From smallest to largest, writers move from words (or, smaller yet, the sounds of words) to a work’s architecture or form. Paragraphs are means for organizing that fall somewhere in the middle. They put details into order; they concentrate; they focus and attend. A lazy writer thinks she’s written a paragraph when a paragraph-looking number of lines get typed on the screen. Not so. Though a typical paragraph is around 250 words, it is not a unit of length, but a means for organization. A paragraph might be five lines of twelve-point type, or one, or twenty.
The paragraph may be considered as a room (like a stanza in a poem); as a box; as a location; as an occasion (particularly when organizing your writing around time); as a rest (imagine the text as a rock face, unbroken without the hand- and footholds that a paragraph offers).
A paragraph may be written, rewritten, and read as a miniature essay, particularly when one thinks of the essay as verb (trying, testing, tasting, weighing, making an attempt…)
A paragraph may also be written, rewritten, and read as a “maxi-sentence,” to use Donald Hall’s phrase in Writing Well. In this understanding, the mark at the end of the paragraph is like a period, but stronger.
One way to organize your small stuff into something larger (here: a paragraph), is to list. Let’s say you’re writing about endangered grasshoppers and the ranchland prairie ecology of Colorado’s eastern plains. You have thirty-some topics you’d like to address. Try writing each one on an index card. Then you can use those index cards to put the evidence you’ll discuss or analyze in each paragraph. You can move them about physically into larger groupings (chapters, say, or threads), or just by how they’re in conversation. Alternately you could list them on a page, then organize them by letter, color, or grouping. What goes with what?
Remember that order makes an argument. You don’t want to merely replicate someone else’s order (the order you read something in, say, or a chronological order). Unless you’re contributing something fresh to the literature of stream-of-consciousness, you don’t want to replicate the associative order of your own brain, either.
Some genres have distinct requirements for the paragraph. (Think of a journalist’s lede). In dialogue, each speaker gets a new line or paragraph. In some writing, a paragraph may be used to recreate or enact a psychic state (these paragraphs are jumpy, say), or to change pacing. In all writing, some variety among paragraphs reflects style, as with a short emphatic paragraph found between two longer, elaborate paragraphs, or a paragraph that begins with evidence, as opposed to one that includes it after a topic sentence. Without variation, writing becomes dull.
In a traditional academic paper, the paragraphs develop the major points that contribute to your thesis. A point may require one paragraph or several. These often follow a set structure: A topic sentence (first or second), evidence, analysis of that evidence, and the paragraph’s end. (I hesitate to say conclusion, as that is often misconstrued to be something stylistically flat-footed, “a neat bow,” say, or a restatement). The movement here is one from general to particular.
Transitions are fine and well for the beginning writer, but really they’re a kind of scaffolding that should be removed as one grows in confidence, and skill. Or sometimes they aren’t scaffolding at all! Sometimes they’re bad wallpaper, slopped up (“Therefore,” “However…”) to distract the reader from the fact that the essay’s walls aren’t sound. You don’t need them if you end at ends and begin at beginnings (making implicit transitions) and move with grace and intelligence between them.
A simple way to see if your paragraphs are working is to write what they’re about in the margin next to them. If they’re not about a thing, they’re likely not paragraphs. They need unity.
Both within a work and within its paragraphs, one needs sequence or order. There are all kinds of logics to inform this (causation, rupture, braid, rising or falling tension, etc.), what’s essential is that the logic be internally coherent.
Here are some common techniques for making paragraphs. Try them all!
- Compare and contrast
- Define and elucidate
- Elaborate and rephrase
- Evidence and analysis
- Assert and give reasons
- Make a statement and give relevant facts
To write better paragraphs, apprentice yourself to the best ones. Which ones knock you out? Make you think? Pierce your heart? Notice how they’re working, how they move, how they accrue.
As with the essay, begin to think of a paragraph less as a noun than as a verb. This writer paragraphs.
Here are some exercises to try:
- Take a part the paragraphs of an essay, and reorder them.
- Write what each paragraph is about in the margin.
- Write a draft, then make an outline from it. Is the given order the best order?
- List everything that your thesis is about on index cards. What goes with what, and why? Order them.
- If your paragraphs aren’t well organized, your writing will be redundant. Mark every sentence that’s already been said, in another way, elsewhere. Cut almost all of them?
- Write a draft with no overt transitions between paragraphs, thus forcing yourself to make excellent implied ones.
- When you find a paragraph you admire, write it out by hand, or commit it to memory.
- Make a topic-sentence outline.
- Change your given paragraph lengths—what can be smaller, or broken up? What should be longer?
- Make a chapter outline of your paper and figure out what paragraphs belong from that.
I admire every paragraph in To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Here’s one:
For they were making the great expedition, she said, laughing. They were going to the town. ‘Stamps, writing-paper, tobacco?’ she suggested, stopping by his side. But no, he wanted nothing. His hands clasped themselves over his capacious paunch, his eyes blinked, as if he would have liked to reply kindly to these blandishments (she was seductive but a little nervous) but could not, sunk as he was in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all, without need of words, in a vast and benevolent lethargy of well-wishing; all the house; all the world; all the people in it, for he had slipped into his glass at lunch a few drops of something, which accounted, the children thought, for the vivid streak of canary-yellow in moustache and beard that were otherwise milk white. No, nothing, he murmured.