As you develop your own writerly voice, you will want to think about the shape of your project as a whole. There are a variety of structural strategies out there, and different genres use different tactics to facilitate clear communication. If you are writing a short story or giving a spoken address, the patterns you adopt will not be the same as the structures you follow if you were to write a research paper on a related topic. Many academic disciplines in North America value paragraph construction as a primary means of unifying and developing key ideas.
There are no hard and fast rules about exactly how long or short your paragraphs should be, but there are basic principles of organization and argumentation that can help you get started. During the drafting and outlining stages, start to think about the claims you want to emphasize. How can you present these points in a reader-friendly order? Keep in mind the key factors that shape any communication situation, including your audience, purpose, and context.
Being sensitive to genre will help you to get a sense of the specific conventions that you will want to follow. For example, a research paper tends to feature lengthy paragraphs that offer in-depth discussion of the paper’s issues, supported by frequent citation of peer-reviewed scholarship. These paragraphs are meant to be read with care and attention to detail, and they tend to look much “blockier.” By contrast, professional and online writing often relies on shorter paragraphs that offer concise explanation of essential ideas. These paragraphs are designed to be easily digestible, and they tend to look much more streamlined. Although different rhetorical situations will involve different norms, the basic concept of paragraphing remains similar: use paragraphs to group related ideas together and unfold your key claims.
The point of this section is not to dictate a fixed formula for paragraphing. After all, that kind of rigid structure would be out of keeping with our descriptive approach to prescriptive grammar! Instead, our goal is to provide a basic, versatile guide to paragraph construction that you can tailor according to specific rhetorical situations.
As a starting point, imagine that the ultimate goal of paragraph construction is to serve your readers a full MEAL (main point, explanation/evidence, analysis, link). This acronym is easy to remember, and the culinary metaphor is also very useful in highlighting the balance of structure and creativity that will help you to craft coherent paragraphs. Keeping the MEAL framework in mind will prompt you to think strategically about your paper’s use of examples from other sources, as well as about how you present your own ideas. This model develops the basic concept that writing instructors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein call the “quotation sandwich”: to integrate source material into your writing, start with an introductory sentence in your own words (the top slice of bread), then quote the source (the filling), and finally provide an explanation of how this quote serves your argument (the bottom slice of bread).
Like its literal counterpart, the “quotation sandwich” holds together material quite neatly, allowing for fast and easy consumption of ideas. As we have seen, however, quotations are not the only way to engage ideas from other sources. In some cases, it may be more strategic and more elegant to paraphrase or summarize. Sometimes, you need a more substantial bite to eat than a sandwich—and, by extension, a more developed set of strategies for participating in scholarly conversations. Following the MEAL plan can help you do that. While this guide is most readily applicable to the body paragraphs in an academic writing project, the basic recipe can be adapted for other rhetorical situations too.
The MEAL Plan: How to Write Strong Paragraph
Let’s consider how this template might be applied. In the following paragraph, take a look at how the MEAL plan has been used to advance one of this textbook’s core ideas about writing:
[M] Writing is a process, not a product, one that requires perseverance from even the most experienced writers. [E] Anne Lamott offers insight into this process in her reflective essay entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” A prolific writer and celebrated public speaker, Lamott candidly shares her struggles by telling stories from her former days as a food critic for California magazine. She confesses that she used to feel dreadful while composing her rough drafts because she imagined her readers “sitting on [her] shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters . . . pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes” at whatever she had to say. Gradually, however, she learned to set aside her impatience and embrace the effort required to workshop her material. [A] As these descriptions demonstrate, Lamott uses self-deprecatory humour both to highlight her initial fears and to suggest that her initial anxieties were unhelpful—even ridiculous. Her sense of humour makes Lamott likeable and relatable, as she inspires us to re-examine the perceptions we bring to our own first drafts. [L] After all, to expect perfection immediately would be to forget that writing itself can be a means of learning.
M [Main Point]: A smart strategy for academic writing is to begin your paragraphs by expressing your central claim in a single and succinct sentence. Often called the topic sentence, this statement announces your core idea and establishes a clear argumentative voice. As in the example above, it’s a good idea to state this central claim in your own words first, and bring in supporting points from other voices later on.
E [Explanation/Evidence]: The next step is to expand and develop your core idea. This section of your paragraph will likely include material drawn from other sources, especially if you are writing a research paper. Our example paragraph has three sentences that introduce Lamott as a trustworthy authority on this subject and integrate relevant advice from her essay. In this case, this integration takes the form of summary and paraphrase as well as direct quotation. Here, brief and strategic use of exact words from the source helps to convey Lamott’s sense of humour.
A [Analysis] – Whenever you incorporate supporting examples, remember to analyze them. The evidence that you bring forward will not necessarily speak for itself. As the writer, your job is to highlight the relationships among key ideas and show how you are interpreting your sources. Explain, in your own words, how the examples you have given and/or the material that you have cited serves your overall argument. The paragraph above follows the material from Lamott’s essay with some critical commentary on how and why these comical descriptions are effective.
L [link] – As you bring your paragraph to a close, tie together any loose ends and link back to the broader picture. Depending on a paragraph’s place within your essay, you may also want to use your final sentence to set up a transition to your next main point, preparing your readers for what is to come. In any case, it’s useful to close out the paragraph in a way that will help your readers understand why this section of the paper is relevant. For instance, the example paragraph concludes by returning to the opening point about persistence and reflecting on why this patient and open-minded attitude matters.
- For further discussion of this acronym, see the following web handout: “Paragraphing: The MEAL Plan.” Thompson Writing Program, Duke University. Accessed 11 February 2021. https://twp.duke.edu/twp-writing-studio/resources-students/writing-process/drafting. This handout defines the “E” component of the acronym somewhat differently, but the overall framework is very similar to what appears in the next subsection. ↵
- Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, The Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Fourth edition (New York: Norton, 2018), p. 47. ↵
- Anne Lamott, “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Pantheon Books: New York and San Francisco, 1994), 24. ↵