GP: Paragraph Development (1)

The quality of body paragraphs is essential for a GP essay. How well one can logically construct and develop arguments directly impacts one’s content score. In most Junior Colleges of Singapore, students are taught to follow the TEEL structure (Topic Sentence, Elaboration/Explanation, Example, Link). I will follow this basic structure and discuss the expectations as well as common mistakes in each part of an argument.

Again, if you find my opinions differ from your tutor’s, please follow your own school tutor.

Writing a topic sentence feels like shooting an arrow with multiple targets in mind. It has to be a reason-oriented sentence that clearly connects with thesis/anti-thesis. Some write example-driven topic sentences instead, and some totally ignore their thesis/anti-thesis. Both mistakes have to be avoided. Based on my observations, many students, including myself when I was in Junior College, are unable to distinguish a reason-oriented topic sentence with an example-driven topic sentence. A reason is usually an insight into the issue while an example is usually a case study that shows one narrow aspect of the issue with no insights offered. I should probably give some examples. If the question is ‘Is equality for all a reality in your society?’, an example-driven topic sentence will perhaps be ‘It is a reality in my society because young children have equal chance of attending school.’ or ‘women have been granted more rights so as to achieve gender equality’. These topic sentences indeed are relevant to the issue, but they only describe subsets of the issue. The question is not about education/gender equality! A reason-oriented topic sentence will perhaps be ‘equality for all is achieved because the government implements policies/laws to guarantee equal rights for all people.’ or ‘people in my society now have the mindset of fighting for equal rights that they deserve, which makes equality for all a reality’. Asking the ‘WHY’ question will be helpful when writing the topic sentence. One should be more careful and critical about topic sentence – is it just a case study?/is it too shallow? Afterwards, one needs to link the reason back to the thesis/anti-thesis.

Next, it is recommended for one to offer some elaboration or explanation related to the topic sentence one just wrote before giving examples. Some find it trivial and unnecessary since the topic sentence discusses the reason. However, the topic sentence only states the brief reason, and more substantiation is needed. Logical reasoning/analysis is the key here. Use logic transistors to make your logic progression clearer. Some common analytical strategies include making comparisons (based on age, location, time, ideology, etc), zooming in/out, offering cause-effect relationship, etc. Weaker candidates tend to suddenly drive away from their topic sentences and offer irrelevant details, or merely parhrase their topic sentences. This part of the paragraph is really the distinguishing factor that markers use to differentiate all candidates. Without any analysis, the whole paragraph will become example-driven again.

After elaboration, one or more examples are needed to support one’s argument. Students tend to go into two extremes. The first group give really brief and vague examples without any illustration while the second group give every detail of the examples and make the paragraph descriptive. The first group probably do not know their examples very well while the second group feel insecure if they do not write down all they know. The two extremes have to be avoided, meaning that the example should not be too brief; it should at least cover how the example supports the topic sentence, and it shoud not be too verbose (avoid story telling). In addition, avoid highly cliched examples that have little relevance to the question. Examiners would like to discover originality in the examples offered by the candidates.

Most school tutors will remind their students to link back to the question at the end of every paragraph, and that is the last component of a body paragraph. Wriitng an arugument, to me, feels like drawing a circle, and one needs to connect to where one started when finishing one paragraph – that makes the circle complete. A good link must be logical, and to some extent, natural. It should not be deliberate. Many students, however, adopt the ‘anyhow hence/thus/therefore’ strategy. After they write their examples, they will immediately write hence/thus/therefore followed by a paraphrase of the thesis/antithesis while totally ignoring the logical link. Hence/thus/therefore can only be used when the preceding sentence has a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the succeeding sentence. Examples on their own cannot conclude anything. It is recommended to write some analysis after the example and logically connect the analysis to the thesis/anti-thesis.

The above discussion covers the basic structure of a paragraph, and most students should find it sufficient for their paragraph development. Still, there are some more capable students who wish to increase the complexity of their paragraphs by inserting rebuttals into their paragraphs. There are generally two paragraph structures that involve a rebuttal: antithesis-thesis and thesis-antithesis-thesis. Any paragraph that involves a rebuttal becomes more difficult to handle because firstly, a rebuttal has to be directly relevant to the topic of the paragraph, and secondly, a rebuttal has to be fully developed as well.  Too many twists and transitions, if not handled with care, may lead to a messy paragraph whereby the writer seems to agree with both the thesis and the anti-thesis. In addition, rebutting a well-developed point immediately within the same paragraph may result in structural and logical awkwardness. Therefore, writing rebuttal is sometimes not recommended in some schools. Students should be reminded to keep their stand clear and stick to the sub-topic discussed in the paragraph when writing a rebuttal.

Some examples of paragraph development may be discussed in future posts.

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