Paragraphs are the building blocks of prose―no matter what your genre. They carry your ideas to your readers, bring characters and places to life, flesh out your scenes, and move your story along. Better paragraphs mean better writing. It’s as simple as that. Before we begin, though, it’s essential to understand what a paragraph is.
Most of us know a paragraph when we see one, but could you define it for someone whose first language isn’t English? Yes, paragraphs appear in other languages (thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be able to read French!), but providing someone with a definition can be a challenge.
According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (if you don’t use this one as a resource, you should begin immediately)…
“…a paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic…”
…and it’s this notion of a single topic that is at the heart of writing stellar paragraphs. If you know how to craft a powerful paragraph, you’ll find your writing flows better, and your eventual editing will be easier.
Here are some suggestions for creating those well-crafted paragraphs.
Begin each paragraph with a strong topic sentence.
First, your topic sentence is the most critical one in each paragraph. It’s so important because it needs to indicate the subject (focus) of the paragraph that follows. Another way of thinking about it is that it is the overview of the paragraph. A reader reading the first sentence of one of your paragraphs should know what topic you’re about to pursue.
Examine a sample of your writing. Review a few paragraphs. Does each of them begin with a strong sentence that introduces a topic? This is where great paragraphs begin.
Unity is the hallmark of a great paragraph.
In other words, if each one of the sentences that follow your topic sentence is related somehow to the subject of the paragraph, you can achieve unity. The Merriam-Webster diction suggests that one way to understand the concept of unity is to think of it as “a totality of related parts.”
Your paragraph should contain no irrelevant pieces of information that came to your mind while you were writing. As you write each paragraph, you should keep in mind your topic.
Great paragraphs are coherent.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written “incoherent” in the margin of a student paper over the years. It is probably the most common paragraph mistake that I’ve seen in over thirty-five years of marking student writing.
A paragraph that achieves unity―you are sticking to the topic―but presents the ideas in an illogical sequence (usually no sequence)―is incoherent.
Writing a paragraph is not a simple matter of coming up with a few ideas that relate to the topic sentence and writing them down. They must flow in a coherent manner. There needs to be a connection between the ideas you are presenting. It might be a logical argument, a chronology, comparison, or contrasting ideas presented as such, cause and effect as examples of how to create unity.
Your coherent, unified paragraph must be clearly linked to and necessary for your overall story idea.
In other words, each paragraph must flow from the overall topic of the piece without presenting irrelevant flights of fancy. Often when I edit writers’ work, I notice that there are whole paragraphs that could be cut without detracting from the story or article or essay.
These are the ones to edit out (or not write in the first place).
Strong paragraphs have solid transitions in the final sentence.
Every paragraph needs to relate to what comes next. If you are reading along in a book or story or article and suddenly feel jolted, asking yourself, “Where did this come from?” it’s likely because the paragraph above provided you, the reader, with no transition.
Transition can be subtle, but it has to be there to maintain the overall flow. That’s the purpose of transitional sentences: to maintain flow. Review a page of your writing, examine each paragraph and ask yourself the following question: Does this new paragraph flow seamlessly from the last sentence of the paragraph above? If the answer is no, then you need a transitional sentence.
According to H.W. Fowler, a British grammarian writing in Modern English Usage,
The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: ‘Have you got that? If so, I’ll go on to the next point.’
It was so when he wrote this in 1926, and it’s still true today.