Structure Your Paragraphs Strategically

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Psychologists tell us that we find it easier to remember items placed at the beginnings and endings of a list, rather than items in the middle.

This serial position effect appears to be caused by the interactions between our different types of memory: the first items in a list have the highest chance of making it into our long-term memory, because no prior items are there to obscure them; the last items in the list are preserved in our short-term, working memory, quickly recalled and quickly forgotten.

Similarly, we tell our undergraduate students to break their studying into small chunks of time, as they have the highest chance of remembering information from the beginnings and endings of study periods—so they’d better ensure we have lots of beginnings and endings, rather than only one of each in a lengthy cram session.

When writing your paragraphs, think of your reader as attempting to memorize items in a long list. They’ll retain what’s at the beginning of your paragraph, use it to interpret the information you present in the middle (which, sorry, they’re least likely to retain), and then can keep your paragraph’s conclusion in their short-term memory as they transition out of the paragraph.

Structure your paragraphs strategically. For the majority of paragraphs in an article, essay, or grant application, your first sentence:

  • should articulate what your paragraph is going to argue
  • should make clear the paragraph’s relevance to your overarching argument
  • should highlight your own analytical claims
  • should not be a statement of fact or a quotation

Your paragraph’s concluding sentence can then sum up the argument of your paragraph, gesture to the larger significance or big picture of your claims, or present a segue into the paragraph that follows.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules: your first paragraph, or a paragraph that defines a term, may use its first and final sentences differently. On the whole, however, if you were to read through the first sentence of each paragraph in your paper, you should find a clear outline of the structure of your argument.

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