Posted in Writing craft

Improving the Building Blocks of Great Writing: Tips for Writing Better Paragraphs

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…”[1]

…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.”[2]

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.

[1] On paragraphs.


Posted in Plagiarism, Writing

How Writers Can Avoid Plagiarism

The word plagiarism should invoke terror into the heart of everyone who ever wrote a college or university paper.

But even if you have never written an academic paper in your life, and you think that all your work is entirely your own, I recommend you consider the possibility that you might very well be falling into the plagiarism trap unless you take a closer look. And make no mistake, plagiarism comes at a very steep price―both in terms of your reputation as a writer and financially if someone sues you.

I spent twenty-six years of my career teaching (and writing and researching) as a university professor. My department was communication studies, and I taught corporate communications ethics and strategy to both undergraduate students and our Masters-level students. Of course, after a career of writing and teaching about ethics, the concept of plagiarism is even more important to me.

When I was a university professor, I had a long section on every course syllabus warning students of the perils of even the slightest whiff of plagiarism. And if you think professors (and readers) will never find out, you are so wrong.

Once, while reading a student assignment (a feature story), I noticed that the story didn’t sound quite the same after the lead paragraph. I copied and pasted a section of the paper into a search engine, and lo and behold. The piece appeared on not one but numerous sites. Then I looked at parts of the story further on. Sure enough, copied and pasted into the story by a lazy, dishonest student. But it’s not just a student problem.

In recent years, finding evidence of plagiarism in the work of public figures has become something of a cottage industry. Remember when Melania Trump’s speechwriter plagiarized a speech from Michele Obama in 2016?

In her speech, she said the following: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.” Eight years earlier, Michele Obama made a speech during which she said the following: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” There is no argument here for this being anything but a case of plagiarism (later, the speechwriter admitted she had consulted Obama’s speech because Trump had admired it.)

And there have been many more high-profile cases through the years. Even J.R.R Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have been named in plagiarism cases for similarities to others’ work. No one is immune.

So, no matter what you write, you could be plagiarizing―sometimes even inadvertently. However, motive doesn’t matter: you won’t like the ending if you plagiarize.

There are, however, a few steps you can take to avoid this plague.

First, be sure you understand exactly what the term “plagiarism” means. Here’s a dictionary definition to begin:

“…closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author…”

(from lest you think I’m plagiarizing!)

Here’s how I define plagiarism:

…using someone else’s work (ideas or words) and using them as if they were your own…

Once you understand this, you can start to analyze your own work and determine how much of the ideas you’ve accumulated throughout your research are your own and how much are others and should be credited.

Next, be sure to keep a record of every source you consult. This means keeping a record of every article you read concerning your writing, every website and the information you glean from each one. You can then go back to check that you have credited outside sources accurately.

The third step you can take is to focus on your own unique ideas. Of course, many of our thoughts and ideas result from all we’ve been exposed to throughout our lives. This is all part of being a living, breathing human being. You must begin to figure out what aspects of your ideas and thoughts are your own, though, and which of them is essentially nothing more than a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas. You have your own ideas. Focus on that.

Next, don’t mistake paraphrasing (putting someone else’s unique idea, not your own words) for avoiding plagiarism. Even paraphrasing an idea that belongs to someone else can be considered plagiarism. And if you want to quote someone else, by all means, do it. Just make sure you give the source credit. (And be sure to quote them accurately.)

For example, I used quotes at the beginning of each chapter in my most recent book, and each quote is credited to the source.

Finally, be careful of self-plagiarism because it’s a real thing. Dr. Ben Mudrak, writing in American Journal Experts Scholar, defines self-plagiarism this way:

“…any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new…”[1]

In other words, if you’re sending a book manuscript to a publisher, or an article to a magazine, the editor has a right to expect that the work is new, never before published. It might be in the same topic area that you’ve published before, but the approach should be fresh, the ideas new.

Just be sure that nothing turns up if someone took a piece of your work and popped it into a search engine.


Posted in Writing, Writing rituals

Don’t cure writer’s block: Avoid it!

So, what is writer’s block? Is it a real thing? Damned if I know. I’ve never had it. No, really. I. Have. Never. Had. Writer’s. Block. I’ve been writing for thirty-plus years and cannot ever say I’ve been blocked.  Stuck from time to time, maybe. But it only lasts for a nanosecond, and I find myself able t move forward. I think it’s because (a) I don’t buy into the notion that it’s a thing for all writers, and (b) I have some habits that seem to help me void the dreaded block.

We all get stuck once in a while. We just get unstuck. Being blocked is being paralyzed by an inability to continue a project you’re working on. This paralysis is a problem and a problem that sits squarely inside a writer’s head. Does that make it real? Only if you want it to be.

I’m not the only writer who doesn’t think writer’s block is a real thing. Or at least we can avoid it.

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. For me, there’s no such thing as writer’s block―don’t even say writer’s block.” ~ Judy Blume

“Writer’s block doesn’t exist…lack of imagination does.” ~ Cyrese Covelli

“Writer’s block is just an excuse by people who don’t write for not writing.” ~ Giando Sigurani

“Writer’s block is just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t feel like doing any work today.’” ~ Meagan Spooner

Here are the ways I avoid writer’s block.

1 – At the first sign of being stuck in a project or when the characters seem to have stopped talking, I change my environment. I get up and go for a walk. I do the laundry. I make a sandwich. I don’t’ just take my writing to a different space―I put my head into a different space.

2 – To avoid falling into the trap of seeing only the problem―or even letting the situation arise in the first place―I do some writing practice every day. I have notebooks of all types and will write something. Sometimes, I write a script. Other times a blog post for the travel blog I write with my husband. Sometimes, it’s just a few paragraphs.

3 – I always have at least two projects on the go at the same time. I am always writing a novel―always. That’s a given. But I also write scripts for my YouTube Channel and often have another book at some stage of gestation. For many years, I always had a fiction and a nonfiction project on at the same time. My newest novel (out next month) was written while I was also writing How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal that Sells. Stuck in one project? Move to the other, then come back.

4 – I have a writing ritual. Before I begin writing, I always have a cup of coffee. Always. Sometimes, I add a yoga session before the coffee, but the coffee is a ritual that gets me moving. It’s not about the caffeine. It’s about sipping the coffee mindfully. This means that you’re not thinking about your writing during the ritual―you’re thinking about the coffee. Or the yoga. Or the Chopin Nocturne you’re playing on the piano. Then you write.

5 – I have a second creative outlet. I design clothing and create garments. This is a major creative outlet for me that often feeds my primary passion: writing. You might take up sketching, playing music, ballet, oil painting, singing, making Kumihimo jewellery or whatever other creative passions ignite you. You’ll be amazed at how this creative outlet can get your writing muse on the ball.

I’m going to give Erica Jong the last word (you know her, of course??)

“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.” ~Erica Jong

So, if you’re afraid of being judged, just write for yourself. Writer’s block will dry up.

I can almost guarantee it. Almost.