How to organize a paragraph: the MEAL plan

English expository writing High School

Composing a clear paragraph is a foundational skill in academic writing. In high school, you may have been taught that a paragraph requires a certain number of sentences – maybe three, maybe five. But paragraphs come in different lengths, and rather than follow strict rules about word count or a requisite number of sentences, it’s important to keep in mind what a good paragraph should do: deliver an idea, support it with evidence, and remind the reader (not always explicitly!) how this particular paragraph operates in the service of a larger argumentative claim. With this general guideline, students can write paragraphs that are as long or as short as they’d like. 

A common tip used in university writing centers around the country is to think of a single paragraph in an essay as a complete and balanced meal. That’s M-E-A-L, to stand for the following things:

(M) Main Idea:

The main idea of the paragraph is the paragraph’s argumentative claim. The main idea is sometimes found in the first sentence, which is often called the “topic sentence,” but it could also come in following sentences if the first sentence of the paragraph is doing transitional work. Typically, though, the main idea is located in the early part of the paragraph. 

If you’re having a hard time coming up with your main idea or topic sentence, or if you’re in the process of revising your paragraph, start by asking yourself: “What is this paragraph about?” You can answer yourself in a flat-footed manner: “This paragraph is about ____.” From there, finish the sentence. As you rephrase the sentence, delete the words “This paragraph is about” and revise the rest. 

If you’re new to writing academic essays, try to limit yourself to writing about one main idea per paragraph. Your reader should be able to identify your main idea without re-reading your paragraph multiple times. 

(E) Evidence:

You’ll need some kind of proof or textual support to demonstrate your argument. The evidence and analysis are often connected, without one necessarily coming before the other. This would be the place to bring in external information. If you’re writing an English paper, for example, here is where you would introduce a quote from the poem or the novel that you are examining. If you’re writing a history paper, you might include a quote, statistic, or data point from the textbook, monograph, or article that you are using in your research. 

(A) Analysis:

The analysis is intertwined with the evidence. How can you explain or break down your evidence to make it more clear and applicable to your argument? If you are writing an English paper, the quote from the novel or poem you’ve supplied as the evidence should be explained at this point. You might to a close reading of the quote, paying attention to the rhythm of the language or the repetition of certain words. Close attention to the quote you’ve selected as evidence is necessary, no matter the subject or discipline of your essay. 

(L) Link:

Link back to the larger claim: As you approach the end of your paragraph, you should be able to easily pinpoint the paragraph’s overall message. How does this message contribute to the argument of the paper at large? The reader should be able to understand, without much difficulty, why you’ve written this paragraph. The link ought not to be an explicitly belabored point; the best examples of this link will be implicit or subtle. If you are struggling with wrapping up the paragraph, ask yourself about the link in a schematic way: “What is the connection between this paragraph that I’ve just completed and the major thesis claim of my paper?” Answer your question in a flatfooted way (“This paragraph is important because ________) before revising it to fit more seamlessly with the rest of the paragraph.

Ellen majored in English at Williams College and received her PhD in English from Duke University. She teaches American Literature in the History & Literature department at Harvard University.

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