What Makes a Paragraph?


Note: this post has been password-protected because it contains examination answers from the 2017 JC1 cohort, which is not mine (and not right) to share with the world.

What makes a good body paragraph in a Literature essay? You may be asking yourself that question after receiving your CA2 and CA3 responses; this post tries to answer that, clarify a few misconceptions (if any), and examine two of your seniors’ paragraphs to light the way forward. From here you can re-enter our notes with a clearer perspective of your writing can reflect and even go deeper than our analysis, and we will only read stellar work from here!

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The Works

Every teacher has his or her own analogy for good writing. With this intention of adding clutter, I’ll order in one served by a colleague from an east-coast institution. A paragraph in an A-level Literature essay should look like a burger. How so?

The meat  –  the predominant feature of your paragraph – should be an analysis of writers’ methods and their effects (e.g. tone, qualities, effects on an audience). Appropriate evidence must be provided of course, but it is your understanding of how meaning is created by literary methods that counts. This analysis must be focused on a generally consistent set of effects (e.g. Martha’s vindictiveness, the audience’s sympathy for George).

Analysis must also be accompanied with some contextualisation (e.g. when, where and why does the character say this or do this?). Probably like cheese or lettuce, if we had to stretch the metaphor. Read the next section for an elaboration on what this analysis might entail.

Obviously, meat and cheese do not make a burger make. Your paragraph should start and end with a consistent idea (umm… sesame seed buns?) that binds the whole paragraph together. It must not however start from point A and end up on point B: if your topic sentence put forward George’s primal destructiveness towards Nick, the paragraph should provide further insight into this primal destructiveness towards Nick, perhaps stemming from his inferiority complex or anxiety about his own masculinity. For both papers, you should think about larger themes like justice and morality (for MM), or how the mind responds to external threats and the self is plagued by insecurities (for Woolf). You should not deviate towards Nick (unless that was set out in the topic sentence) and certainly not about George’s destructiveness towards Martha (save this for another paragraph?).

Thanks for humouring the analogy up until this point. As a way of recapping the features of a paragraph and packing in key principles, allow me to list down what every paragraph should, no, must do:

  • You must always start your paragraph on an idea relevant to the question, be it based upon a character (Angelo’s hypocrisy), concern (e.g. moral leadership) or method (e.g. soliloquy). Aim to do so in your topic sentence (i.e. the first sentence in the paragraph), or use two sentences to establish this idea by all means!
    –  While not wrong per se, avoid writing vague statements like ‘Both poems use imagery to comment on motherhood’ or ‘George is another character with a destructive state of mind’ that come without ideas. These sentences do lay out what the paragraph will be about… but hazily, cloudily, nebulously.
  • A convincing paragraph must also be clear, focused and cohesive. Some of your CA2 paragraphs were overly linear, beginning with one plot point (Martha does this!) and ending on another (oh, later George does that!) without a clear idea being made. As far as possible, centre every point, every quotation, every sentence you write down around one idea. This requires discipline and rigour – that’s what the subject at A-level requires, not just ‘writing what comes to mind’ surely.
  • Substantiate the idea in the topic sentence with well-selected evidence and analysis of the methods  (e.g. imperative sentence, anaphora, brutal diction?) and effects (e.g. malicious, desolate, ironic?). This really should take up the bulk of your paragraph; your task is to show how or discuss the ways in which writers present their ideas, not just state what is already in the text. As far as possible, the effects should be cohesive and consistent (e.g. Martha’s words are vicious, her body language antagonising, and her physical actions violent) in pursuing the same idea (i.e. Martha’s destructive state of mind towards George).

    – Your analysis of evidence, methods and effects must be used to ‘answer the question’. Explaining by way of an example, paragraphs on CA2 Option (b) must show how Martha or George isolate themselves from the other. Several essays ended up analysing Martha’s narration of the son-myth, focusing on how fantastically real the son was to her and neglected how this isolated Martha from George. A few essays on option (a) moved too quickly away from characters’ destructive states of mind (e.g. George) to analyse how other characters were ‘destroyed’ under their hands (e.g. Nick).

    – It should not escape your attention that almost every single paragraph in your Paper 3 lecture notes is heavily centred on ‘How’. In some cases, I dedicate only one sentence to ‘What’, one sentence to ‘Why’ and spend anywhere from 4 to 8 lines on analysis of ‘How’. Revisit your notes or just study the paragraphs below!
  • Develop the idea into a ‘response’ at the end of the paragraph or wherever you think to be relevant. Do not simply restate your topic sentence. What does that achieve other than word count anyway? You want to extend or deepen the idea by thinking about why the character speaks or acts in the way you’ve just analysed, and/or why the writer presents the idea in such a way.– With regard to the writer’s ‘purpose’, explore the effects on the reader/audience (e.g. to garner the audience’s sympathy, to provoke the audience to consider the primal nature of George’s intellect) or think about what the writer is saying about larger themes / concerns (e.g. to illustrate the need for superiority / dominance to form one’s personal identity, to show the lack of control over one’s emotions when under threat).

    – This ‘why’ response should be linked to your thesis statement in the introduction and your ‘personal response’ (i.e. your final thoughts on the topic) in the conclusion. A cogent essay will pursue, and ‘build up’ an argument about the text from the first to the last body paragraph.

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The Meat of Things

This section aims to demonstrate, or at least issue reminders about, how to analyse comprehensively and/or closely in your writing.

From Narration to Analysis

One student asked me how to verify if they are indeed analysing the text, and not merely narrating. Another student raised the likelihood of disrupting the ‘flow’ of writing. To address both concerns, I would simply insist that there be a deliberate attempt to comment on the quotations provided, either before or after the quotation. Never ever quote and then move onto a different point. Using Martha’s insult ‘a great… big… fat… FLOP!’ as a working example, I’d expect one of two approaches:

  • ‘Seamless’ or ‘well-integrated’ analysis would involve some discussion of Martha’s choice of words: ‘She consciously pauses before each of her words’, ‘uses a series of intensifiers to underscore her detestation’ or ‘Martha’s vindictiveness escalates from… to…’ are apt examples of phrases that can appear with the quotation.
  • Explicit analysis would entail labelling the method or feature, typically after the quotation. Your analytical sentence could begin with, ‘The use of the ellipsis conveys…’ or ‘The derogatory diction…’, and highlight for instance ‘the uppercase “FLOP” together with the exclamation mark’ as part of Martha’s sadistic or frenzied violence against George’s ego.

Analysing More or More Closely

A significant chunk of Paper 3 Lecture 7 sought to address the ‘how much evidence should I include’ or ‘how much analysis should I have’ questions. Within the notes and during the lecture, I prescribed two general approaches of analysis in a body paragraph which I’ll outline them here again and specify how to analyse more of the text (especially if you are in the 13-14 mark range for CA2).

One approach for the single-text essay question (both Paper 1 and Paper 3) is to identify multiple patterns of quotations and analyse them in relation to your idea. As a very general guide for those of you in need of numbers, I’d tentatively say that 2-4 patterns is a good estimate for ‘ample analysis’. Prioritise the following pointers over simply the number of quotations / patterns instead:

  • Label the method where appropriate, be they as self-evident as ‘stage directions’ or slightly more specific like ‘physical violence’ or ‘movement away from the other character’. In the case of diction (i.e. word choice), methods and effects coalesce. Derogatory terms, bitter diction, a mocking tone, a language of contempt, or a litany of insults for instance describe the quality or effect of the words, while also explicating that you’re looking at diction, terms, words, references, language, vocabulary, lexis et al.
  • Consider how different methods work together. In your analysis, you would probably consider diction (e.g. abusive words), syntax (e.g. commands, questions), rhythm (e.g. pauses, interruptions) and stage directions. Where appropriate, explore the full range of these methods as you select your evidence: quote George’s repeated pleas for Martha to stop her recount in Act 2 (one pattern), his use of physical violence on her (another pattern) and then how the violence really is the culmination of his frustration from being wilfully ignored (link the two methods/patterns).
  • Consider the intensification within the pattern or intensification and shifts between multiple patterns. Think about which word(s) or phrase is the most striking or most intense, and elaborate in some detail on the choice of words there. Or maybe you can think about how a particular word or phrase is slightly different (e.g. how Martha’s use of ‘FLOP!’ is rather more convulsive than ‘flop’ or ‘bog’). The point here is to explore the intricacies, nuances and little details. That’s skilful close analysis!
  • Keep the respective contexts in mind as you select the evidence. If Martha’s tirades litter the whole play, you can opt to select quotations from the three acts (this is quite cumbersome to be honest) or as far as possible select a pattern of quotations from the same episode (e.g. the end of Act One). The latter choice allows you to consider why Martha says what she does to George and in front of the guests for a more insightful analysis. The former is functional, gets the method and effect across, but requires you to ‘do the work’ of explaining Martha’s intentions and state of mind separately.

The other approach is to ‘zoom in’ and close-read one or two lines of evidence, and apply the above skills. The number of lines here only serves as a guide; whatever the case, you want to choose more striking, or ‘rich’ lines with plenty of methods (e.g. uppercase, plus imagery, plus stage directions, plus exclamatory sentence). Broadly speaking, this approach works well for the passage-based question and for ideas that are very closely tied to specific episodes (e.g. George’s concealed aggression really only applies to the book-reading scene). For some clarity, here are two lines from MM and Woolf respectively with multiple features you can close-read:

ANGELO: O place, O form, / How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit, / Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls / To thy false seeming! (Act 2 Scene 4)

GEORGE [softly, sadly]: Lord, Martha, if you want the boy that much have him but do it honestly, will you? Don’t cover it over with all this… all this… footwork. (Act Two, 92)

  • In much the same vein, consider the different methods at work, except now you are always paying attention to specific words. Think about how the stage directions ‘softly, sadly’ influence the exasperation we might infer from George’s use of ‘Lord’ and ‘that much’. How do his imperatives ‘have him’, ‘do it honestly’ and ‘don’t cover it over…’ contain a mix of apathy and urgency in words like ‘honestly’ and ‘footwork’?
  • Close-read the patterns for intensification and shifts, except now you can devote more attention to nearly every single word (and not just the most striking one). Why does Angelo set up the contrast between ‘wrench awe from fools’ and ‘tie the wiser souls’? Why does he make repeated reference to ‘place’, ‘form’, ‘case’, ‘habit’ and finally ‘false seeming’?
  • Fully consider the context in your analysis, since you are dealing with one episode at a time (for essays across both papers) or focusing on the passage (for Paper 1 PBQ). You can also think about how and why characters respond to each other in a particular way, their motivations and intentions et al. For instance, you should be linking your analysis of the clothing allusions to Angelo’s reputation and veneer of ascetic rigidity, and his self-questioning to the awareness of his own lascivious desires for Isabella. This should come across naturally


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Specimen Paragraph 1

Trina Chong (17-U1)
2017 JC1 Mid Year Examination
Paper 1 Passage-based Question
Presentation of Angelo in Act 2, Scene 4

Note: this is the same PBQ featured in the 2018 JC1 MYE Practice Paper.

(W) Given his position in the highest seat of Viennese society, Angelo is conscious about projecting himself as a morally upright leader who is free from the taint of corruption. (H-1) In his soliloquy about his attraction to Isabella, he expresses his desire to remain unexposed of his impure intentions through his words, ‘Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue’ and ‘let no man hear me’. The repeated negation of being heard indicates his consciousness of the consequences of being revealed to harbour such corrupt desires for Isabella, and thus he will do anything possible to prevent himself from being put in such a predicament.(H-2) He maintains an unrelenting stance towards ‘filthy vices’ and in particular the fornication committed by Claudio. The adjective ‘filthy’ brings out the intensity of Angelo’s contempt for the crime.

(W) The paragraph begins with an idea about Angelo’s self-awareness, set in the context of his newly assumed position in Vienna and the perceptions of him by other characters thus far as ‘morally upright’ and ‘free from the taint of corruption’. This topic sentence goes beyond a character sketch (‘Angelo is…’) to set up an analysis of how Angelo’s psyche is presented via his words.

(H-1) The analysis frames a broader method (‘soliloquy’) in context (‘about his attraction to Isabella) before evincing Angelo’s thoughts in the two quotations. This is immediately followed by an explicit labelling of method (‘repeated negation’), with implied references to the use of ‘hearing not‘ and ‘no man’, to convey Angelo’s consciousness of his own impure intentions / corrupt desires.

(H-2) The paragraph shifts from Angelo’s self-reflection to his thoughts on Claudio, providing a complexity to his character. The next point analyses his ‘unrelenting stance’ towards moral ‘filth’ not unlike that in his own mind, which is supported by a close-reading of the word ‘filthy’ to show his contempt for Claudio and to some extent himself.


(H-3) He also equates Claudio’s act of fornication to ‘coin[ing] heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid’. The metaphor of counterfeit coins is apt because in the Elizabethan age, counterfeiting coins was punished by death, which mirrors the capital punishment that Angelo has meted out to Claudio. Simultaneously, Claudio’s crime is likened to murdering ‘A man already made’. The juxtaposition of the life-giving crime that Claudio committed against the death that murder results in highlights the extreme stance that Angelo takes on Claudio’s offence. Furthermore, the sibilance in ‘saucy sweetness’ and ‘stamps’ conveys a hissing quality that reinforces his condemnation of Claudio’s offence. (Y) Hence, by ensuring he speaks only pure and holy thoughts, and expressing sheer intolerance for sexual fornication, Angelo projects himself as a man of flawless reputation and impeccable standards. However, the pristine reputation as an uncorrupted leader is seen by the audience as ironic because Angelo commits an act similar to which he does not condone; beneath Angelo’s facade lies a hypocritical, perhaps contemptible leader.

(H-3) The next half of the paragraph reinforces Angelo’s condemnation of Claudio’s crime (and to some extent his own). Analysis of the metaphor of counterfeit coins is enhanced by considering the use of sibilance in the evidence that follows. Of note is the cohesion in effect within this paragraph: every method and quotation here is read in accordance with a sense of moral rectitude, from Angelo’s fear to his adamantly extreme intolerance for impurity / fornication.

(Y) The response here condenses the intentions behind the evidence analysed above into insight on Angelo’s reputation and morality / corruption. This is expanded with the audience’s view of Angelo as ironic and therefore hypocritical, based on their knowledge of what has transpired. While there are no explicit links to elsewhere in the play here, the final judgement (‘perhaps contemptible’) is backed by a brief reference to Angelo committing ‘an act similar to which he does not condone’ right after this passage.

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Specimen Paragraph 2

Audrey Choong (17-O1)
2017 JC1 Promotional Examination
Paper 3 Essay Question
On interactions and mental states

(W) By portraying the female protagonist Martha and her discontent with the relationships she surrounds herself with, Albee presents discontent and disappointment as a motivator for the destructive and toxic interactions she has with George. (H-1) Martha is presented to be frequently belittled and mocked for her lack of conformity to the demure female caregiver stereotype by George, who sarcastically jokes that she liked ‘real ladylike little drinkies’ in front of the guests, intentionally creating an incongruence between the ‘pure and simple’ tastes expected of her and her ‘vulgar girl’ behaviour which she is revealed to implicitly despise.

(W) The topic sentence establishes Martha’s discontentment with her relationships, primarily that with George, as the focus of the paragraph. The ‘destructive and toxic interactions’ between them will be analysed in the points that follow, where the reader can expect both George and Martha’s dialogue to be considered.

(H-1) Martha’s discontentment is explained by way of George’s sarcastic jokes. Evidence is cited to show the incongruence, or mismatch, between the audience’s expectations and his judgement of her as a ‘vulgar girl’.


(H-2) She retaliates by holding George accountable to the societal expectations of a male breadwinner, mocking that he could not ‘waste good liquor’ on an ‘Associate Professor’s salary’ to further reduce his standing with the guests, in addition to alternating between infantilising and insulting him, referring to him as ‘Georgie boy’ and ‘old sourpuss’ who was ‘bogged down in the History Department’. (H-3) Her vindictive enjoyment from overtly humiliating him for his lack of ambition or capability escalates with the intensity of her declarations, cackling that he was ‘a bog… a fen… A.G.D. swamp!’ as the object of her derision for crushing her dreams for her to ‘take over the college’ with George. (Y) Therefore, by depicting the cruel and routinely vicious jibes between Martha and George, Albee presents the discontent of individuals to play a heavy hand in the frustrations and indicting distractions from one’s personal flaws or dissatisfactions.

(H-2) The analysis moves back to Martha, specifically her retaliation. Note that we remain in the same context / episode, and similar methods and effects (e.g. mocking, name calling) are being analysed. All the quotations are read in the context of ‘infantilising and insulting’ George, making for clearly focused and consistent analysis.

(H-3) Martha’s intentions, raised briefly in the previous sentence (‘further reduce his standing’), is elaborated upon here as her ‘vindictive enjoyment from overtly humiliating him. Within this context, we see how this vindictiveness and derision are presented in the escalation of her declarations that he was ‘a bog… a fen… A.G.D. swamp!’ There is a case for additional close-reading of how ‘bog’ escalates to ‘fen’ and then to ‘A.G.D. swamp’… but this will suffice.

(Y) While not saying anything new here, the response here links the ‘routinely vicious jibes’ from the analysis to the characters’ frustrations. The insight, which can undoubtedly be developed a little more, comes in the notion that these attacks are ‘indicting distractions from one’s personal flaws or dissatisfactions’.





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