Top 5 Paragraph-Level Mistakes in Student Writing -->

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Top 5 Paragraph-Level Mistakes in Student Writing

Often, Walden students ask for our feedback on APA style and grammar. However, in my experience, these issues are usually not the most important ones that need addressing in a student’s submitted piece of writing. Rather than sentence-level issues, global-level issues—such as those on the paragraph level—are going to make or break your paper. By “paragraph level,” I mean things that are not immediately evident in a single sentence but rather in the paragraph as a whole: organization, flow of ideas, use of logic and evidence, diversity of research, and absence of bias.

Are you making these 5 paragraph mistakes? via Walden Writing Center

Here are five of the most frequent paragraph-level issues I address as a writing instructor in paper reviews:

1. Paragraphs lacking the student’s own analysis.

Remember that a paragraph should normally do more than merely summarize what other scholars have said; instead, it should feature your own scholarly analysis and arguments. To make this happen, APA and Walden recommend that each paragraph begin with a main idea (expressed in a topic sentence), followed by supporting evidence, your own analysis of that evidence, and end with a lead-out sentence that concludes the paragraph’s argument. At the Writing Center, we often call this paragraph structure the “MEAL” plan, which stands for the four components in bold above. For more information, check out our four-part blog series on using the MEAL plan for paragraph organization and development.

2. Paragraphs that cite only one source.

Unless your course instructor indicates otherwise, each paragraph should typically contain a minimum of two cited sources, and preferably three to five. If your paragraph only has one cited source, you are merely summarizing a source rather than conducting scholarly analysis, and failing to show diversity of research.

3. Paragraphs that start with another researcher’s ideas, rather than the student’s.

When beginning a new paragraph, we recommend starting with a topic sentence, which states the main idea of your paragraph with your own ideas and in your own words (meaning that you should not need to include a citation). Ideally, you want your readers to be able to summarize your paper simply by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. For more information, see the Writing Center’s webpage on writing topic sentences.

4. Paragraphs that are too packed or crowded.

In episode 3 of the Walden Writing Center’s WriteCast podcast, we call these paragraphs the “whole paper" paragraphs. Trying to cram too many ideas into a single paragraph will not only confuse your readers, but also potentially cause your writing to become off-track and unfocused. If you find yourself addressing more than one main idea or argument, either cut out the extra material or use it in a new paragraph. 

5. Paragraphs that fail to directly focus on a single idea or argument.

Make sure that whatever you write in the paragraph directly supports the paragraph's topic sentence (see #3 above), which will help prevent the "whole paper" paragraph issue. Often, this requires zooming out to a bird’s-eye view and explaining what a quotation or a particular point means and how it relates to your topic.

For more on writing strong paragraphs and paragraph mistakes to avoid, consider listening to episode 3 of our WriteCast podcast. Or, view our archived “WritingEffective Academic Paragraphs” webinar. 
Practice: Spend the next 10 minutes reflecting on your own writing. Do you see any of the paragraph-level issues in your own work? Share your reflection in the comments, and don’t forget to give feedback to fellow writers.


Nik Nadeau, a writing instructor in the Walden University Writing Center, has been reviewing student papers since 2011. Nik also co-hosts WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.

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  1. Nice article! I will definitely be mindful of these points when writing my papers and discussion posts.

  2. You offered some great tips. I read the other blogs on the MEAL plan as well. However, are there any other resources with examples?


    1. Thanks, Richard! You probably saw our four-part series on the MEAL plan, but just in case, here's the link to the first post in the series: That's the only example we have, but we'll see what we can do about getting some others together!

  3. Please keep sharing more posts.

    1. Hi, Angel! We will definitely be sharing more posts :) We publish a new post every Monday, so you can check back here each week for new tips and advice. You can also subscribe via email (click the orange "Send me new posts" button at the bottom of a post) so that new posts come directly to your email inbox.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!