Essay writing

Writing essays #3: writing the introduction

This post is based on material from my new book, Essay Writing Explained


Students I work with often tell me that they find introductions hard to write. We all know that an essay's introduction must be enticing and intriguing. Your tutor or examiner is reading dozens – maybe hundreds – of essays, often on exactly the same topic.  How are you going to make them sit up and take notice? 

You might think that you have to write your introduction before you write anything else.

Well: you don't.

Write the essay first. Then write the introduction.

(That's why this is the third post in this series.)

Five introductions to avoid

To begin with, don’t do what everyone else does. 

Here are five types of introduction that tutors and examiners see frequently.  These are the introductions guaranteed to make their hearts sink.  Avoid them.

The ‘filler’ introduction

This is the kind of introduction that simply fills the space with generalised, more or less meaningless sentences.  It’s like clearing your throat before saying anything worthwhile. 

Tragedy has been a common form of drama in many different societies.  There have been many different kinds of tragedy.  Mostly, tragedy has been a dramatic form, although some novels can    also count as tragedies.






The ‘restated question’ introduction

This introduction restates the question you’ve been set.  Whoever wrote the essay question presumably knows what the question is; they don’t need you to remind them.

Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ contains elements of both comedy and tragedy.  Many    commentators and critics have different opinions about whether comedy or tragedy is the most    important element of the play, and few have come to any agreement. It is important to try to    understand whether the play is more of a comedy or more of a tragedy.

Clarifying the question can be a useful strategy as part of your introduction, as we’ll see.  But simply restating it and going no further is inadequate; the introduction can, and should, do more to draw the reader in to your essay.




The ‘book report’ introduction

This introduction gives the details of the book (or play, or country, or historical figure, or chemical element, or equation) that you’re discussing.  Perhaps essay writers use this kind of introduction because it reminds them of the book reports they wrote in junior school; it feels comfortable. 

Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ was performed first at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 28 October 1958.  It starred Patrick Magee, was directed by Donald McWhinnie and ran for 38 performances.  

This introduction tells the reader what they probably already know.  It doesn’t lead them towards your thesis statement. In fact, it doesn’t lead anywhere.





The ‘tell-em’ introduction

Some textbooks advise essay writers to tell the reader what you propose to do in the essay.  The same textbooks will probably then tell you to do it in the middle part, and use the conclusion to say what you’ve done. 

This is the famous ‘tell’em’ principle: 

  •  tell’em what you’re going to tell ‘em;
  • tell ‘em; and then
  • tell ‘em you’ve told ‘em. 

 As with restating the question, signalling your intentions – and the structure of the essay – is a useful strategy.  After all, it’s what the blueprint in your thesis statement is doing: indicating how you propose to answer the question.  But on its own, the ‘tell ‘em’ principle is boring.  And, as the opening sentence in your introduction, it’s deadly.

In this essay, I shall attempt to show that elements of comedy outweigh elements of tragedy in Samuel Beckett’s play, ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.

(Attempt to show, by the way, is another killer.  Only attempt?  How confident and interested does that make your reader feel?  For the same reason, avoid saying: hopefully, this essay will demonstrate...)





The ‘dictionary definition’ introduction

 Essay after essay starts by defining a key word in the question.  Thousands of students resort to this tactic.  Their intentions are good:  defining a key word shows that you’ve read the question (or at least, that you’ve read that word), and that you’ve read a book (even if it’s only a dictionary).  And an important part of your argument may be to challenge the received definition of a term. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘tragedy’ as “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion: opposite to comedy.”

Anyone can look up a word in a dictionary.  And a dictionary definition probably doesn’t take into account the context in which you’re discussing the word. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t examine the definitions of terms in the question; and I’m not saying you shouldn’t offer one or more definitions of key terms in your essay.  (Different thinkers may have defined a term in different ways, for example.)  I am saying that you shouldn’t do this in your very first sentence.




The ‘dawn-of-time’ introduction

This kind of introduction makes sweeping generalisations about the topic, mostly unrelated to the thesis statement.  Maybe writers feel that this is a way of drawing your reader into the essay, like a long, slow zoom in at the start of a movie.

Since the start of recorded history, men have stood on stages before large audiences and acted out the sad stories of their times.

 In fact, this kind of introduction is as much of a cliché as the (intentional) cliché that opens Star Wars

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away...

Avoid clichés - like the plague, I was going to say!


Structuring your introduction: SPQR

The best way to set about writing your introduction is to create a mini-plan. 

The basic plan of any introduction is a sequence, leading your reader from where they are, and what they know, to where you want them to be, and what you want to tell them.  The most important thing you want to tell them, of course, is your thesis statement, so this sequence should end with that. 

In its basic form, this sequence has four stages.  You can remember it using the letters SPQR.  If you’re a historian, you’ll know that this is the motto of the Roman Empire.  If you’re not, you now know that these letters stand for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (‘the senate and people of Rome’).  They are a good way of remembering the sequence of an introduction.





What’s the first thing you can say about your topic that your reader will know to be true?  The Situation statement is unremarkable, uncontroversial, a ‘truth universally acknowledged’.


What has arisen within the situation to complicate it?  Perhaps something has gone wrong, or a disagreement has arisen, or new developments have altered the situation in some way.

The Problem leads to a:


This, of course, is the question you have been asked: your essay question.  Sometimes, analysing the Question helps you backtrack to the appropriate Problem.  Ask:  ‘Why has this question arisen?’


Your answer to the question is your thesis statement.


















Now, here’s an example of an introduction modelled on the SPQR sequence.  It opens an essay answering the question:

Discuss the causes of stereotyping in the mass media.  To what extent do they influence social attitudes?

[Situation] Stereotypes are extremely common in British society. Nationality and race, class, gender and sexual orientation are all subject to limited and rigid social descriptions.  [Problem] These stereotypes have historically been perpetuated in the mass media, particularly in the tabloid press and television, where situation comedy has often depended on stereotypes for its effects. [Question]  Sociologists have gathered evidence for this process, and examined its causes.[Response: thesis statement]  The most prominent cause of stereotyping appears to be the need for media owners to mirror the values of their target markets.  Through market research, intervention in the creative process and audience evaluation, the mass media can be seen to reinforce already existing stereotypes and perpetuate them.

Notice that the SPQR sequence ends with your thesis statement.

Ah yes. The thesis statement. You do have a thesis statement, don't you?

If not, please go back to this post.

Structuring your introduction: The Four Moves Model

A variation on the SPQR model was developed by John Swales, a British linguist who has worked at the University of Michigan since 1985.  In his book, Genre Analysis, published in 1990, Swales identifies four moves that academics typically make in introducing their papers. 





This sequence has become known, unsurprisingly, as the Four Moves model. 

  1. Establish the field that you’re writing about, and show why this topic is interesting or important.
  2. Now review and summarize the published research literature – or at least, the research that you’ve studied, and the research that is most relevant to your topic.
  3.  Show that this research is missing something. Create a research space or an interpretative space for your own essay.
  4. Present your thesis statement as a useful answer to fill that research space.

Here’s a simple example of a Swalesian introduction.  (Thanks to Rao, Chanock and Krishnan for inspiration here.)  The essay question is:

What can be done to reverse the loss of ‘social capital’ in developed societies?

[Move 1] As countries develop from rural, locally organised societies towards urban centralisation, social capital – the networks, values and norms linking individuals within communities – is increasingly lost.  [Move 2] Sociologists such as Smithfield and Grigson have documented the increasing incidence of loneliness, mental illness and family break-up that results in newly urbanised societies. (Smithfield, 2003; Grigson, 1999)  [Move 3] As yet, however, little research has been done to investigate how such a loss of social capital can be curbed or reversed.  [Move 4] This essay examines three examples of projects aiming to restore social communities in London, Nairobi and Adelaide.  It concludes by arguing that new models of social cohesion are needed to reflect the diversity of modern urban societies.  

You should complete your introduction by stating your thesis statement in full.  The introduction thus ends with your precise claim and a signal of the structure of your essay.

Hooking the reader: writing the first sentence

Once you have a strong structure for your introduction, you can open it with a ‘hook’; a sentence that will catch the reader’s attention and make them want to read on.



You’ve a number of options.  You could start with a bald, striking statement of fact.  You could give a vivid example or illustration of your thesis statement.  You could quote someone who said something controversial.  You could offer a puzzling or ambiguous example.  You could tell a (very brief) story.  You could even ask a question.

Whatever you decide to do, try to find an opening sentence that you can be sure nobody else will offer.  Of course it should be relevant and true; but it should also be striking and arresting.



For more, check out Essay Writing Explained.



Writing an essay #1: creating a thesis statement

This post is based on material from my e-book, Essay Writing Explained.


Behind every successful essay lies a good thesis statement. 

Now, about thesis statements, I have good news and bad news.

The bad news is that creating a thesis statement tends to be the toughest part of the essay assignment.  Finding something interesting to say is rarely easy; after all, lots of people have already said lots of interesting things.

But the good news is that the task involves very little writing. 

And the really good news is that, if you get this bit right, writing the essay itself becomes a whole lot easier.

Have I convinced you? 

Ok. Read on.

So what is this thesis statement, anyway? 

Well, it’s a statement that should:

  • directly answer the essay question;
  • express one idea in a single sentence; and
  • make a claim that you could imagine a reader disputing.

Answering the question

The thesis statement must answer the question.  Not just echo it.  Of all the complaints I hear from tutors about essays, by far the most common is that students fail to answer the question.

You’ve been warned.

Suppose you’re answering this question.

To what extent does Michael Porter's Five Forces of Competitive Position model provide an adequate perspective for assessing the competitive strength and position of a commercial enterprise?










Suppose you write a thesis statement like this:

Michael Porter’s Model of Competitive Position outlines five forces that, in his view, drive competition between businesses.

This statement doesn’t answer the question; it merely outlines the scope of the essay.  

The question asks:  “To what extent…?” At its most basic, your answer might be ‘wholly’, ‘partly’ or ‘not at all’.   The position you choose will depend on your study. 

You have to decide what you think about this question.

Expressing a single idea

Your thesis states your position in the essay.  So, by definition, you can take only one position.

This can be a challenge, especially if you’ve been told that your essays should present  ‘balanced arguments’.

Suppose you’re answering this question.

Is Samuel Beckett's play, Krapp's Last Tape,comic or tragic?

Pinter Krapp







Having studied the play, you might decide that:

Beckett’s play contains elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Danger!  You’re beginning to create a double focus.  And you’re not answering the question. 

That tiny word ‘or’ demands that we choose between comedy and tragedy.  Perhaps, after further study and thought, you decide:

Although containing many elements of traditional popular comedy, Beckett’s play ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ ultimately functions as a tragedy.

Better.  (That 'although' clause is clever: it suggests the balance in the argument, which you can now tip by stating your single idea.)

Now all you need to do is support that argument.  You need to create a ground plan.  More on ground plans shortly.

Making a disputable claim

Does your thesis statement pass the ‘so what?’ test? 

Imagine that you’re answering this question.

Discuss the use of imagery in Picasso's Guernica.







Your thesis needs to make a claim that’s disputable: a claim that somebody could disagree with.  Suppose you write:

Picasso’s painting Guernica is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century art.

Who would dispute a statement like that?  It’s almost guaranteed to provoke a ‘so what?’ response (if not a slightly less polite ‘duh’). 

That word ‘discuss’ in the question is a real problem.  (And it comes up often in essay questions.)  ‘Discuss’ could mean – well, just about anything.  But this question gives us two other clues.   One clue is about the scope of the question:  you’re asked to consider imagery in the picture, rather than colour, structure or technique.   Another clue is in that tiny word ‘use’.   You’re being asked, not just about what the imagery is, but how Picasso uses it.

You might create this thesis statement:

In Guernica, Picasso uses conventional imagery to illustrate the horror and injustice of fascist militarism.

Much better.  You could imagine a reader responding with:  “Oh, really?   Convince me!”

Which is just the response you need. 

You’re answering the question; and you’re making a single, disputable point.   This is a good working thesis.

Refining your thesis statement

Once you have a working thesis, you can begin to gather together the material that you could use to develop it into an essay. 

As you develop your ideas, gather information, make notes and think further, you’ll need to refine your thesis statement.  Where do you disagree with other scholars that you’ve been reading?  What do they seem to miss?  How do your ideas contribute to answering the question?

The refined version will be longer than the working thesis.  It’ll contain:

  • the subject of the essay;
  • a precise claim about that subject; and
  • a ground plan.

A ground plan lays out your essay’s structure.  It sets out the grounds of your argument: the points that support your thesis statement.   In your thesis statement, those points should appear in the same order in which you will present them in the body of your essay.  

Here’s an essay question.

What were the causes of the 1926 General Strike in the United Kingdom?








And here is one student’s answer.

The General Strike of 1926 [subject] had three main causes [precise claim]: the depletion of coal supplies as a result of the First World War; economic measures that harmed the UK’s ability to trade and export; and rapidly worsening conditions among miners [ground plan].

The writer has listed three causes in the ground plan; we now expect the essay to cover those three causes, in that order.  

How original is ‘original’?

Students often worry that their thesis statements aren’t original.  And your tutor or examiner will certainly mark you down if they can see that you’re simply repeating ideas you’ve read in a book, or in other essays.  They want to see evidence that you’ve thought about this material and developed some ideas of your own.  

But you shouldn’t be too concerned about originality.  As we said at the start, it’s very hard to come up with ideas that are startlingly new.  Avoid plagiarism; acknowledge others’ ideas; and offer some ideas of your own.  Try to be a bit contentious: a bit argumentative.  Have the courage to offer your own ideas, but be disciplined enough to offer reasoned arguments to support them. 

The important point is to demonstrate that you’ve thought about the question.  Your essay should show evidence of that thinking.  

For more, check out my e-book, Essay Writing Explained.


Writing essays #2: concluding well

This post is based on material from my e-book, Essay Writing Explained.


Your essay's conclusion should make your reader feel that they've arrived. It should say: look, everything here makes sense.  Everything fits together. 

And, if possible, it should do something more. Your conclusion should say: everything here points to a new thought: one you, the reader, may not have thought before. 

That new thought needn’t be earth-shattering or radical; but it should be a valuable answer to the question you’ve been set.

So: how to create a conclusion?

Well: answer the question, to start with.  Answer it explicitly.  Summarise the argument you've presented and re-present the key points that support it.   

Your answer to the essay question doesn’t have to be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.   In fact, many questions will be framed to stop you answering so simply. 

For example, the question might ask: To what extent...?   It might ask: In what ways do...  differ? 

And sometimes, even when the question does seem to invite a ‘yes-or-no’ answer, you might choose to answer: Maybe.   

Or: It depends.   

Or: Only in certain circumstances.   

As long as your argument coherently supports that answer, and your conclusion states your answer clearly, you have fulfilled your brief.   You’ve answered the question.   

How not to conclude X4

Students tend to write ready-made conclusions as often as prefabricated introductions.   Here are four common conclusion types to avoid.  I'm assuming that the essay question is:

"Is Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape comic or tragic?"

The ‘that’s all folks’ conclusion





This conclusion simply restates the essay’s thesis.   It tends to be painfully short: the reader feels that the essay, rather than concluding, has just – stopped.

In conclusion, ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ contains more elements of tragedy than of comedy.

This conclusion feels abrupt because the reader needs to feel that they are being taken forward, into new territory.   

The ‘whodunit’ conclusion








This conclusion states the thesis for the first and only time in the essay.   The wording might be similar to the ‘that’s all folks’ conclusion; the only difference is that we haven’t read it until we reach the final paragraph.

The writer might feel, not unreasonably, that they don’t want to give away their big idea until the very end; that they need to keep the reader reading to the last page, as in a detective story, to find out ‘who did it’.   Your tutor, however, doesn’t want to read a thriller (at least, not while they’re reading your essay); they’re expecting an argument in academic style, with the thesis stated at the start.   

The ‘I have a dream’ conclusion





This conclusion depends on emotion to make its mark.   

‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, then, in its profoundly tragic view of an individual’s meaningless existence, affects us deeply with the rage, pity and horror that accompany any witnessing of a life wasted, urging us to find new meaning in our lives and encompass the true joy that can emerge from living every moment of our lives to the full.

Very heartfelt, perhaps.   Deeply moving, possibly.   Analytical, thoughtful and coolly rational – hardly.   

The ‘and another thing’ conclusion






This conclusion suddenly drags in material found nowhere else in the essay.   Maybe the writer feels they should include some important stuff, but they couldn’t fit it into their argument.   

As well as being profoundly tragic, ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ also illustrates the influence of modern recording technology on theatrical practice, and an extension of the use of domestic furniture in stage design.

An essay that may have been well organized ends with a confusing surprise.

How to conclude X1

Ok.  That's how not to conclude.  Four times.

So: what makes a good conclusion?

It's a bridge.  A good conclusion guides your reader out of your essay, back into the wider world. 

Your conclusion gives you the last word.   It allows you to summarize your argument and tell the reader why it matters.   It can point the reader towards further implications or new ideas; you could use it to mention wider issues, or to elaborate on the importance of your argument.   It’s also, of course, your opportunity to make a good final impression.

Your conclusion can take your reader beyond the confines of the question you’ve answered.   In your conclusion, you can mention wider issues, make new connections, and elaborate on the significance of your findings.   The conclusion should help your reader see something differently.

For more, download my e-book, Essay Writing Explained.




Essay Writing Explained: get the ebook

Essay Writing Explained is one of my ebooks available from Bookboon.

Writing an essay means more than finding and recording facts. You need to think critically: analysing material and reaching a conclusion. It means showing that you understand the material you’ve been studying. Above all, it means presenting a coherent argument.

If you’re at high school, college or university, you’ll need to write essays - even if you're studying maths or a science. But learning to write essays also prepares us for life beyond college. In the real world, more and more of us need to be able to express ideas clearly, with good grammar and a flexible style. Essay writing gives us the skills to become more effective citizens.

How do you start? What kind of words should you use? Are you entitled to offer your own views on a subject?

Essay Writing Explained will help you produce an essay that your tutor will appreciate, and that will do you credit.

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Writing an essay may be easy, but not everyone finds it the same way. Having to read this one, I have found some great ways on how to create an organized and perfect result.

Take a look at Essay Writing Explained.


Six patterns of explanation

People-3d-thinking-mind-mapping-497747340-5b31bbec8e1b6e0036ab2793[image: DrAfter123 / Getty Images]

We understand information by pattern-matching. If you can organise information into a simple pattern that your audience or reader can recognise, they'll be better prepared to understand it.

For instance, we can explain in six different ways. I have no idea who first created this list of patterns, but my hunch is that it appeared at some point in the early nineteenth century. The list varies slightly from textbook to textbook; this is the version I've found most useful over the years.




Comparison and contrast

Cause and effect

Chronological or process pattern

Get to know these patterns. They'll help you explain anything more clearly.



Explanation by example, probably the simplest pattern, creates a list. Examples can help make an idea concrete by creating a mental image.

Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 

Signal words for explanation by example include:

  • in addition
  • another
  • for example
  • also
  • several
  • a number of

This pattern could be presented graphically as a bullet list. (Like the one above!)



We humans seem to have a natural talent for sorting information into categories.  Categories are created by dividing information into parts. This pattern follows three rules.

  • Every item under consideration should fit into one of your categories.  If you have odd items left over, add other categories or rework your existing categories. 
  • Categories should not overlap.
  • Items should fit into only one category.  If you cannot decide where to put something, ask if it can be eliminated as irrelevant, or whether it needs a category to itself.

Give each category a clear name.  Sub-categories will come under larger categories with more general names.

Put things, people, places, into categories based on their similarities. Alternatively, you could take one thing, person, place and divide it into its components.

Make the purpose of classification clear and interesting. A paper classifying the different areas to study in college is not very interesting. A paper classifying the different types of sexism in the classroom is interesting.

Explain how you have created your categories. Include the rule or principle used to classify items into groups. Use examples, details, and data to help readers distinguish between categories.

Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Signal words and phrases or categorising include:

  • include
  • exclude
  • not limited to
  • can be divided into
  • types of
  • sorts of

Categorising could be represented graphically by a pie chart.




A definition identifies something uniquely: an object, a procedure, a term or a concept.  There are three types of definition.

  • A short definition explains by means of a synonymous word or phase, often in brackets or between commas. 
  • A sentence definition is made up of two sections: the class to which the object belongs; and the features which distinguish it from all other items in the class.  A glossary is made up of sentence definitions. 
  • An extended definition can be short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter.  It may include a brief history of the term (the language it came from, its current use, how the use has changed).  An extended definition should also include the object's function.

ROI for tourism is the amount of additional visitor expenditure that campaigns generate compared with the amount of public money invested in these campaigns. 

Explore a subject’s meaning fully. Differences within the definition are fine if they exist within the established boundaries.

Draw clear boundaries around the defined subject to avoid confusion with other subjects. Use examples, details, and anecdotes to strengthen your definition.

Signal words and phrases  for definition include:

  • is defined as
  • means
  • is described as
  • is called
  • refers to
  • term
  • concept

I haven't ever found a good visual or graphic representation of definition. A Venn diagram might be helpful. On the other hand:


Comparison and contrast

Comparisons display the similarities between things; contrasts show the differences.  You can use them separately, or together: comparison before contrast.

In our view, the CEE regional businesses share similar growth drivers, in particular robust regional economic outlooks, high growth advertising markets,operational synergies as part of the MTG group,regulatory changes and the launch of niche channels.

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   We discuss availability in theoretical terms because availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. There are issues around access for local people, who may find themselves deprived of access for a variety of reasons.

The items under consideration must be comparable.  You would not compare the costs of freight haulage by rail in the UK to container haulage to Australia by ship. Establish the criteria by which you are comparing and contrasting.  Have as many as possible: cost, convenience, prestige, size, security, safety and so on. Rank the criteria in priority order.  This might be a controversial exercise, but unless the criteria are weighted you will not be able to contract them effectively.

State a clear purpose regarding why the subjects are being compared or contrasted at the beginning of the paper. Explaining the differences between summer and winter, however well written or spoken, must also be interesting.

Share enough features to make a comparison valuable. Choose a narrow enough basis for comparing or contrasting, so that all major similarities and differences can be covered.

Signal words and phrases for comparison and contrast include:

  • similar, different
  • on the other hand
  • but
  • however
  • bigger than, smaller than
  • in the same way
  • parallel

Comparison and contrast can be presented graphically as a table.

Compare and contrast[image from]


Cause and effect

Cause and effect explains why something happened. 

The difficulty, of course, is in deciding which is cause and which is effect! A cause is so often the effect of another cause, which may be harder to determine or control.  Look for the immediate cause; the underlying cause; and the ultimate cause.  Your analysis will be circumscribed by the areas of responsibility involved.

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 

Cause and effect is a technique fraught with danger.  Determine which type of cause you are searching for: immediate, underlying or ultimate.  What is your purpose in identifying these causes?  Be open-minded.  Try not to rush to conclusions or to allocate blame 'politically'.  Be as logical as you can.  Eliminate coincidence.  Take all factors into account.  Is there more than one cause?  Are there other effects that you have not considered?  Trace all the links.  Go as far back as necessary (or as is expedient!) to the ultimate cause.

The robust advertising growth will be largely driven by demand from both local and multinational advertisers, buoyed by deregulation and relatively stable economic conditions.

Signal words for cause and effect explanation include:

  • for this reason
  • consequently
  • as a result
  • on that account
  • hence
  • because

Cause and effect can be represented graphically by a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. This is also a useful tool for establishing causes of a problem.




Chronological or process pattern

Items are listed in the order in which they occurred or in a specifically planned order in which they must develop.  In this form of explanation, the order is vital; changing it would change the explanation's meaning.

A process pattern lists all the steps necessary to carry out an operation.  It may take the form of a set of instructions (like a recipe), a quality procedure or a technical specification report.  It proceeds step by step.  The steps must occur in a particular order: if the order is wrong, the operation will fail. 

The proposed timetable is as follows:

Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April;

Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April;

Scoping brief to Members on 12 April;

Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April;

Written evidence received by 26 May;

Evidence analysed and briefing paper prepared for Members by 5 July;

Evidentiary Hearing 13 July;

Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting

Process analysis usually tells the reader about a process or how to do it. 

In calculating the cost of capital, we compute the split of earnings between domestic and international operations, which after the deconsolidation of the Argentinean subsidiaries comprise mainly Brazil. To calculate the cost of capital of the domestic operations, we add the eurobond yield of 3.64% to the Italian equity risk premium of 4.0%. To calculate the cost of capital of the international operations, we add the Brazil short term interest rate of 30% to the country risk premium of 6%. Lastly, we calculate the weighted capital obtained on a earnings basis.

Instructions tend to be far more detailed explanations.

Signal words and phrases for chronological or process explanation include:

  • first, second, third
  • first, secondly, thirdly
  • next
  • before
  • after
  • when
  • later
  • until
  • at last

Chronological explanation could be presented graphically as a timetable -

2019_Red_Timetable- or as a timeline:


A set of instructions will be laid out as a numbered list - like a recipe:

RecipeNote that the list of ingredients here is explanation by example. The method is organised as a process. The distinction between the two is made even clearer by the use of bullets for the list of examples, and of numbers for the process. 

Notice also that lists of instructions are not necessarily in process order.


(And please do not try to iron your backside, even on a low heat.)

I run training courses on effective writing email and letter writing, report writing and grammar. Contact me to find out more.



7 ways to produce powerful paragraphs



This is a pilcrow. It's the symbol used to mark paragraph breaks in old books and other documents. According to this article, the word comes from the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which led to the Old French paragraph. Somehow, the word transformed into the Middle English pylcrafte and eventually became the “pilcrow.”

You can find pilcrows on Word and other wordprocessing programs, if you know where to look - or if you press the wrong button.  But these days, the pilcrow itself tends to be rather shy.

Paragraphs, on the other hand, need to be easy to see. They show your reader that you've organised your thoughts - or at least, they give the visual promise of organised thinking. Faced with a page lacking any paragraph breaks, we're likely to give up reading before we even start. Make sure your paragraphs have plenty of white space around them.

Of course, you have to fulfil the visual promise. You should organise your thoughts into paragraphs. And the basic way to do that is to allocate one thought to each paragraph.

All the seven techniques we'll look at in this post develop that idea.

(The example paragraphs all come from reports written by the Scrutiny Team of the Greater London Authority. All of them are available publicly and they are all at least ten years old.)


1. Begin your paragraph with a topic sentence.

Topic sentences are the most powerful editing technique I know. They achieve so much with so little. Pay attention to your topic sentences and your writing will improve fast.

A topic sentence expresses the point you want to make in the paragraph. Everything in the paragraph must support or expand what you say in your topic sentence. Think of it as a signpost, telling your reader what you want to say at this point.


London controls little of its own money for spending on public services. Of the £57 billion that came into London’s public services in 2004-5, just £2.5 billion (4.4% of the total) was raised locally.  Between them, the boroughs and the Mayor spend some £20 billion annually, but around two-thirds of the total spent in London on public services is spent outside the scope and influence of local control.  A virtual ‘secret state’ provides the bulk of London’s public services.


2. Check that topic sentences make sense in order, and that they summarize the sequence.

Topic sentences outline the most important points in your text; when read in sequence, they should summarise the whole piece. As well as helping to keep your reader on track, topic sentences help you improve your text by forcing you to clarify what you want to say - and in what order.


All public spaces require some form of management.  If a space is to fulfil its role and remain accessible and inclusive, a management body must coordinate a number of tasks.  It must find sources of financial investment for the space, maintain the space physically, regulate its use and mediate conflicts of interest.  In the past, land owned or controlled by local councils, like parks or streets, was understood to be public, unlike private sites which were usually considered private property and not accessible to the general public (unless there was an actual public right of way).

Increasingly there is a blurring of once clear-cut lines between public and private areas of the city. Some commentators believe that the growth of ‘private-public’ space produces over-controlled, sterile places which tend to look the same and fail to connect with the local environment and community. They also raise questions about democracy and accountability and the displacement of social problems into neighbouring districts.

The main focus of the investigation is therefore on management and recognising the needs of different stakeholders. On land that is privately owned all powers lie, in principle, in private hands. Through the planning system the local authority can create and maintain a level of influence on any ’public’ space proposed on that land when dealt with at the outset, or ensure that it is managed in an acceptable way.


3. Identify the function of the paragraph.

Nearly all paragraphs in business writing do one of two things. They either persuade or explain. (Occasionally you may want to describe something - to paint a picture in words - or narrate a story.)

We can organise arguments in two main ways.

A deductive argument takes two (usually two) statements called premises and derives a conclusion from them. When you use a deductive pattern, the concluding sentence will restate your topic sentence, perhaps with some added detail.


[Topic sentence] The overriding challenge in inner London will be to improve recycling rates in flats and on estates. [Why?] [Premise 1] Flats account for around half of London’s housing stock. Most of these can be found in inner London boroughs. [Premise 2] Recycling and composting in flats and estates is low, typically around 10 per cent. [Conclusion] Increasing recycling in these properties is imperative if London’s average recycling rate is to improve.


An inductive argument states its conclusion up front and offers a range of different reasons to support it.In this example, the writer has signalled the different supporting reasons for the argument with bullet points.


There is a strong case for the Mayor to intervene in his role as the head of a strategic, city-wide authority, to reduce childhood obesity. [Why?]

  • Childhood obesity is a significant problem for London, occurring in every borough, with little evidence that the problem is being alleviated. High costs are incurred as a result of this, with a detrimental impact on the city’s economic development.
  • The Mayor has control of some important policy levers – and associated funding – that could be used to address obesity. These include his powers in relation to Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service and potentially the Royal Parks, his planning powers and strategic responsibility for health inequality.  It is anticipated the Mayor will chair the proposed London Health Improvement Board, which will oversee public health policy.
  • Some key obesity-reduction interventions – or elements of them – may be more effectively delivered at a city-wide rather than borough level. For instance, social marketing aimed at improving health may have more impact if it is applied throughout London.
  • The Mayor and GLA are well placed to influence negotiations with major private companies and other organizations that operate across London.
  • The Greater London Authority is well placed to evaluate any obesity-reduction interventions introduced in different parts of the city, and share best practice among partner organisations including boroughs and NHS commissioners.

We can use six patterns of explanation. If you can identify which pattern you want to use, you'll be able to organize your material more efficiently and effectively.



Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 


Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Cause and effect

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 


The proposed timetable is as follows:

  • Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April
  • Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April
  • Scoping brief to Members on 12 April
  • Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April
  • Written evidence received by 26 May
  • Evidence analysed and briefing prepared for Members by 5 July
  • Evidentiary Hearing 13 July
  • Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting


Obesity is defined, for adults, as having a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 30kg/m2, and overweight is having a BMI over 25.  For children, BMI is used differently.  A child is considered to be obese if they are in the 95th centile (the highest 5%) of the BMI scale, and overweight if they are in the 85th centile (the highest 15%).

Comparison and contrast

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   Availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. Some local people may not be able to access playing fields for a variety of reasons.


4.    Put at the start of the topic sentence an element from the previous paragraph; place at the end of the topic sentence the new element or information that you will become the theme of the paragraph.



5. Within the paragraph, identify the subjects and verbs of all sentences (and other clauses).

The most effective subjects act like characters in a story. (Imagine trying to draw a cartoon character of the noun you have chosen as the subject of a sentence.) The best main verbs express what those characters are doing in the story of the sentence.

In this example, the subjects are printed in bold and the verbs in italics. Some subjects work better than others as characters. The sentences in green are the least effective.


For the purpose of this investigation, the Committee has defined people with reduced mobility as people of all ages who use wheelchairs, have other disabilities or walking-related difficulties or travel with young children using buggies and prams.  It can be difficult to determine the exact number of people with reduced mobility.  The Committee has made the best estimate possible, in conjunction with the GLA Intelligence Unit, on information available.  The GLA Intelligence Unit has applied TfL findings on the percentages of people with a travel-related disability from 5 years old upwards to current and future population estimates to produce the data in this report. This also reflects the numbers of 0-1 year olds to provide for the number of Londoners using buggies and prams.  Further details about the data can be found at Appendix 1 of this report.


6.    Remove all references to the fact that you are writing.

I call this kind of writing ‘scaffolding’. I've marked it here in green.


This chapter considers the key challenges the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome in the near future.  The two overarching challenges we have identified are the increases in demand the LAS has experienced over recent years, which are expected to continue, and the need to become more efficient.

Remove the scaffolding and the text suddenly comes alive. You are now saying what you want to say to the reader.

In our view, the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome two major challenges in the near future.  On the one hand, the service, like the rest of the NHS, needs to deliver substantial increases in efficiency in the coming years.  On the other hand, demand for the service has increased in recent years, and will undoubtedly continue to increase.


Here's another example. The writer took two steps to remove the scaffolding completely.

It is important to note here the inclusion of both physical activity and diet in the explanation of obesity. 

Both physical activity and diet need to be considered to explain obesity.

Both physical activity and diet contribute to obesity.


Exception: at the end of an introduction, give a guided tour of the chapters to follow.

The next chapter of this report provides an overview of the performance of the LAS, based on targets the service is required to meet.  Chapter 3 then discusses the strategic challenges facing the service as it tries to maintain and improve its performance: managing increasing demand and generating efficiencies.  The following chapters then explore the relationships between the LAS and other parts of the health and emergency services.  Chapter 4 focuses on how the LAS works with partners within the NHS, and Chapter 5 does the same for the organisations in the GLA Group; both chapters seek to identify what the Mayor can do to support the LAS in strengthening these relationships, in order to meet strategic challenges the service faces.


7. Exploit opportunities to construct patterns within paragraphs.

One way to do so is to construct sequences of sentences in parallel.


This belief in “working long” strongly affects the economy and individual businesses.  Why do we have a “jobless recovery”?  Because, in part, employers are using record levels of overtime instead of hiring new workers.  Why are many companies – both failing and profitable – slashing their work forces by thousands?  Because, in part, they believe the road to profit is to be lean and mean, to push their employees harder and longer.


People often ask me how long a paragraph should be. There's no simple answer. Obviously, you could make your paragraphs too short or too long, but the circumstances will always be different.

In principle, I'd say that most paragraphs should include at least three sentences. The topic sentence summarizes, and it will do so more effectively if it is summarizing two other points (it doesn't make a great deal of sense for one idea to summarize one other idea.). And a working maximum might be six or seven sentences.

Look also at the length of your sentences. As a very rough guide, sentence length should increase as the paragraph goes on. So your topic sentence will probably be the shortest and the final sentence might be your longest. You could vary this pattern by closing with a short, punchy sentence.

If you find that a paragraph is too long, try splitting it up. Check that the paragraphs still make sense in order. Try to vary the length of paragraphs.

If a paragraph is too short, it may be because the initial idea has not been developed sufficiently. If you think that you need to develop an idea further, identify the pattern of explanation you might be using and develop it.

  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences

I run The Grammar Roadshow, a workshop exploring issues of grammar, punctuation and style. You can find an outline here.