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The Building Blocks of Writing

The Building Blocks of Writing

There are numerous levels of organization in any type of writing. Whether you're working on a one-page, in-class essay or a semester long research paper, you're going to be working up from individual words to sentences to paragraphs to sections to the organization of the paper as a whole. Because each level builds on the one before, it's important to be able to understand how units like sentences, paragraphs, and chapters work and how each can best be written to suit the needs of an academic paper.


The smallest unit of a paper is the simple word. Every sentence and paragraph in your paper is built out of individual words, which means that when you're writing you need to be aware of every single one you use. In English, as in any language, there are usually lots of words to choose from when you want to describe something, and every one of those has a subtly different meaning. Saying that something is likely to happen is different from saying that it's probable or that it might happen, and these shades of meaning are vital when you're trying to build a strong argument in your writing.
When you're writing, think about how each word adds to the overall tone of your paper and the coherence of your argument. Is your word choice formal or informal? Are you being exact enough when describing a particular idea? Remember, every word is important, so choose them wisely.


The heavy lifting when it comes time to communicate your ideas to the readers is done by sentences. Putting all those words together in a way that clearly communicates your ideas is the whole point of academic writing, and sentences are where that process starts. The first step to writing good sentences is to get the rules of grammar right: there should be a subject and a verb, and you shouldn't have any run-ons or sentence fragments. When writing, sentences offer the biggest chance to commit grammatical errors that will distract the reader and lower the grade you receive, so being able to construct good sentences is key to academic writing.
Grammar is important, but there's also an art to crafting a good sentence. When it comes to sentences, the key to keeping readers engaged and interested is variety. If all your sentences have the same structure, your reader is going to get bored quickly. Think of how annoying it is to listen to a car horn or fire alarm-that same sound repeated over and over and over grates on your nerves pretty quickly. Well, reading the same "He did this" and "He did that" and "He said so and so" will have the same effect on your reader. So, when you're working on sentences, focus on keeping things exciting while sticking closely to the rules of grammar.


The next step up on the organizational ladder is the paragraph. This is where the ideas of your paper start to come together and you begin grouping concepts into a pattern that will guide the reader through your work. The premise of the paragraph is simple-it should have single main idea. There should be a topic sentence that introduced what each paragraph will be about, and then every single sentence in that paragraph should relate back to that main idea.
The space between paragraphs provide a natural break to the reader, which means he or she will expect each paragraph to have a single, cohesive idea. Every sentence should be linked together with the main idea through the strategic references to the key terms and main concepts, and the paragraph should be as long as is needed to fully explore the topic sentence. This means that a sentence might be a few sentences long, or much longer. It doesn't mean, however, that you need to stuff everything you have to say about a topic into a single paragraph. If you're having trouble staying focused on a single idea, or your paragraph becomes too long and meandering, then it's time to break that topic into more than paragraph.


If you're working on a longer work-maybe a thesis or dissertation - it's likely that your work will have chapters or be divided into sections. For research papers or journal articles the sections will be decided for you: Introduction, Methodology, Results, and Discussion. But if you're working in a more fluid model-or if you need to divide up, say, the Discussion into several different thematic areas-then it's up to you to decide where those section breaks will go.
There's no one way to break up your paper into sections, but a good general guideline is that you want each chapter to have a unifying idea that separates the material in it from the rest of the paper. The break that happens when readers moves from one chapter to the next tells them that you're going to be moving to a new topic. Like the silence between songs on an album, the white space between chapters prepares the audience for something new. So, if you put the section break in the middle of an idea, it will confuse the reader.
When creating sections, try to shape each section so that it answers a single question. For instance, a section within the Discussion chapter might cover the importance of a single statistical finding or a section of the Literature Review might go over all of the available material on a specific experimental method.

Overall Organization

The last level in a paper is the structure of the text as a whole. You have to look at how the sentences, paragraph, and chapters fit together to tell a complete story. Ideally, you should have an outline that details the main ideas in each section and that will help you visualize how each part fits together to make the whole. Remember, it's only when all the components are strong that the reader will be able to fully appreciate your work.

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