Where is the position of the paragraph’s POINT in IELTS Writing?

Introduce and discuss the author's opinion on style: toward clarity and grace: the connection between the position of the paragraph’s POINT and IELTS Writing.
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To write clearly, cohesively, and coherently is not an easy task. In order to instruct academic writers on this, many books have attempted to show writers how to structure their sentences and paragraphs. However, in terms of style of writing, most books just simply give readers a list of rules without a clear explanation (Joseph, 1990). Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is an exception. Instead of explaining rules and guidelines, the author devotes effort to explain why and why not writers should adopt a certain way of writing.

Although the book is useful in most circumstances, its implementation is controversial at some places.

This article aims to introduce and discuss the author's opinion on the topic of intentions and points. In addition, the article will show the connection between this opinion about the position of the paragraph’s POINT and IELTS Writing so that learners can adapt it to their essays. 

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace overview and the author’s opinion about position of the paragraph’s POINT

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace overview

The content of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is well-structured with 10 chapters. Each chapter gives readers insights into a particular characteristic of writing, from clarity, cohesion to coherence. Most importantly, it provides a step-by-step strategy for building a sentence, paragraph, and document. Each chapter is illustrated with realistic examples of good, bad, better writing and a summary in the end, which helps to keep the readers’ interest and attention.

Despite mentioning different aspects of writing, the chapters in the book are skillfully linked. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace starts by taking readers through the section of “history of bad writing” and a detailed analysis of it. This is important as readers, even when they are already at an advanced level of writing, can feel the need of constructing a clear, cohesive, and coherent document. After this, the following five chapters build a comprehensive model of writing clearly, from sentence to document level. The next three chapters elaborate on this model from the perspective of concision, length, and elegance. Finally, the author concludes with some useful rules in terms of writing styles, grammatical structures, and word choices to achieve the highest level of effectiveness.  

As effective as it seems, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace has some limitations. Although the writer's explanation is easy to understand, as the author admits, the book uses some abstract and complex terminology. Because of this, the writer has to use many examples taken from various sources to illustrate his points. Readers can feel overwhelmed at some places as there is too much information to take in. This probably requires readers to reread a section multiple times to have a thorough understanding of the matter.   

Intentions and points 

Next, we will look at one particular point of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace - the writer's argument about intentions and points of a paragraph. Williams believes that a paragraph should only be written to deliver one particular message, a POINT. In most cases, readers are likely to expect a topic sentence to show them what the paragraph will be about. Williams argues that “a reader will feel that a paragraph is coherent if she can read a sentence that specifically articulates its POINT” (p.97).

However, the position of the paragraph’s POINT is what controversial. In chapter 6 (p. 99), the writer makes this claim regarding the topic of intentions and points:

Principle 5: If the paragraph is a body paragraph, if it does not introduce a section or whole document, you can make your POINT sentence in either or both of two places: (a) at the end of the introductory issue, and (b) at the end of the paragraph; i.e., at the end of the discussion.

Arguments of the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

The following section of the article will demonstrate the author's point of view when making this argument. Firstly, to thoroughly understand the writer's argument, we have to find out the general structure of a paragraph. According to the author, a paragraph is a combination of “issue” and “discussion” parts (Paragraph = Issue + Discussion).

Issue and Discussion

Issue

Though in many cases, many writers would just use one single topic sentence to summarise the point of a paragraph, Williams argues that this is not always the case. The topic can be illustrated with more than just one sentence. These sentences, usually the first one, two or three sentences, are called the issue part of a paragraph. In other words, the issue of a paragraph is neither its ideas, concepts nor subject. The issue of a paragraph serves the function of an introductory segment or an overture. 

Discussion

After introducing readers to the topic, the rest of the paragraph will be used to develop new ideas in order to explain, elaborate, support, qualify or argue the main topic and theme. This part is categorized as discussion, which delivers explanation, elaboration, or opinion of the writers on the issue. 

To illustrate this, we might have to look at some sample paragraphs:

Both parents and schools can contribute to preventing obesity in children. However, the government should be accountable for unhealthy diets amongst children due to the correlation between the marketing of food and drinks and this problem. To illustrate, children’s food choices are usually affected by advertising. They tend to buy more junk food when they are constantly exposed to images of unhealthy foods on TV. If the government implements a policy banning companies from advertising unhealthy food during children’s TV programs, children’s exposure to junk food will be reduced.

Source: ZIM’s sample essays

  1. The first two sentences introduce the issue that will be discussed in the paragraph, which is the idea that government can prevent children from unhealthy diets through marketing. The rest of the paragraph explains and elaborates this idea, as the government can use advertising to reduce children’s exposure to junk food. Therefore, the first two sentence are the issue of the paragraph, and the rest is the discussion. 

However, sometimes we cannot see the issue part of the paragraph so clearly:

Nowadays, social media is regarded as one of the most powerful facilitators in communication. Various websites such as Facebook or Twitter offer much faster and convenient services for people to stay in touch with their friends and family regardless of the geographical distance between them. These sites create an online network that connects everyone within their users’ social circle and enables them to send instant messages or make video calls in seconds. In other words, social media platforms are, in fact, bringing people closer than ever before.

Source: ZIM’s sample essays


  1. In the paragraph above, just by looking at the first sentence, we can see that the writer does not introduce the POINT of the paragraph. However, he is able to express the key topic and theme (social media facilitates communication). Therefore, although the POINT of the paragraph does not appear to be here, this sentence still can be seen as the issue as it introduces the discussion in a way that can help readers to anticipate its topics and themes.

 The position of the paragraph’s POINT

At the end of the issue

Moving the position of the paragraph’s POINT, first of all, Williams suggests that the POINT should be at the end of “the issue”. When writers want to be clear, they tend to place their POINT at the end of the issue, where most readers also expect it to be. The purpose of the sentence(s) preceding the POINT is to provide a transition from a previous paragraph, the general background of the POINT, or a preliminary claim that the POINT rejects.

Both parents and schools can contribute to preventing obesity in children. However, the government should be accountable for unhealthy diets amongst children due to the correlation between the marketing of food and drinks and this problem. To illustrate, children’s food choices are usually affected by advertising. They tend to buy more junk food when they are constantly exposed to images of unhealthy foods on TV. If the government implements a policy banning companies from advertising unhealthy food during children’s TV programs, children’s exposure to junk food will be reduced. 

  1. In the two sentences in the issue, the first one introduces the general background of the topic (parent, school and childhood obesity). The second is where the POINT is as it tells the readers about what is going to be discussed in the rest of the essay (government can prevent childhood obesity through marketing). 

At the end of the discussion

Secondly, according to Williams, another option is to put the POINT at the end of the discussion. Here are the reasons that he suggests:

  1. Timidity or Politeness: When delivering bad news, some writers tend to give the reasons for their POINT first so that their readers can be more willing to accept it.
  2. Discovery: The writer wants his audiences to work through his ideas before discovering the POINT.
  3. Convention: In some fields, typically in the belletristic essay, most readers consider POINT-early organization too crude, too flatfooted. This habit of reading grows into a habit of writing.
  4. Failure to Revise: Some writers are not able to revise their writing. Instead of giving readers a clear intention and point, they offer readers only a running account of their thinking.

Nowadays, social media is regarded as one of the most powerful facilitators in communication. Various websites such as Facebook or Twitter offer much faster and convenient services for people to stay in touch with their friends and family regardless of the geographical distance between them. These sites create an online network that connects everyone within their users’ social circle and enables them to send instant messages or make video calls in seconds. In other words, social media platforms are, in fact, bringing people closer than ever before.

  1. The POINT, in this paragraph, is placed at the end of the discussion. The discussion of this paragraph gives information about the way that social networking sites can facilitate communication and the emphasis (POINT) is the actual benefit of it (bringing people closer than ever before).

Extracted from: Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

Finally, the author is a bit in favor of putting the POINT at the end of the issue rather than at the end of the discussion. He states that “Unless you have good reason to withhold your main POINTS until the end, get them out early but not immediately, not before you get to the end of a reasonably concise introductory issue” (pp. 107-108).

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace - Discussion 

Discussion on theposition of the paragraph’s POINT

William’s view of position of the paragraph’s POINT is also suggested by other linguistics (Gopen, 2017; Smith, 2008). However, the debate on where to place a topic sentence is ongoing, diving into two camps (Chen, 2011). The first believes that the POINT should be at the beginning of a paragraph. The other places more emphasis on the purpose of the paragraph, arguing that the positions of the POINT should vary depending on the purpose of the paragraph. From my point of view, the POINT should be at the beginning of a body paragraph.

The majority of scholars believe that the benefits of putting the POINT at the beginning of the paragraph are more significant (Chen, 2011). In two studies, where the initial topic sentence position has been compared with other positions, Richards (1975) and Clements (1978) indicate that readers can remember more information when the POINT is placed at the beginning of a paragraph. Similarly, Fishman (1978) argues that the POINT which is placed first in the paragraph simplifies the process of reading for readers as they know in advance the topics and themes of the paragraph. In addition, Eden & Mitchell (1986) suggest that a paragraph should have a topic sentence at the initial place, especially in expository prose as readers like to grab information quickly. 

Additionally, it is more common to see the POINT of a paragraph in its initial position. In a study carried out by Smith (2008), he randomly selects 25 essays taken from different periods of time with varying lengths. The study points out that 95% of all analyzed essays are found to have topic sentences and 66% of them begin with topic sentences. 

Although it is still controversial, as can be seen from the studies above, placing the POINT at the beginning of the paragraph is not only more prevalent to writers but also better to readers.

Connecting to the IELTS Writing Test

For IELTS, the role of topic sentences (or POINT) is undeniable. As can be seen from the IELTS Band Descriptor, a writer aiming to band 7 in Coherence and Cohesion must be able to “presents a clear central topic within each paragraph”. That means a paragraph should contain only one main idea and the ability to clearly present the POINT plays a vital role in defining the writer’s writing skills.

Regarding the position of the POINT in a body paragraph, the rules can be applied to the IELTS test. Test takers can either put their POINT at the end of the issue or the end of the discussion. As long as there is a POINT, writers can produce a coherent, clear, and cohesive paragraph. 

Placing topic sentences at the end of the paragraph requires readers to rely on their own knowledge to interpret the main idea of the paragraph (Chen, 2011). However, it can cause some difficulties for readers when the writer delays giving his POINT. It is especially difficult when the writer is communicating in their second language because he might fail to deliver some pieces of information, which might confuse his readers. 

Furthermore, putting the POINT at the end of the discussion in an IELTS essay seems inappropriate. Gopen (2017) states that writers should only put their POINT at the end of the paragraph when it is the opening, final paragraph, or the “dramatic medial paragraph”, which is the type of paragraph that would benefit from the drama created by the issue and discussion. With respect to IELTS essays, which are often discursive or argumentative, their body should not be created by drama, but rather, by facts, examples, and opinions. Additionally, when the writer puts his POINT at the end of the paragraph, he is likely to use inductive rather than deductive logic (Smith, 2008). According to a recent article written by Thao (2020), inductive reasoning is usually useful when the writer is trying to convey his subjective opinions. However, as IELTS essays require test takers to use facts or evidence to illustrate their opinions, inductive reasoning seems unsuitable for a majority of IELTS topics.

In contrast, in a discursive or argumentative essay, the writer’s job should be to deliver his POINT as straightforward as possible. As suggested above, putting POINT in the initial position is beneficial for readers. As writers reduce the difficulty for readers by announcing what they are going to write, they are giving the reader a chance to flow forward with their thoughts and ideas. Generally speaking, the reader will go through the following steps when they try to interpret a paragraph. Firstly, they are introduced to the issue, where they expect it to be. Secondly, they can clearly see the point that will be discussed, and finally, they will be willing to read the discussion of this point. When applying this structure, the writer is proving to the reader (examiner) the capacity of sequencing information and ideas logically, which, in turn, might increase their score on the Coherence and Cohesion criterion.   

In conclusion, I believe that IELTS test takers should prioritize putting their POINT upfront in the body paragraphs. This does not make readers confused but will guide them through the writer’s ideas and opinions.

Conclusion

This article has introduced the opinion of Williams, who is the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, on the subject of the position of the paragraph’s POINT. The author claims that the POINT of a body paragraph should be either at the end of the issue or the end of the discussion of a paragraph. 

This is generally agreed by many other scholars. However, from the reader's perspective, encountering the POINT before the discussion is more favorable as it enables them to have a comprehensive understanding of the ideas presented in the paragraph. This also holds for the IELTS Writing test as it gives readers a pleasant experience when they read the paragraph. Therefore, it is highly recommended that test-takers should consider placing their POINT at the beginning of their body paragraphs. 

In order to improve Writing skills for IELTS, test-takers can consider joining IELTS Advanced course - Achieve 6.5 IELTS at ZIM.

Nguyễn Tiến Thành

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