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Building the Essay

The Paragraph

What is a paragraph?

A paragraph is a group of related sentences which presents and develops one idea or one aspect of an idea. A good paragraph does not just state the idea; each sentence in it supports or extends the central idea, so that the whole paragraph is a short but complete composition (Roloff and Brosseit, Paragraphs)

How do I write a good paragraph?

Consider the following four points:

1. Length: Most modern paragraphs range from 50 to 100 words, or about 4 to 12 sentences. Keep in mind that "if a subject is worth being mentioned at all, it is certainly worth at least three sentences" (Grieder and Grieder). As a rule, all paragraphs in a paper should be roughly the same length. (An occasional paragraph of introduction, conclusion, or transition may be significantly shorter or longer.) If a paragraph looks too short, ask these questions: Have I developed my idea sufficiently? Could I add more details, facts or examples? Have I chopped my ideas into tiny pieces when I could combine them into one larger paragraph? If a paragraph looks too long, ask these questions: Do I have more than one main idea in this paragraph? Would these ideas be more effectively understood if they were separated?

2. Unity: A unified paragraph focuses on a single topic or controlling idea. Often, this controlling idea is stated in a topic sentence; the writer should make sure that all sentences in a paragraph relate to that topic sentence. The following paragraph (taken from Prentice Hall) lacks unity:

Club Tropic's beaches are beautiful, and the surrounding countryside is quite scenic. The quality of the food leaves a lot to be desired. Many vacationers enjoy the variety of outdoor activities and the instruction available in such sports as sailing and scuba diving. Unfortunately, security is poor; several vacationers' rooms have been broken into and their valuables stolen. Christmas in the Bahamas can make the thought of New Year's in Chicago bearable.

The above paragraph covers too many topics and is difficult to read and understand. The following paragraph is unified because it focuses on the topic of Club Tropic's best points:

For vacationers sick and tired of the frozen north, a week at Club Tropic can provide just the midwinter thaw they need. Club Tropic's beaches are beautiful, and the surrounding countryside is quite scenic. Many vacationers also enjoy the variety of outdoor activities and the instruction available in such sports as sailing and scuba diving. Christmas in the Bahamas can make the thought of New Year's in Chicago bearable.

3. Coherence: A coherent paragraph may address a single topic, but the ideas are not logically or smoothly connected. The following paragraph is incoherent:

Club Tropic's isolation created dissatisfaction among some vacationers. The quality of the food was poor. People want a choice of entertainment in the evening. Most of us spent too much time together day after day. People expect to be able to go out for a meal if they feel like it.

This paragraph sticks to one topic--some of the drawbacks of Club Tropic--but the individual sentences do not relate to each other smoothly. The following paragraph is coherent:

Club Tropic's isolation created dissatisfaction among some vacationers. Many people expect to be able to go out for a meal if they feel like it, but the club's location far from populated areas made that impossible. To make matters worse, the quality of the food was poor. The isolated location also forced people to spend all of their time together--day after day. By evening nearly everyone was ready for a choice of food, entertainment, and company.

4. Development: Finally, a well-developed paragraph gives readers plenty of examples, reasons, or details. For example, the following paragraph is not sufficiently developed:

A vacation at Club Tropic has its good points and bad points. The beaches are nice, but they may not be enough for some vacationers.

Here, the reader is left wondering about additional, more specific details.

For additional information on paragraphs see Chapter 42 of the Prentice Hall Handbook (11th ed.) or check out some of the other links on the OWL homepage.

Paper Priorities

After you have written a draft of your paper, think about each of the following questions, one at a time. If you are not sure about any of your answers, ask your professor, a friend, or a writing center consultant for help.

Does the paper respond appropriately to the ASSIGNMENT? Is it the proper form? Does it answer the question?

Does the paper have a specific focus or controlling idea? Is that focus expressed accurately and concisely in a THESIS STATEMENT? Does the thesis "fit" the paper? (Is it too broad, too narrow, or misleading?)

Is the paper WELL-ORGANIZED? Does it have an introduction, body, and conclusion? Do the paragraphs flow logically and smoothly?

Is the argument (or discussion, or story...) WELL-DEVELOPED? Are there sufficient examples, reasons, or details? Does it leave any relevant questions unanswered?

Does all the information RELATE TO THE THESIS? Is it all necessary? Are any of the examples or statements irrelevant or extraneous?

Is the TONE appropriate? Is it too informal for a research paper or too stuffy for a personal narrative? Is it bored, sarcastic, or offensive?

Does the paper have a sense of AUDIENCE? From its topic to its language, is the paper geared toward its probable readers?

If the paper uses sources, does it CITE them properly? Is it clear which words and ideas are from other sources, and which are your own? Do you follow the citation format assigned by your professor? (For example, the English Department uses MLA.)

Does the paper end with a sound CONCLUSION? Does it have any loose ends? Does it feel finished? Does the conclusion restate or somehow answer to the thesis?


Grammar, punctuation, and other sentence-level concerns are very important. Before you turn in your paper, be sure that you do not have any mechanical errors. However, DO NOT start worrying about sentence-level problems until you are sure you have covered all the "global" concerns described above.

Using Quotation Marks With Other Forms of Punctuation

Use a comma or colon to introduce a quotation. (Use a colon when you precede the quotation with a complete sentence.) Notice that ending punctuation goes inside the final quotation mark:

Sue said, "Let's go shopping after school."
Bob responded immediately: "Of course I didn't steal it!"

No punctuation is necessary if you quote a word or phrase that fits grammatically into your own sentence:

The president said that the talks had been "encouraging."
Macbeth yelled at his servant for being a "cream-faced loon."

Use a comma (inside the quotation mark) to mark the end of a quoted sentence that is followed by an identifying tag:

"It's time to eat," said John.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," said Nancy. "We can clean up when I get back."

Do not use a comma if the quoted sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation point:

"What's the evidence?" the scientist asked.
"Get out!" he screamed.

Use a pair of commas to set off a tag that interrupts a quoted sentence:

"Ideas," writes Carl Jung, "spring from something greater than the personal human being. "

Colons and semicolons go outside the quotation mark:

The senator announced, "I will not seek reelection"; then he left the pressroom.

When using a quotation mark or exclamation point at the end of a quotation, put it inside the closing quotation mark only if it is part of the quotation; otherwise, put it outside the closing quotation mark:

I can't believe that the senator dismissed the charge as "unimportant"!
Patrick Henry demanded, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"
Who wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"?
Who wrote, "What's in a name?"

Quoting Smoothly

When you quote something, the quotation should become a part of your own sentence--without any seams. Here are some tips for quoting smoothly and correctly:

1. One strategy is to set up the quotation with a sentence of your own, ending that sentence with a colon, followed by the quotation.

George knows that Lennie did not intend to kill Curly's wife. He pleads with the other men not to seek revenge: "The poor bastard's nuts. Don't shoot 'im." (Steinbeck 1451).

2. You can also precede a quotation with a word like "explains," "illustrates," or "continues"--followed by a comma. ("Says" is ambiguous.)

In Frost's 'Mending Wall,' the neighbor asserts, "Good fences make good neighbors" (line 45).

3. You can make a quotation part of your own sentence.

George promises Lennie that they will "have a couple of acres and live off the fatta the land" (Steinbeck 1412).

4. You can’t just throw a quotation into your sentence if it makes the grammar incorrect. For example, you should NOT write this:

Mrs. Macomber tells Wilson that she wants "to see you perform again" (Hemingway 1351).

Instead, you have at least 3 choices:

Mrs. Macomber tells Wilson, "I want so to see you perform again" (Hemingway 1351).

Mrs. Macomber tells Wilson that she wants "to see [him] perform again" (Hemingway 1351).

Mrs. Macomber tells Wilson how impressed she is with his hunting: "I want so to see you perform again" (Hemingway 1351).

5. To make the grammar correct, you will often need to change some parts of speech--like verb tenses or pronouns. Put brackets [ ] around anything you alter. More examples:

Frost's horseman admires the snowfall but presses on because he has "miles to go before [he] sleep[s]" (line 14).

(The text reads, "miles to go before I sleep.")

6. You can omit some words in a quotation by using ellipses. Again, BE SURE you do not change the meaning!

Edna symbolically rejects society's restrictions when she "cast[s] the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and . . . [stands] naked in the open air" (Chopin 310).

(The text reads, ". . . she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air . . . ")

7. When you are quoting something that is in quotes in the text, use single quotation marks to indicate the original ones. Use double ones around your own quotation, as usual.

For Macomber, the buffalo hunt is a rebirth: "Macomber's face was shining. 'You know something did happen to me,' he said. 'I feel absolutely different'" (Hemingway 1365).

(All the citations above come from McMichael's Anthology of American Literature, 3rd edition.)

Citing Sources

It might be hard sometimes, but it does not have to be. There are a few rules that you need to know, and they will help make citing your sources easy and fun. Check our other handouts for details on the how of citing your sources. As for the why, keep reading...

Why do I need to cite sources?

Whenever you write an essay that uses outside sources (e.g., a research paper or a literary analysis), you need to acknowledge those sources properly. This is very important for several reasons. First, you have an ethical responsibility to give credit to sources. Also, if you fail to do so, you have committed plagiarism, a very serious academic offense which can result in expulsion for students or a loss of credibility for professionals. In addition, you should acknowledge your sources for the benefit of your reader, who might want to look up an interesting source or who might simply be curious to know where you got your information.

What should I cite?

You should cite all information that comes from outside sources, whether you quote it directly, paraphrase it (put it entirely in your own words), or summarize it. You should not only cite statistics or facts; also cite ideas, arguments, and other thought processes. In a research paper, for example, you will cite everything that you gained from sources, but you will not cite your own comments, ideas, experiences, etc. It is not necessary to cite "common knowledge"--the type of basic, factual information that appears in multiple sources (such as undisputed historical facts.)

How do I know what format to use when citing sources?

Several different formats exist. Nobody memorizes all the details of any one format; instead, scholars learn to look up the details in handbooks. The MLA format is always used in our English department, and many of NOVA's professors across the disciplines will approve of MLA for your papers in their classes. However, do not assume that MLA format is always appropriate. For example, your psychology professor might prefer the APA (American Psychological Association) style, while your history professor might prefer Turabian. Be sure to ask your professor for guidance. And remember: the OWL has lots of resources, too.

What are the Basics of MLA formatting?

If you are using MLA format, you should acknowledge your sources by using parenthetical citations and by including a Works Cited page at the end of your paper. The parenthetical citations usually include the author's last name and the page number(s) of the quotation or the information. (If the source does not have an author's name, the citation should include a key word from the title.) The purpose of the citation is to provide a link for the reader back to the Works Cited page. For example, let's say that I am intrigued by a quotation in your paper. The citation will give me a name and page number, so that I can then turn back to your Works Cited page, look for a listing by that name, and see all of the bibliographic information for that source. Now I can find that source easily, turn immediately to the proper page, and start reading.

How do I write a works cited page?

Basically, the Works Cited page is an alphabetical listing of all the sources that are cited in your paper. (The entries are alphabetized according to the first word that appears--usually the author's last name, but sometimes a title.) MLA gives a rigid format for how you should arrange each entry. The entries are different for all different types of sources, including books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, television shows, and interviews. Refer to the MLA WORKS CITED PAGE handout here on the OWL, and follow the instructions exactly; this handout will show you what information to include, what order to put it in, and how to punctuate it.


What is the purpose of a conclusion?

The conclusion of a paper serves two functions: it signals the end, and it leaves readers with something important to remember. The first is necessary for the reader's sense of completeness. The second leaves the reader to think about what is important and appropriate.

You may look either backward or forward in your conclusion. In looking backward, you may return to some image or other motif in the introduction, restate the thesis, or summarize the main points. In looking forward, you may forecast the future, call for action, discuss implications, or point out the significance of the ideas.


The following examples come from student essays on how to secure a summer job:

1. Look Backward: Return to the Introduction

Despite all these suggestions, finding a summer job may still be as difficult as locating an inexpensive apartment near campus. But you can be confident that you have gone about it efficiently and looked into all the possibilities. The rest is up to luck.

2. Look Backward: Restate the Thesis

You can see that looking for a summer job need not be a hit-or-miss process. It can be conducted in a systematic, efficient manner that should procure results. Almost always, it will.

3. Look Backward: Summarize the Main Points

What is important is to start looking for a summer job early and to follow the specific suggestions noted here. You may not want to investigate all the possibilities: overseas employers, federal agencies, local or state government, industries in other areas, and local businesses. But you should realize it is better to have too many opportunities than too few.

4. Look Forward: Forecast the Future

Despite these suggestions, you may not find summer work. The growing demand for these positions and the diminishing supply of them means that many young people will be unemployed. Therefore, you may find yourself volunteering for a community service organization or returning to campus to attend summer sessions. So while you are working hard to find a summer job, think about a back-up plan, so that you will be sure to make valuable use of your time.

5. Look Forward: Call for Action

The important point to remember is to get started looking for that summer job today. You can write letters to federal agencies, check into local and state government possibilities, get a copy of the Summer Employment Directory, and follow my suggestions about seeking a position in local business. Those who hesitate may be lost this summer.