Specific paragraphs add discrete elements of information to clear frameworks.
Paragraphs are the basic units of written composition (Strunk and White, 2000). In scientific writing, paragraphs are strongest when they defend a single main idea (e.g. a conclusion) that is distinct from ideas defended in other paragraphs. Three practices can help make paragraphs clear and specific:
1) Each paragraph contributes a single main idea to a larger framework. 2) Each paragraph is structured with a strong framework to defend a single conclusion. 3) Each paragraph contains all, and only, the information necessary to understand the paragraph.
1) Each paragraph contributes a single main idea to a larger framework.
Before adding text to a paragraph, it is essential to know how the paragraph contributes to a larger framework. For example, the text you are reading now is part of a list framework identifying three practices for clear and specific paragraphs. Therefore, the purpose of this paragraph is to defend the conclusion that paragraphs should contribute to larger frameworks.
When paragraphs are part of larger frameworks, two things are clear: (A) what the larger framework is, and (B) why the paragraph contributes to the larger framework.
Although authors can benefit from strong outlines, readers often do not have the benefit of an outline to help understand a paper! For readers to understand why each paragraph contributes to a larger framework, authors must clearly explain how each paragraph is connected to the larger framework. Therefore, paragraphs can be placed in context by including straightforward transitions for each paragraph.
In a list framework, the transition can be as simple as re-stating the element of the list from the higher-level framework. For example, a personal statement or cover letter could be structured using a list framework complying with the rule of three. The Introduction could list the three attributes and skills as conclusions that the person chooses to defend. Each body paragraph could then re-state the conclusion as the topic sentence of the paragraph:
Therefore, when using a list framework, paragraphs do not necessarily need strong transitions from the preceding or following paragraph. Instead, paragraphs have strong transitions that connect each paragraph to the organizing framework.
APPLICATION. Paragraphs must CONNECT to a larger framework. For hierarchical lists, paragraphs can connect to the more inclusive element of the hierarchy. Strong connections to preceding and following paragraphs are not necessary for lists (but can be helpful). In strong reasoned frameworks, paragraphs connect to preceding and following paragraphs using logical transitions.
2) Each paragraph is structured with a strong framework to defend a single conclusion.
In scientific papers, paragraphs are primarily structured using a reasoned framework to defend a single main conclusion. The premises for reasoned arguments are typically statements of fact based on data or on the conclusions of previous studies. Therefore, most sentences in a reasoned paragraph are premises, clearly indicated by parenthetical references at the end of each sentence.
The type of reasoning (i.e. deductive or inductive) should be clear for the paragraph and any sub-arguments within the paragraph. Therefore, the framework used to structure each paragraph of a scientific paper should be easily identifiable by both authors and readers.
Paragraphs that either (A) do not clearly defend a single conclusion; or (B) address two or more topics are one of the most common sources of weakness in scientific writing. Paragraphs can be extremely useful. The purpose of paragraphs in scientific writing is to delimit individual arguments. If a writer doesn't use paragraphs to defend a single conclusion, then the writer might as well not use paragraphs at all.
APPLICATION: Make sure that each paragraph clearly defends a single conclusion. Clearly state the conclusion of each paragraph at the beginning or end of the paragraph. If a paragraph addresses one or more topic, split it into separate paragraphs that each defend a single conclusion about a single topic.
3) Each paragraph contains all, and only, the information necessary to understand the paragraph.
The principle of modularity can contribute to writing specific paragraphs. Modular paragraphs contain all of the information necessary to understand the paragraph within the paragraph itself.
However, you might reasonably ask: how are self-contained paragraphs possible? For example, what if a term has been defined somewhere else in the paper, do we need to define the term again in a paragraph? Clearly, repeated definitions seems unnecessary.
Considering the "scope" of different types of information can help create self-contained paragraphs that are not unnecessarily repetitive.
DEFINITION: "Scope" is the range of a content where an element of information applies.
For example, we use different definitions of "success" that have different scope. We could define "success" as completing our homework for the day. However, if we discuss a year or a lifetime, we will clearly need to re-define success (unless our expectations are very low). Therefore the scope of the word "success" clearly depends on context, and the context of a single day is too limited to apply to broader discussions.
Different elements of scientific papers typically have different scope.
Definitions typically have a scope that covers (at least) the entire paper. Technical terms are typically defined at most once in a paper. Therefore, as long as a technical term is defined before it is used, the term will have sufficient scope to make re-definition within a paragraph unnecessary. Similarly, the scope of other clarifications such as long examples or summaries is also the entire paper.
In contrast to definitions, premises have very limited scope. The scope of premises is typically limited to the most immediate argument that contains the premise (e.g. a single paragraph). Unlike a definition, premises are not typically assigned to specific words that can substitute for the premise in subsequent text. For example, the word "aforementioned" is sometimes used to refer to a previous premise. However, constructions with "aforementioned" are most often vague and cause a paragraph to not be self-contained. Therefore, vague words such as "aforementioned," or phrases such as "as stated above," or "as previously mentioned" should be avoided.
Therefore, self-contained and specific paragraphs must contain all of the premises necessary to argue for the conclusion of the paragraph. Premises should be stated or re-stated in each paragraph where they contribute to an argument (even if a premise is re-stated more than once in a paper).
Although specific reasoned paragraphs contain all of the information necessary to understand the paragraph, specific paragraphs also contain only the information necessary to understand the paragraph. For example, premises or clarifications that are not related to a reasoned argument are non sequiturs. Not only do non sequiturs not contribute to arguments, non sequiturscan also be red herrings, distracting and detracting from arguments. Therefore, any text in a paragraph that does not directly contribute to understanding the conclusion of the paragraph should be removed.
APPLICATION: Self-contained and specific reasoned paragraphs must contain all of the information necessary to argue for the conclusion of the paragraph. Whereas definitions and other clarifications have broad scope in a paper, premises have limited scope (to the single paragraph that contains the premise). Remove any text that does not directly contribute to the framework of the paragraph.