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GEN 100

Writing Workshop

Topic sentence
Major supporting detail #1
Minor supporting details
Major supporting detail #2
Minor supporting details

The Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs in your essay provide details which should make the reader believe that your thesis statement is true.

A common question is, "How long should a paragraph be?" The correct answer is, "As long as it needs to be." In extreme cases, a paragraph could be just four or five sentences at minimum, or as long as one page.

Because of these common issues, I require the following in terms of paragraph length:

I dislike setting such limits; however, in our class, I will set strict limits on length, for the following reasons:

Topic Sentence

Each topic sentence must be a one-sentence summary of the whole paragraph; at the same time, it must fit with the other body paragraphs to make a whole which is equal to the thesis statement.

Each body paragraph should be different from the others, covering a different aspect or element of the support. There should be no overlap or repetition between the body paragraphs.

For example, assuming that the thesis statement is "My best friend is generous," the following three topic sentences fit together well because each one covers a different aspect of generosity:

All three topic sentences work together to show how generous a person she is. Each one is about as equally specific as the others. No one example could serve two different topic sentences.

These three topic sentences, however, fit together badly:

In the above plan, you can see that the example about working at a homeless shelter could support any of the three topic sentences. That's overlap.

Major Supporting Details

Each body paragraph must have at least one, more often two, and sometimes three or more examples or explanations which give detailed support of the topic sentence and thesis statement ideas in the essay.

In this class, I require two examples (not explanations) for each body paragraph.

Each example begins with a sentence that introduces the example; this is a major supporting detail.

IMPORTANT:
Examples must be very detailed. In order to be detailed, each example should be a specific event that happened at one time. It may be something that happens often, but your example must be of one specific time that it happened; the example must not be a general explanation of a recurring event, as it is very hard to give specific details about such a thing.

For example, let's say that your thesis statement is "My sister is clumsy." Your topic sentences cover three ways she is clumsy: clumsy in speech, clumsy in thought, and clumsy in physical action. For the paragraph describing her physical clumsiness, you must come up with two specific examples of her being clumsy.

Good examples: ➊ When returning from the supermarket two weeks ago, she tripped on her shoes in the doorway and dropped all the food; also, ➋ three days ago, she was distracted when riding her bike and hit a pedestrian carrying a box of papers.

These are good examples because they describe single events. When she drops the groceries in the first example, you can give a great amount of detail about all the items that broke, like a bottle of wine, a jar of jelly, and a box of eggs, and then you can write about how clumsy she was trying to pick things up, but made matters worse.

Bad examples: ➊ She often drops things, and ➋ she always hits things with her bike.

These are bad examples because each one is about many different events. These usually are just lists of general happenings, which seem detailed but are not. For example, when you explain how she drops things, you would probably write that she dropped groceries, school books, homework papers, her cell phone, chopsticks, and so on. A list of items is not detailed! Each one is simply a reference to an event; the list does not give the reader any evidence that she is clumsy.

Minor Supporting Details

Minor supporting details describe the example or explanation with a great number of specifics. The minor supporting details must use many descriptive words, inclusing specific nouns, verbs which describe actions vividly, and a number of modifiers such as adjectives, adverbs, clauses, and phrases. You should try to use sensory details, words that describe sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Here is an example paragraph, showing structure. The topic sentence is underlined; the major supporting details are in bold:

My cat, Pepper, is a very mischievous little feline. Yesterday, he indulged in one of his favorite habits: climbing onto and falling off of tall furniture. He loves to climb on top of cabinets, bookshelves, curtain rods, and coat racks. Last night, he attempted to go around the entire room without touching the floor. Because there are gaps, he tried to jump from perch to perch. From the top of a recliner chair, he first stared at his goal of the bookshelf for a long minute, only his long, swinging tail showing his emotion. He then crouched, shook his bottom, and, with total concentration, jumped. However, he is a very clumsy cat. He slipped off the top shelf, a momentary screaming ball of flying paws and claws. He bounced off the coffee table, spilling flowers, magazines, and a candy dish across the floor. Once he collected himself, Pepper then acted like nothing had happened. Previous to that, he caused a ruckus chasing a small beetle around the house. If an insect comes into the house, Pepper immediately becomes a jungle cat. Last week, a beetle got into the living room somehow. Pepper spotted the creature at once. He crept down close to the floor, and followed the pest across the carpet. The beetle sensed he was being hunted and darted under a cabinet. Pepper instantly leaped and ran, crashing into the cabinet while his paws furiously waved under the bottom of the furniture. After scratching the floor and much of the furniture, he did not catch the bug. However, he still looked very satisfied. If we leave the cat alone in the house for several hours, it looks like a war zone. Pepper will be sitting in the middle of the room, licking his claws, proud of his achievement.

This paragraph does a good job: it describes a characteristic of a cat. The cat is mischievous. How do we know? Because he climbs and chases bugs, leading to accidents. We see much detail and get a very good sense of how cats act.

Most importantly, there is a clear topic sentence, two major details, and 9-10 sentences each of minor details. Having specific minor details is very important; it makes your major points more clear. See the structure in the following breakdown:

My cat, Pepper, is a very mischievous little feline.
Yesterday, he indulged in one of his favorite habits: climbing onto and falling off of tall furniture.
He loves to climb on top of cabinets, bookshelves, curtain rods, and coat racks. Last night, he attempted to go around the entire room without touching the floor. Because there are gaps, he tried to jump from perch to perch. From the top of a recliner chair, he first stared at his goal of the bookshelf for a long minute, only his long, swinging tail showing his emotion. He then crouched, shook his bottom, and, with total concentration, jumped. However, he is a very clumsy cat. He slipped off the top shelf, a momentary screaming ball of flying paws and claws. He bounced off the coffee table, spilling flowers, magazines, and a candy dish across the floor. Once he collected himself, Pepper then acted like nothing had happened.
Previous to that, he caused a ruckus chasing a small beetle around the house.
When an insect comes into the house, Pepper immediately becomes a hunter. Last week, a beetle got into the living room somehow. Pepper spotted the creature at once. He crept down close to the floor, and followed the pest across the carpet. The beetle sensed he was being hunted and darted under a cabinet. Pepper instantly leaped and ran, crashing into the cabinet while his paws furiously waved under the bottom of the furniture. After scratching the floor and much of the furniture, he did not catch the bug. However, he still looked very satisfied. If we leave the cat alone in the house for several hours, it looks like a war zone. Pepper will be sitting in the middle of the room, licking his claws, proud of his achievement.

It might help you to divide your paragraphs like the example above to make sure you have all the right parts. You can do this in your word processor fairly easily, and just as easily, you can put the paragraph back together when you are finished writing the paragraph.

Detail

It is important that you have rich detail. Many students will create paragraphs which have little or even no detail. I often see major details with only one sentence of minor detail after it. Sometimes, a whole paragraph will be nothing but vague, general words with no real details, as in this example:

My cat, Lucky, is a very interesting cat. You can see he is interesting very easily. Everyone thinks he is a funny cat. Also my dog likes him very much. This is because my cat likes to do things that people enjoy watching. My friends and I all sit down and just look at him for a long time, and we laugh a lot. Lucky will do many interesting things. That is why he is my favorite cat. Please see my funny cat, you will enjoy it greatly.

As you can see, the paragraph above has no detail. Many times, the paragraph talks about "interesting" and "funny" actions, but we never find out what they are, or why they are funny. The paragraph simply repeats the same ideas again and again, adding only a few new words (dog, friends). However, everything else can be summarized as, "I like my interesting and funny cat."

Please avoid that. Make sure you have a clear topic sentence ("My cat is very mischievous"). Make sure that your major details directly support the topic sentence ("climbing and falling" and "chasing bugs" = mischievous cat). Then make sure that each major detail has a nice, full paragraph with many interesting specifics in it. The detail should "paint" a picture and/or a situation, so the reader will "see" it, like a photograph or a movie in their minds. Can you see Pepper?

Notes

Some other points about the writing: note the use of words. I was very careful not to repeat words. In the topic sentence, I used the words "cat" and "feline," and later often referred to Pepper using pronouns. In the major detail sentences, I used "perch," "goal," and "target" to describe place he jumps to. I used "insect," "bug," "pest," and "creature." Try to avoid using the same word more than once or twice. Sometimes you cannot avoid repeating, but you should try.

You should also add descriptive detail. When I wrote the paragraph, I thought carefully about how a cat acts before a difficult jump: the stillness, then the tail swing, and the shaking hindquarters. These small details add color, action, humor, and believability to the story. Another example is how cats suddenly look bored or casual after an exciting accident. Careful choice of which details to add can create a description that readers will accept and enjoy. Don't go too far and exaggerate, though!