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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Paragraph Cohesion: Beyond the MEAL Plan

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If 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.


Two rules for creating cohesive paragraphs 

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.

Identifying Cohesion

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.

author

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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Help Your Readers--and Yourself--With Headings

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When I was a kid, my dad used to let the lawn grow long between mows. Then, when he eventually cut it, he did not follow the typical practice of mowing rows. Instead, he mowed the lawn into a path I could follow, zigzagging around the yard. Sometimes it included humor: the mown grass stopping at the cherry tree and then picking up again a few feet away. I was supposed to climb the tree and then jump. Sometimes it hinted at danger, the maze skirting so close to the edge of the yard that the pricker bushes brushed my skin. With the path, I knew what my dad was telling me, what I was supposed to do, and where I should go. It was not only fun but comforting.  

That relationship between my dad and me is what you want between yourself and your readers. In a paper, you are telling readers what to think with analysis; you are guiding them with structure; you are keeping them interested with logical connections and an engaging voice. One way to cement that relationship of direction and comfort is to use headings.


Use headings to create a clear path for readers | Walden University Writing Center Blog

Headings are effective tools, both for writers and for readers. For writers, they serve as an outline for the topics being covered. This outline keeps writers on track, which produces stronger, more focused papers. For readers, headings save time. Readers do not have much time (as you know from reading articles!), and to get a quick overview of a paper, they might simply scan the headings. Therefore, it is important to ensure that headings accurately reflect the content and tell a story from beginning to end. To start using headings when crafting your next paper, keep these points in mind:

Most course papers should only include Level 1 headings. 

Because course papers are relatively short, you will likely only use one level of heading—the main level—for all of your topics. Remember that headings of the same level are of equal status or importance. Here is an example list of headings for a paper on diabetes:

Title of the Paper
Causes of Diabetes
Effects of Diabetes 
Successful Health Interventions
Conclusion

Note that while your introduction paragraph should come between your paper’s title and your first heading, there is no “Introduction” heading for this sample paper. In APA style, you do not need an Introduction heading. If the introduction text falls directly below the title of your paper, the reader understands that the text is your introduction. Also, the title—because it is not a heading—remains in plain text, rather than bold.

If you break down those major topics into subtopics, you can go into Level 2 headings.


Title of the Paper
Causes of Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes
Gestational Diabetes

Effects of Diabetes
Kidney Disease
Blindness
Amputation
Successful Health Interventions
Medication
Exercise and Nutrition
Conclusion

Note that these headings tell a logical story. The writer moves readers from the problem (causes and effects of diabetes) to the potential solution (health interventions).

A word of caution: Be careful about overusing headings. 

Sometimes writers get a bit zealous and introduce a new heading with each paragraph. These super-short sections actually produce the opposite effect: giving the reader whiplash because the topics are changing so quickly. If you find that you use a lot of headings, return to the list of your original topics. A less important topic does not need its own heading, and the content can be combined with another section to be smoother.

In the end, your paper may indeed be a maze through a complicated and multifaceted topic. However, through careful creation and placement of headings, you can comfort the reader with a clear, organized path.


author

Hillary Wentworth
, a writing instructor and coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.



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WriteCast Episode 13: 60 Minutes or 60 Seconds: Maximizing Your Time With Writing Resources

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What can you possibly accomplish in 5 minutes to help strengthen your writing? More than you might think! What if you had 15, or 30, or 60 minutes? In this month's WriteCast episode, Nik and Brittany suggest different Writing Center resources you can use if you have 60, 30, 15, or only 5 minutes to spare. Stream or download the episode below, and share your thoughts in the comments! 




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WriteCast
is hosted by writing instructors Nikolas Nadeau and Brittany Kallman Arneson and produced by writing instructor Anne Shiell. Check out the podcast archive for more episodes.


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Using Scholarly Resources in Your Writing

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Chances are you have encountered an assignment where the professor asked you to find and use scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles. Scholarly resources are publications by researchers based on their studies. Peer-reviewed journal articles are one particular kind of scholarly resource, and these articles are often the most important kinds of publications to cite for academic writing.
Jeremy Renner, velociraptor (from Wikipedia)
Why it's important to evaluate your sources. Image from themetapicture.com.

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Start the Semester Right With 10 Back to School Writing Tips

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Back to school excitement is in the air! Are you starting a new program or returning to classes? We’ve put together these 10 tips for helping you get your semester or term off to a strong start.

Happy start of the semester from the Writing Center!

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