Paragraph Cohesion: Beyond the MEAL Plan
Tuesday, September 30, 2014 ParagraphsIf you’ve worked with the Writing Center before, you might’ve been encouraged to use the MEAL plan to guide the development of your paragraphs. You might’ve also looked through our page on paragraph structure (which discusses the MEAL plan) and applied this model to your own paragraphs, but you might still have trouble making your ideas flow logically in your writing.
Don’t worry: this is common.The MEAL plan is a great tool, but it isn’t perfect. Sometimes an explicit L (lead-out sentence) isn’t necessary in a paragraph because its topic is very similar to that of the next paragraph (and the connection between the two topics is implied); sometimes you’ll have a sentence of Evidence followed by a sentence of Analysis followed by more E and more A, and this will make complete sense for your argument; sometimes your Main idea functions as a transition between two topics rather than a statement of just one topic. You might have paragraphs with M and A but no new E, or you might have E without A.
For these situations, here are two rules of thumb you can use to compose effective paragraphs. Make sure that
1. Each of your sentences in a paragraph logically follows the one that comes before it.
2. Together, the sentences within a paragraph contribute to a “mini-argument” about a single topic, as if the paragraph were a tiny paper by itself.
These two rules are easy to follow in principle but often challenging—even maddening—in practice. Let’s look at a sample paragraph to see how they work. Each sentence is numbered in the sample, as we'll be breaking the paragraph down in a moment.
(1) Creating specific treatment guidelines for transgender adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria is a difficult task for many reasons. (2) The American population is vastly diverse, representing a wide variety of cultures. (3) Cultural variations in gender norms, gender identities, and expressions of gender identities are immense (Coleman et al., 2011). (4) Some subcultures are quite supportive of gender diversity in children and adolescents, assisting young people and their families as they consider medically transitioning, while in other subcultures, transgender individuals experience extreme stigma and discrimination (Carroll, 2009; Coleman et al., 2011; Ehrensaft, 2012; Kelleher, 2009; Riley, Sitherthan, Clemson, & Diamond, 2011).
There are some successful aspects of this paragraph; if you break it down according to the MEAL plan, you'll find that it has a Main idea, plenty of Evidence, and some Analysis. It doesn’t contain a Lead-out sentence, though, and it could use a bit more overall cohesion.
According to our first rule—the sentences should follow each other logically—this paragraph mostly works but could be strengthened further. Sentence 1 sets up the topic from which the rest of the paragraph develops, and sentences 2, 3, and 4 provide some of the “many reasons” mentioned in the first sentence. However, it’s not quite clear why sentences 2, 3, and 4 appear in this order. The order isn’t necessarily wrong, but it leaves me with a few questions. Is there a linear, step-by-step connection between these reasons? Are they of equal importance, or are some more important than others? Answering these questions might lead the writer to a solution that increases this paragraph’s cohesion—for example, the writer could use a transition or two to clarify the relationships between these pieces of evidence.
Let’s move to our second rule. This paragraph makes a good start toward providing a mini-argument about the difficulty of creating treatment guidelines for gender dysphoria. However, if you look for the traditional components of an argument—thesis, evidence, conclusion—in this paragraph, you won't find anything suggesting a “wrapping up” of this paragraph. As with the L in the MEAL plan, an explicit conclusion isn’t always necessary, but the questions raised in a paragraph should, more or less, be answered by the time it ends. With this in mind, the writer could add some sort of concluding statement that underscores the main point of the paragraph.
Revising for Cohesion
Here’s a revision based on the two rules, with added text in bold:
(1) Creating specific treatment guidelines for transgender adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria is a difficult task for many reasons. (2) The American population is vastly diverse, representing a wide variety of cultures. (3) Cultural variations in gender norms, gender identities, and expressions of gender identities are immense (Coleman et al., 2011). (4) Complicating matters further, some subcultures are quite supportive of gender diversity in children and adolescents, assisting young people and their families as they consider medically transitioning, while in other subcultures, transgender individuals experience extreme stigma and discrimination (Carroll, 2009; Coleman et al., 2011; Ehrensaft, 2012; Kelleher, 2009; Riley, Sitherthan, Clemson, & Diamond, 2011). The breadth of America’s diversity prevents the creation of treatment guidelines that could be applied to all cultural groups equally.
This version is a bit clearer, even though it doesn’t, strictly speaking, follow the MEAL plan any better than the original. If you find yourself in this situation—with paragraphs that are MEAL-compliant but still need more cohesion—try applying these two rules of thumb to your writing.
Practice: Select a paragraph of your own writing, and analyze it for cohesion. Then, use Matt's two rules to revise your paragraph, if needed. Post your practice in the comments, and don't forget to share feedback and encouragement for fellow writers.
Matt Sharkey Smith is a writing instructor and the coordinator of graduate writing initiatives. Matt has this advice for writers: "Write as much as you practically can, even when you don't want to, even when you know beyond a doubt that you're not writing anything that's any good. ... It's at once paradoxical and commonsensical, but it's true: You get better at writing by writing."
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