When I was in law school, I found a tattered, two dollar book on writing a legal paper. It was an OMG moment for me, because despite taking Legal Writing 101, none of the writing professors had explained the process so concisely and so clearly. Many students fail the LSAT exams every year because despite the fact that they can answer the multiple choice questions, they cannot formulate a proper legal response. The booklet, which reminded me of one of those small calorie or carbohydrate pocket guides, only had a few dusty pages, but it changed the course of my writing career in about five minutes time.
Basically, the book instructed that the first sentence in your paragraph should make your legal claim. For example: John violated the law of battery when he pushed Marie and broke her leg. This sentence combines the criminal law on battery, the push; the facts, John and Marie had an altercation; and my opinion on what transpired, John violated the law of battery. In my first sentence, I made a legal claim that included the law, the facts and my opinion or legal claim.
The second sentence, the book advised, should be the use of the actual law itself to support your legal claim. For example, battery is the use of force resulting in a harmful or offensive contact with a person. The point of the second sentence is to support your initial claim with an actual legal principle, code of law or statute. By including the legal principle, you are supporting your legal claim made in the first sentence.
The third, fourth and additional next sentences should focus on explaining the facts or details of the story. For example, John got into an argument with Marie, they screamed unpleasantries at each other, finally, John pushed Marie and stormed off. Marie’s tried to get up, but realized her leg was broken. This section of the paragraph contains the facts of the case which are relevant to previously presented law. The facts need to match the elements of the law for the legal principle to be the appropriate rule for this case.
The next section should blend the facts with the law. For example, John and Marie were arguing, in his anger, John pushed Marie creating the battery event. The sentence combines the facts and the law, allowing you to demonstrate how the facts and the law are in alignment. In this sentence you combine the facts, John pushed Marie, with the legal principle involved, the battery event.
The final statement should be the legal conclusion. For example, John is guilty of battery. In this sentence you are driving the legal point home. Sometimes you can reinforce the first sentence by restating it in the end.
Why am I raising this point? What I did not know, until I found that little book, was there is an actual formal structure to writing. Although legal writing is more formal and structured than academic writing, it offers excellent guidance on what you should be thinking about as you try to formulate an academic paper. Every paragraph has a purpose. Every sentence within that paragraph has a purpose. Here is the bare bones skeleton of a legal paragraph:
John violated the law of battery when he pushed Marie and broke her leg.
Battery is the use of force resulting in a harmful or offensive contact with a person.
John got into an argument with Marie, they screamed unpleasantries at each other, finally, John pushed Marie and stormed off. Marie’s tried to get up, but realized her leg was broken.
John and Marie were arguing, in his anger, John pushed Marie creating the battery event.
John is guilty of battery.
Why is the paragraph important? The paragraph is important because it is like a unit of measure in an academic writing. Each paragraph has one responsibility. The paragraph’s responsibility is to talk about one idea in a concise, cohesive and unified manner. The reason this is important is it helps you organize your information and structure your writing in a way that your professor, or audience will appreciate. Like the legal structure mentioned above, each sentence should have a purpose and contribute to delivering the main point. There are many ways to write, however, if you are new to writing, or are trying to develop a style, you can start the easy way, by providing the main point first, and when you are ready, you can decide to revise your overall style strategy later.
The Main Point and The Evidence. So the most practical way to start is to make your main point in your first sentence. My Chihuahua is the cutest dog on the face of the planet. If this is your lead sentence, then your first paragraph is going to talk about your Chihuahua. Every sentence that comes after your first sentence should support your key point, which is: why your Chihuahua is cute. You might talk about her size, she is the tiniest dog on the planet. You might talk about her antics, like how she spins around in circles like a helicopter when you give her a new toy. You might talk about how she licks your tears away when you cry. The key point is that each additional sentence in your first paragraph should support your main point. This would not be the time to talk about your brother in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
So you have written three or four sentences on why your Chihuahua is so cute. Your next step in the paragraph construction process is the signpost sentence. The signpost sentence does exactly what it says, it offers your reader a signal regarding where you are in your discussion. You can briefly restate the points you made and draw a conclusion or simply make a conclusive statement that reinforces the main point of your paragraph. For example, the main point of the paragraph is that My Chihuahua is the cutest dog on the face of the planet, so my signpost sentence could simply reiterate my point, As I am sure you can see, my Chihuahua is the cutest dog in the world! In your initial sentence you stated that your Chihuahua was the cutest, in your second through fifth sentences you provided evidence of why you think that is true. In your signpost sentence you make your point again, to remind the reader that you have proved your point.
You can now consider how you are going to transition to paragraph two. There is an actual term for this, as you might have imagined, it is called a transitional sentence. Your transitional sentence prepares your readers for the next step in their journey. Perhaps you have decided to present the history of Chihuahuas as your second paragraph. Perfect! Your last or transitional sentence should prepare the reader for this next step. You might consider combining where you were in this paragraph, with where you are going in the next. Meaning, you were talking about your cute Chihuahua and you are now going to talk about the history of the Chihuahua, you might form a sentence that combines both concepts in you last sentence of the paragraph. For example, What’s cutest about my Chihuahua is when she licks my nose, but this licking obsession is buried deep in the history of the Chihuahua. Now you are done. You have created the perfectly structured paragraph.
1. The main point
My Chihuahua is the cutest dog on the face of the planet.
2. Three to five ideas that specifically support your main point
-My Chihuahua is just four pounds and is a fluffy ball as white as snow.
-My Chihuahua spins like a helicopter when I give her a new toy.
-My Chihuahua thinks that every box from the UPS man is for her, she jumps around like it’s a package wrapped with her name on it.
-My Chihuahua licks away my tears when I cry.
-My Chihuahua follows me from room to room all day long, showing her support and loyalty.
3. Your signpost sentence. The sentence, like a mini conclusion, confirms your main idea.
As I am sure you can see, my Chihuahua is the cutest dog in the world!
4. Your transitional sentence. The last sentence in your paragraph.
What’s cutest about my Chihuahua is when she licks my nose, but this licking obsession is buried deep in the history of the Chihuahua.
When you structure your writing, more specifically, your paragraph, it makes writing easier. You do not really have to wonder what comes next. If you follow your properly formatted paragraph, you will not have to think so hard about what to write next. You know exactly what comes next, a collection of sentences that support your main idea.
When you establish your main idea, and add additional supportive sentences, you will probably need a little more “meat” for your paragraph. You can enhance the quality and strength of your basic paragraph format by adding some examples or illustrations; you can define the meaning of unusual terms you have used; you can support your main idea with details, facts, statistical data, or evidence; you can compare and contrast aspects within your paragraph; you can describe the information in chronological order; you can embellish your paragraph with description and analysis; you can explore the causes and effects of your main idea; you can inject other people’s perspective on the issue, or you can tell a story. Your overall objective is to strengthen your basic paragraph so that it successfully performs its job, that of describing one topic with depth and style.
Now that you have completed your first paragraph, complete with your main idea, supplementary or supportive ideas, developmental concepts and your transitional sentence, you are ready to start your second paragraph. Your second paragraph should drive your story forward. Your goal is to move on to a new topic that helps your audience learn something new about your main idea. In the example, that could be the history of Chihuahuas, the characteristics of the breed, or even an interesting story about your Chihuahua or other Chihuahuas in your neighborhood. The key point is that you are going to select a second component for discussion in paragraph two that talks about one topic and moves your story forward.
Whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, or an academic paper, you are still telling a story. In the beginning of your writing career, you might want to tell the story sequentially, in fact it is highly recommended, but like in the movies, skilled writers experiment with stirring up the order of the story. Some start with the end, others add flashbacks to touch on parts of the story never told before. But it is best to tell the story sequentially until you are certain that you have mastered the format, particularly for academic papers.