphs” by Saylor Academy under license CC BY NC SA.
  • “The Quote Formula” and “Don’t Forget to Wrap it Up” written by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
  • Content written by Dr. Sandi Van Lieu and licensed under CC BY NC SA.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The RoughWriter's Guide by Dr. Karen Palmer and Dr. Sandi Van Lieu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book