By Michael Becker
Paragraphs can be difficult for some student writers to wrap their heads around, likely because some “professional” writers don’t give them the kind of attention and care they deserve.
What are they?
Paragraphs are, of course, blocks of text, often with their first lines indented or set off from other blocks of text. They developed naturally over time as a way to make texts more readable (Imagine being a medieval scholar and having to read an entire manuscript without any paragraph breaks.) As writers and printers adopted paragraphs as a standard, several guidelines for paragraphing evolved.
The basic rule is “one idea per paragraph.” Think of paragraphs as micro-essays, five (or so) sentences long. They begin by introducing the theme or idea to be discussed then support that idea with several facts or several sentences of analysis. Then the writer provides the reader with a closing sentence that extracts the reader from the current paragraph and leads him into the following ‘graph.
Some of the words you’ll hear bandied about when it comes to paragraphs are unity and cohesion. These terms really just restate the “one idea per paragraph” idea.
An approach to building unified paragraphs
Now, how does a writer actually do this? The Perdue University Online Writing Lab recommends what they call “local bridges” and “verbal bridges.”
In a paragraph using logical bridges, ideas and topics are carried over from sentence to sentence, and those sentences are constructed in parallel form — meaning that they have similar grammatical patterns. For example, a few sentences might begin with “because” clauses or end with “which” clauses. The writer would carry that pattern throughout the paragraph for its rhetorical (style) effect.
In a paragraph using verbal bridge, keywords or synonyms connect sentences, or else the writer uses pronouns throughout the paragraph to refer back to a major idea mentioned at the beginning. For example, the writer might repeat a vocabulary term throughout for emphasis, establishing a rhythmic pattern that aids readability.
It is also important to remember that these two ideas, verbal and logical bridges, are not mutually exclusive. A writer can use either or both in a single paragraph; just make sure not to overload the paragraph with style at the expense of facts and figures.
If you spent too much time around writing tutors and writing centers, more than likely you’ll hear something about “paragraph development.”
Basically, a “developed” paragraph has enough information in it to justify its existence. Such a paragraph adds valuable, new information to a paper or thesis that hasn’t necessarily been mentioned in that way previously. An undeveloped paragraph skims the surface, mentioning an idea without giving any useful or meaningful information about it, or it repeats information unnecessarily.
Developed paragraphs are like show and tell for your research; they move the paper toward its conclusion gracefully. Undeveloped paragraphs contribute little to the structure of your paper they are good candidates for deletion.
Perdue lists several method to ensure that your paragraphs are developed:
- Use examples and illustrations
- Cite data
- Examine what others say in quotes and paraphrases
- Use an anecdote or story
- Define terms
- Compare and contrast
- Examine causes and reasons
- Examine effects and consequences
- Analyze the topic
- Describe the topic
- Offer a chronology of an event
Perdue recommends that paragraphs be of roughly equal length. They call this a “balanced” page or paper. While this is a good technique for making sure that all your paragraphs are well-developed, it’s kind of like telling a student that they absolutely cannot start a sentence with the word “because” — meaning it’s a pseudo rule, one that comes not from a grammatical or syntactical rationale but from a desire to teach proper technique.
Keeping with the example, students who begin sentences with “because” often forget the main subject-predicate section of the sentence, resulting in a fragment. Rather than have a paper full of fragments, instructors instead ban “because” as a sentence starter. Perdue’s recommendation runs along the same logical lines. Asking students to write paragraphs of roughly equal lengths guarantees that the paragraphs will all be, to some extent, developed. Yet if you know what you’re doing, you can write effective paragraphs of any length — though I will admit that longer paragraphs are more traditional (and more appropriate) in academic writing.
While this article doesn’t come close to saying everything there is to say about paragraphing, it should serve to give you a few ideas on writing cohesive and well-developed paragraphs.
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the Graduate Writing Tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.