The Anatomy of a Paragraph

Zachary M. Schrag. January 2021

A paragraph is a set of sentences—usually between 100 and 250 words in all—that combine to present a single idea or set of facts. In most expository writing, a paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that presents a claim, then support the claim with evidence from sources. Historians strive to write topic sentences that present people or institutions as their subjects, with active verbs. They also use transitional words and phrases to connect the new information with previous paragraphs.

Historians often quote from their sources once or twice in a paragraph, but usually not in their topic sentences. When they do quote, they take care to identify the source of the quotation, trimming it as needed to make it flow with the historian’s own words.

To show how all this looks in practice, I present a color-coded passage from Nadja Durbach, “‘They Might As Well Brand Us’: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination in Victorian England,” Social History of Medicine 13, no. 1 (April 2000): 53-54. These four paragraphs are set off as section III of that article, a reminder that writers build articles and books from blocks as short as 3-5 paragraphs.

Note that each topic sentence makes a claim, which the rest of the paragraph supports. Taken together, they summarize the argument:

1.  The Acts themselves also discriminated economically against working people.

2.  In response to this perceived economic discrimination, fervent anti-vaccinationists endeavoured to expose governmental ‘despotism’ by accumulating fines, claiming that as working men they were being milked dry by a law which favoured the wealthy and penalized the poor.

3.  Even after a conscience clause was introduced in 1898, local authorities still maintained the power to levy repeated fines.

4.  Anti-vaccinationists thus found the system for administrating compulsory vaccination in and of itself objectionable.

Note also how Durbach uses some quotation—whether long passages or brief words or phrases—in every paragraph, but not in the topic sentence (beyond one word), and not enough to overwhelm her own voice.

Finally, note that Social History of Medicine uses British spelling and punctuation, which I have left intact here. American students in American institutions should use American forms.

Because HTML5 does not make it easy to color text, I present the handout as a PNG image. The handout and the explanatory text above are also available as a PDF: