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In scholarly writing, I'm often confronted with having produced a very long paragraph that has the structure with: a single topic sentence, then an internal list of sibling supporting points, with multiple sentences per point, sometimes with citations and quotations lengthening each point.

(Here I'm using First/Second/Third to mark the different reasons but the question isn't about that aspect, lots of other ways to mark sequence, or use none :)

The interviewees provided three reasons that they participate. First, they are paid to participate. Income is crucially important to this group, often being expressed after a thoughtful intake of breath.... Second, they enjoy participating, often laughing and saying things like, "it's just fun, isn't it?.... Third, participants relate the impact of the work they are doing, echoing the findings of Park and Tensing (2012) who identified impact as a rising explanation. In these interviews, impact was often personalized.

These paragraphs can get very long! The obvious solution is to break them up so that each paragraph covers just one supporting point. Thing is, then I'm left with a single sentence introduction "The interviewees provided three reasons that they participate".

Does anyone have suggestions? I usually either:

  • Just deal with the short one sentence paragraph
  • Make that sentence into a paragraph (making it longer), so that it at least spans two or three lines (but this is just adding words to make the page look better!)
  • Run the sentence into the First supporting point paragraph (but now that paragraph is odd, because the topic sentence is not for that paragraph).

Pointers on what to search for here also very appreciated, I think I'm missing some vocabulary on how to search for guidance on this. I guess this is about organizing sections of a paper, rather than paragraphs ... but I'm still left with the dangling intro sentence.

Browsing the suggested answers, I'm seeing

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  • Is there any reason why the suggested answers don't work for you? Also, are you following a specific style guide?
    – Laurel
    Aug 15, 2023 at 15:36
  • No, not necessarily following a specific style guide (i mean I would if a venue asked me to, but I'm not aware of guidance on this sort of thing in the style guides, would love to be wrong). I think section heading could be useful, although that can lead to lots of quite short sections. I think single sentence paragraphs are fine, but many colleagues and editors highlight those as problems. So I'm finding the suggestions all have downsides. But I suppose this is all trade-offs, I'll keep my eye out for examples where I think others have done a better job than I :) Aug 15, 2023 at 22:37

3 Answers 3

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Four Paragraphs

Do the barest possible version of the original paragraph, followed by 3 more paragraphs with the support. A final paragraph for a summary can be used if the arguments are long enough to warrant it.

Ideally, the first paragraph should tell the whole story, and if the reader already "buys" the arguments, they could theoretically skip the rest of the section.

The interviewees' motivation can generally be grouped into three categories. They need the money, they enjoy the process, or they appreciate the impact of the work. For many, it was a combination of the three.

For the first group, the interviews represent a low effort way of gaining much needed income. [Further comments about why this matters.]

For the second group, interviewees without strong social ties enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the interviewers...

For the third group...

Possible summary...

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  • Ah, I really like that. So it's a full summary paragraph, then the other paragraphs are developments and elaborations. I think this will improve the ability to skim the writing too! Aug 24, 2023 at 17:17
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It feels like you are caught up in a kind of false dichotomy. That being that the pattern of first, second, and third are the natural points to break up your long paragraphs into short paragraphs.

While I don't necessarily disagree, it reads to me that your opening is insufficient. My experience, from business writing, is openings should summarize what I'm going to tell you. And the body of the wring provides the details. Then end re-summarizes what I told you.

Having noticed the same pattern applied to articles in scientific journals, I think your opening could use more detail, such as enumerating the three areas that you think reflect interviewees motivations for participating in studies.

Another idea is to look at the flow of information in your work. Are you sharing enough information to set the stage for what you are writing about to keep the reader engaged and interested. As an example, readers have to get through a lot of verbiage to understand what you think are the three reasons what people participate in studies. Does this create a burdensome cognitive load for the reader? Like if they knew all the reasons after the introduction, would that make the writing easier to mentally digest.

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  • Thanks, yes, perhaps the first sentence should contain all the motivations (in this example); and that might make the sentence longer, which could help. Still going to want more detail on each point (and yes, each point seems like a good place to break the paragraphs). Aug 15, 2023 at 22:39
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You could consider a multi-paragraph structure along these lines:

“Goldfish are America’s favorite pet for many reasons. For one thing, they don’t shed. Pet hair is a problem because…

“Another factor in goldfishes’ favor is that their bark is quite subdued. This is particularly important in apartment blocks, where…

“A third reason is that they weigh less than most passenger automobiles, and thus don’t catch fire when…

“And the last reason for the popularity of goldfish is that they tend to vote Democratic.”

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  • Yes, this is basically what I do. I think I'm being overly worried about the first sentence of the first paragraph not only being about what is in the rest of that paragraph, but it reads fine. Aug 24, 2023 at 17:15

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