Writing Paragraphs

Paragraphs are so important to the construction of all writing projects that they deserve a little more attention. Here are some more tips on writing paragraphs:

  • Every paragraph has a key sentence, called the topic sentence, which focuses the reader's attention on the main or controlling idea. Where a writer puts that sentence is another judgment call. Most of the time the place that works best is the beginning. Why? Because the American audience likes the "up front" method--it's clear and direct. Most textbooks begin paragraphs with the topic sentence and then develop that idea with more specifics; journalists are taught to put their "leads"--the most important fact of the story--as the first sentence of their articles. It is a common practice that also happens to work well in many situations. With a friendly or neutral audience, this is the method that works best. For the hostile audience, however, a writer might want to adopt a different strategy. Since the audience is supposedly hostile to the writer's position, putting the topic sentence (which would indicate the writer's position) would make the audience members raise their guard and tune the writer out. If, however, the writer presented a series of neutral, specific details, and then made some benign conclusions from those details, and then arrived at the topic sentence (the statement of position), the hostile audience will be more likely to follow the logic. In summary, then, each paragraph needs a topic sentence, and the placement of that topic sentence will be a judgment based on audience.
  • Good writers create paragraphs that have unity. Unity means that all the ideas in the paragraph are related to the same controlling (main) idea. If someone were building a brick wall, he/she would (probably) want all of the bricks to be in the same color family, even if the builder were going for a variegated look, the bricks would need to be enough alike that they could be used to build the wall and be attractive. But unity is not enough to build a good paragraph; paragraphs also need coherence.
  • Coherence means that the ideas flow logically from one thought to the next. While ideas may all be related (unity), if they are just stuck together randomly, the paragraph wont make much sense. To continue the "brick wall" analogy, just stacking the bricks together, won't make a strong wall (a good wind or touch would make it fall)--the builder must use mortar and plan the arrangement or the bricks to make the wall strong. In the same way, the writer must order his/her sentences logically and ensure that there are strong connections (the mortar) in ideas and words to make the paragraph hang together.
  • It isn't enough for a paragraph to have unity and coherence either; a good paragraph must be well developed. This concept goes back to the idea of paragraph length discussed earlier. Paragraph must satisfy the reader's desire to know. If the writer is short on details, the readers will not be convinced or satisfied. In the "brick wall" analogy, this would be like trying to build a wall with only one load of bricks when the wall requires two--what the builder ends up with is half a wall! Again, make the paragraph long enough to satisfy the demands of the topic and the demands of the reader.

Building a paragraph involves a lot more than just indenting once in a while. The drawing below illustrates how the paragraph works:


Writing Paragraphs Pyramid


The illustration reveals that the three parts of the paragraph support one another: the specific evidence or details support the key ideas which, in turn, support the topic sentence. The illustration also shows the relative volume level: a well-developed paragraph has one topic sentence, several supporting ideas, and a lot of evidence. Do not infer from the illustration, however, the "ideal" organization of a paragraph: a topic sentence does not have to begin the paragraph (it may need to come at the end), and a supporting idea is followed by its specific evidence, not a second supporting idea.

The main idea here is that developing a paragraph involves strategy--it's not just throwing some sentences together. Make your writing stronger and more interesting by building better paragraphs.