Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

The One-Paragraph Essay

Chapter 3: Lesson 6

One of the most common writing tasks you may encounter, perhaps as a paper assignment or exam response, is the one-paragraph essay. This relatively short piece of writing—typically amounting to a page or less—consists of several sentences that focus on one subject, theme, or idea in response to a writing prompt. The prompt may ask you to describe a favorite place to study, to define a word in relation to its use within a particular passage, or even to explain how two characters in a story are alike. Regardless of the prompt, you can compose a successful one-paragraph essay if you have a good understanding of the subject material and are familiar with the following strategies for composing a strong paragraph.

Elements of a One-Paragraph Essay
An effective one-paragraph essay includes the following elements:

  • Topic Sentence: The opening or “topic” sentence of a paragraph, much like an introductory paragraph of a fuller-length writing assignment, establishes the focus—or main idea—of the paragraph and captures the attention of your readers. (See Clear Topic Sentences for more details.)
  • Support Sentences: The sentences that form the “body” of the paragraph provide support for the main idea established in the topic sentence. (To continue working on paragraph writing, see Powerful Body Paragraphs.)
  • Transitions: Ideas can be organized and presented in many ways in a paragraph; transitional words or phrases help readers understand the logical connections between those ideas. (See Smooth Transitions for more on this topic.)
  • Summary Sentence: The final or summary sentence of a paragraph, much like the concluding paragraph of a fuller-length paper, provides closure to the paragraph.

Strategies for Developing a One-Paragraph Essay
Review the Assignment Prompt
The one-paragraph essay assignment includes specific parameters for response that typically begin with a directive like write one paragraph that describes/defines/explains/compares/argues. Careful review of what the assignment is asking you to accomplish will help you determine what to write. (To read more about interpreting the assignment, see Analyzing the Prompt.)

Brainstorm and Outline Your Ideas
Write down the main points you want to discuss in response to the prompt and decide how you could organize these ideas so that they make sense to readers. If it helps, create a rough outline to follow as you develop the body of the paragraph. Let’s say the assignment prompt asks for a process paragraph. You could brainstorm by outlining the steps it will take to complete a process that’s simple enough to discuss in one paragraph.

Write a Topic Sentence
The topic sentence should state your main point in response to the prompt. It should also motivate your audience to read more of the paragraph. If the assignment prompt is a question, you can rewrite it as an answer or use keywords from it to create an effective topic sentence. The prompt for a process paragraph, for instance, asks What process do you do often that you could easily explain in several steps? In response, a topic sentence based on this question might look like this: Making homemade hummus is a simple process that takes only several quick steps.

Develop Your Supporting Sentences
It may seem daunting to figure out what to write (and what NOT to write!) in a one-paragraph essay. Keeping a basic outline in mind can help:

Main Idea: Your topic sentence
Supporting point 1: evidence/explanation
Supporting point 2: evidence/explanation
Supporting point 3: evidence/explanation
Summary Statement

For the process paragraph, each supporting point will be one step in the process. Supporting sentences can include a combination of stories, examples, descriptions, comparisons, definitions, statistics, and quotes.

Incorporate Transitional Words and/or Phrases
Relying on transitional words or phrases to connect your supporting ideas will help readers follow your train of thought as smoothly as possible. Phrases like in addition, on the other hand, for instance, and as a result are useful, but you can also transition with single words. Process paragraphs often use words like next, afterward, also, and then. When starting a sentence with a transitional word or phrase, you’ll more than likely need a comma after the transition and before the main part of the sentence begins.

Write a Summary Statement
In the summary statement, you can provide closure to the paragraph by using one or more of these strategies:

  • Paraphrase your topic sentence to reiterate the main idea of the paragraph
  • Offer a conclusion that can be drawn from the information in the paragraph
  • Challenge readers to think about what insights the information inspires in them
  • Direct readers toward a specific action or feeling

A summary statement for the process paragraph on making homemade hummus could actually combine the first and last strategy: By following these simple steps, you can make homemade hummus too!

Proofread Your Paragraph
Reading back over your paragraph is important for several reasons. Of course, a careful reading can help catch typos, such as misspelled words or words that may be spelled correctly but that don’t carry the meaning you intended (such as to instead of too). Proofreading is also helpful in case any information was left out, like an essential step in a process. If the hummus paragraph didn’t include adding the garlic, the hummus would be little more than mashed up beans!

Special Considerations
A few final tips are useful to remember when writing a one-paragraph essay.

Because a one-paragraph essay is often written in response to a particular prompt, the scope of information will vary based on your purpose. You may be asked to write a descriptive paragraph instead of a process paragraph. Descriptions will rely on adjectives and may appeal to the senses by describing how something looks, tastes, or feels. Comparison and contrast paragraphs will analyze at least two different items, places, or people, looking at how they’re similar and/or different. Cause and effect paragraphs examine how one issue, situation, or event is the result of another. More than likely, you’ll only need to focus on one purpose for a one-paragraph essay.

A typical paragraph contains anywhere from 3 to 10 sentences, depending on how much support the topic requires. One way to think about the balance of information in a paragraph is to compare it to the amount of food on a dinner plate. If the plate contains too little, you’re hungry for more. If the plate contains too much, you feel too full, or overwhelmed. However, if you have just enough—a good balance of foods that go well together—you walk away satisfied. This is the feeling you want your readers to have once they’re finished reading your paragraph.

The first sentence of a one-paragraph essay is typically indented, which identifies it as a paragraph form. However, be sure to check with your instructor or the assignment guidelines on formatting requirements.

Think About It

  • How did you begin your paragraph to ensure that your readers understand your main point and are engaged with your writing?
  • What kinds of evidence and explanations did you include to support your main point?
  • What kinds of transitional words and phrases did you use to help readers understand the connections between/among your ideas?
  • How did you end your paragraph so that readers feel a sense of closure for your ideas and can remember your main point?

An effective one-paragraph essay focuses on a single idea, includes enough evidence and explanations to support that idea, and leaves readers with a clear sense of closure.