In this resource page, you will learn about the four parts of a basic paragraph:
- Single Controlling Idea
- Topic Sentence
- Supporting Details
- Concluding Sentence
Single Controlling Idea
The first thing you need to keep in mind when writing a paragraph is the need for a single controlling idea. The controlling idea of a paragraph is the main idea or point the writer is trying to make. A common trap many new writers fall into is the trap of trying to put too much information into each paragraph. Sometimes, it happens in an effort to get a point (or series of points) across more quickly. Other times, it may be the simple result of wanting to add some complexity and depth to the writing. Whatever the reason, the exact opposite tends to occur far more often—the points being made get buried or confused by competing information and/or the complexity or depth of the message is lost to the reader as he or she struggles to identify the intended message. This is why it is always best to limit each paragraph to one controlling idea.
To illustrate the importance of establishing a single controlling idea in the basic paragraph, let’s take a look at a quick example. Imagine for a moment that you need to write a basic paragraph that responds to the following prompt:
Truthfully, there are probably a lot of learning strategies you could choose from—perhaps each with a near equal chance of helping you to succeed in PathwayConnect. There is forgetting to learn, a series of active learning techniques, distributed learning, and even teaching to learn. And yet, because the basic paragraph provides you with so little space to get your message across, it is very important that you limit yourself to selecting just one learning strategy (as the prompt suggests) as opposed to several. Doing so will ensure that your paragraph can effectively communicate your main idea—which is, after all, the whole purpose of the basic paragraph.
Ponder and Record
- How would you respond to the prompt above?
- What one learning strategy would you select to be the single controlling idea of your basic paragraph?
Another thing every basic paragraph should contain is a clearly-stated topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. The purpose of the topic sentence is to indicate what controlling idea that paragraph is going to explore.
To get a deeper understanding of this important component, let’s look again at the example prompt:
Although there may be many useful learning strategies you could focus on, this particular prompt appears to be asking you to select just one. Continuing on with this example prompt, once that learning strategy has been selected, your next step will be to create a topic sentence based on learning strategy to serve as the roadmap for the rest of that paragraph.
For example, imagine for a moment that the learning strategy you selected was the following:
This learning strategy should then serve as the controlling idea for this paragraph—a controlling idea that should be communicated by a clear topic sentence such as the following:
Notice how that sentence immediately focuses the reader’s attention on what idea that particular basic paragraph will explore.
Once you state the controlling idea in the topic sentence, your next step should be providing adequate support for that idea or argument. Such supporting details can take many forms, but they generally tend to include one or more of the following:
- Expert testimony
- Personal experiences
Let’s take a brief look at each of these types of supporting details. Take note of how they might be used to support a strong topic sentence.
The technical definition of a fact is a thing that is known and can be proven to be true with evidence. In our day and age, many things are commonly known to be true and proven (for instance, don’t need to be drawn from a book or other citable source). Some examples of facts are the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, the existence of other galaxies outside ours, and the fact that trees generally need sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to grow). There are also other types of less obvious things that have generally been accepted as fact. Such as university graduates earning significantly more income compared to primary and secondary school graduates.
Ponder and Record
- Think back on some of the learning strategies that have worked for you. Which one would you select and why?
- How could you turn that into a topic sentence for a basic paragraph?
A thing that is known and can be proven to be true with evidence.
Commonly known and accepted facts such as this serve as great supporting details as they tend to require less convincing to be accepted by readers. Using the topic sentence created in the previous section, let’s take a look at how a fact-based supporting detail might strengthen and support the controlling idea of this paragraph.
If you’ll remember, the topic sentence of our example paragraph is the following:
The way a fact-based supporting detail could be used to support this topic sentence would be to follow that sentence up with the following:
Notice how the supporting detail above cites (refers to) a well-known fact? Do you also see how the fact-based supporting detail clearly supports and is tied to the controlling idea established in the topic sentence?
Ponder and Record
What fact-based support might you pick to support the thesis of a similar paragraph?
Another type of supporting detail you could use in your paragraph is an expert testimony. An expert testimony is a quote or statement made by a qualified person about a specific issue they are considered “expert” (or accomplished) in. You can learn more about how to properly integrate and cite expert testimony quotes in future lessons (Source Evaluation and Quote Integration); but for the sake of this lesson, start familiarizing yourself with who these “experts” might be in a given field as well as how those testimonies or quotes might effectively support your topic sentences.
To gain a deeper understanding of these principles, take a look at how an “expert testimony” from a well-respected educational psychologist could support a topic sentence focused on the learning strategy “teach to learn.”
Notice how the expert testimony above directly supports the topic sentence’s focus on teaching to learn? Also notice how the surrounding sentences directly tie that expert testimony back to the topic sentence? Finally, notice how the “expert testimony” selected came from someone deemed “expert” or accomplished in the area of teaching and learning (an educational psychologist)?
Ponder and Record
- What expert testimony could also be used to support this topic sentence?
- Who could also be an “expert” on the topic of learning strategies?
Another type of supporting detail you could choose to use is a statistic. Something is considered a statistic when it is a piece of data from a study or other piece of numerical data. While generally most helpful for more academic-based papers (for instance, informative, persuasive, etc.), statistical supporting details could definitely add value to even the most basic pieces of writing.
Statistical supporting details are something you have likely seen or heard multiple times in your life thus far. You hear them on the news when they are reporting on election polls, you read them in magazine articles or even ads when they are advertising the benefits of avoiding smoking or drinking alcohol, and you hear them during General Conference on the annual reports and even in some talks. You see them so often because statistics are a great way to simply and powerfully illustrate or support an important point being made with something more concrete.
To see the power of this type of supporting detail in action, let’s revisit the example topic sentence (for instance, teach to learn is a learning strategy that will help me succeed in PathwayConnect because it will force me to think of more than one way to explain concepts.), and see how it might be effectively supported by a statistic:
Notice how the statistics above directly support and correlate with the topic sentence’s focus on teaching to learn as an effective learning strategy? Also notice how the words around those statistics support and reinforce the connection between the statistics and topic sentence?
Ponder and Record
What other statistics do you think could help support this topic sentence?
The final type of supporting detail you could use to support your topic sentence is personal experience. Personal experience can be a powerful supporting detail in any type of writing when used at the proper time and context.
A personal experience is generally a brief story about a specific experience (or moment in time) from your own life that illustrates a specific point that your topic sentence is trying to make. To illustrate, let’s return to the example topic sentence:
Given this topic sentence, what might a personal experience-based supporting detail look like? Perhaps it would look something like this:
Notice how the personal experience is about a specific experience or moment in time, not just a general reflection? Notice how the personal experience directly supports the idea of teaching to learn as an effective learning strategy? Do you also notice how the following sentence ties the supporting detail back to that controlling idea stated, as stated in the topic sentence?
Ponder and Record
What personal experience would you share if this was your topic sentence?
As you review the types of supporting detail you can choose from, try to focus on the ones that would best support the controlling idea stated in your topic sentence. Be thoughtful about which ones you choose to use in your paragraph. Also make sure that the experience you choose to share is specific. It is not enough to reflect on a principle as it relates to your life in general. For example, it would not be enough to say something like this:
While this is useful information that supports the topic sentence, it does not describe a specific personal experience. It references what could be a personal experience in a very general way, but falls short of actually sharing a specific personal experience. A simple fix to this problem would be to add a specific experience to this example. It could be something like the following:
Notice how the example above doesn’t just talk about the learning strategy in general terms but rather showcases its effectiveness through a highly specific personal experience?
This is the level of detail needed for a personal experience to count as a supporting detail in the basic paragraph.
The final section of the basic paragraph contains a concluding sentence. Its purpose is to provide the closure on that particular topic or idea before concluding the paragraph.
The concluding sentence is not a simple restatement of the topic sentence, but rather a brief summary of how the supporting details shared in the paragraph support the controlling idea of that paragraph.
Let’s take a look at the example topic sentence shared earlier in this lesson:
Were you to add on some supporting detail sentences to that topic sentence, the paragraph might start to look something like this:
Notice how the use of expert testimony and personal experience work together to support the controlling idea as stated in the topic sentence of the paragraph?
Once those supporting details have been established, the best way to close a paragraph is by revisiting the topic sentence, and very briefly, the themes of the supporting details as well:
Notice how the sentence reiterates the topic or idea of the paragraph by reinforcing the learning strategy of teaching to learn? Also notice how the sentence touches on the supporting details shared in the paragraph, including the expert testimony and personal experience that was shared? These truly are the two ideals to strive for when creating your concluding sentence:
- Sum up the supporting details of the paragraph.
- Reinforce the topic sentence.
If you can effectively accomplish both objectives as well as the three others discussed above (having a single controlling idea, a strong topic sentence, and supporting details), then you will have a really solid basic paragraph.
Need More Help?
- Study other Writing Lessons in the Resource Center.
- Visit the Online Tutoring Resources in the Resource Center.
- Contact your Instructor.
- If you still need help, Schedule a Tutor.