7 Developing Paragraphs
Paragraphs serve as signposts — pointers that help guide readers through a piece of writing. A look through a magazine or novel will show paragraphs working in this way: when a new idea comes up, a new paragraph begins. Within this broad, general guideline, however, paragraph structure is highly flexible, allowing writers to create many different effects. Especially in workplace and online writing, flexibility is paramount as writers create paragraphs for particular purposes and settings.
Most readers of English come to any piece of writing with certain expectations about paragraphs:
Let us look now at the elements in a well-written paragraph — one that is easy for readers to understand and follow.
I never knew anyone who'd grown up in Jackson without being afraid of Mrs. Calloway, our librarian. She ran the Library absolutely by herself, from the desk where she sat with her back to the books and facing the stairs, her dragon eye on the front door, where who knew what kind of person might come in from the public? SILENCE in big black letters was on signs tacked up everywhere. She herself spoke in her normally commanding voice; every word could be heard all over the Library above a steady seething sound coming from her electric fan; it was the only fan in the Library and stood on her desk, turned directly onto her streaming face.
— EUDORA WELTY, One Writer's Beginnings
This paragraph begins with a general statement of the main idea: that everyone who grew up in Jackson feared Mrs. Calloway. All the other sentences then give specific details about why she inspired such fear. This example demonstrates the three qualities essential to most academic paragraphs: unity, development, and coherence. It focuses on one main idea (unity); its main idea is supported with specifics (development); and its parts are clearly related (coherence).
“How long should a paragraph be?” In college writing, paragraphs should address a specific topic or idea and develop that idea with examples and evidence. There is no set rule about how many sentences are required to make a complete paragraph. So write as many as you need — and no more.
An effective paragraph generally focuses on one main idea. A good way to achieve paragraph unity is to state the main idea clearly in one sentence — the topic sentence — and relate all other sentences in the paragraph to that idea. Like the thesis for an essay (5c), the topic sentence includes a topic and a comment on that topic. In the paragraph by Eudora Welty in 7a, the topic sentence opens the paragraph. Its topic is Mrs. Calloway; its comment, that those who grew up in Jackson were afraid of her.
A topic sentence often appears at the beginning of a paragraph, but it can come at the end — or it may be implied rather than stated directly.
Topic sentence at the beginning
If you want readers to see your point immediately, open with the topic sentence. This strategy can be particularly useful in letters of application (65b2) or in argumentative writing (Chapter 11). The following paragraph opens with a clear topic sentence (shown in italics), on which subsequent sentences build:
Our friendship was the source of much happiness and many memories. We danced to the tunes of Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow. We sweated together in the sweltering summer sun, trying to win the championship for our softball team. I recall the taste of pepperoni and sausage pizza as we discussed the highlights of our team's victory. Once we even became attracted to the same young man, but luckily we were able to share his friendship.
Topic sentence at the end
When specific details lead up to a generalization, putting the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph makes sense, as in the following paragraph about Alice Walker's “Everyday Use.”
During the visit, Dee takes the pictures, every one of them, including the one of the house that she used to live in and hate. She takes the churn top and dasher, both whittled out of a tree by one of Mama's uncles. She tries to take Grandma Dee's quilts. Mama and Maggie use these inherited items every day, not only appreciating their heritage but living it too. Dee, on the other hand, wants these items only for decorative use, thus forsaking and ignoring their real heritage.
Topic sentence at the beginning and end
Sometimes you will want to state a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph and then refer to it in a slightly different form at the end. Such an echo of the topic sentence adds emphasis to the main idea. In the following paragraph, the writer begins with a topic sentence announcing a problem:
Many of the difficulties we experience in relationships are caused by the unrealistic expectations we have of each other. Think about it. Women are expected to feel comfortable doing most of the sacrificing. They are supposed to stay fine, firm, and forever twenty-two while doing double duty, in the home and in the workplace. The burden on men is no easier. They should be tall, handsome, and able to wine and dine the women. Many women go for the glitter and then expect these men to calm down once in a relationship and become faithful, sensitive, supportive, and loving. Let's face it. Both women and men have been unrealistic. It's time we develop a new sensitivity toward each other and ask ourselves what it is we need from each other that is realistic and fair.
The last sentence restates the topic sentence as a proposal for solving the problem. This approach is especially appropriate here, for the essay goes on to specify how the problem might be solved.
Topic sentence implied but not stated
Occasionally a paragraph's main idea is so obvious that it does not need to be stated explicitly in a topic sentence. Here is such a paragraph, from an essay about working as an airport cargo handler:
In winter the warehouse is cold and damp. There is no heat. The large steel doors that line the warehouse walls stay open most of the day. In the cold months, wind, rain, and snow blow across the floor. In the summer the warehouse becomes an oven. Dust and sand from the runways mix with the toxic fumes of fork lifts, leaving a dry, stale taste in your mouth. The high windows above the doors are covered with a thick, black dirt that kills the sun. The men work in shadows with the constant roar of jet engines blowing dangerously in their ears.
— PATRICK FENTON, “Confessions of a Working Stiff”
Here the implied topic sentence might be stated as Working conditions in the warehouse are uncomfortable, dreary, and hazardous to one's health. But the writer does not have to state this information explicitly because we can infer it easily from the specific details he provides.
Though implied topic sentences are common in descriptions, many instructors prefer explicit topic sentences in college writing.
Choose an essay you have written, and identify the topic sentence of each paragraph, noting where in the paragraph the topic sentence appears or whether it is implied rather than stated. Experiment with one paragraph, positioning its topic sentence in at least two different places. What difference does the change make? If you have any implied topic sentences, try stating them explicitly. Does the paragraph become easier to read?
Whether the main idea of a paragraph is stated in a topic sentence or is implied, each sentence in the paragraph should contribute to the main idea. Look, for example, at the following paragraph, which opens an essay about African American music:
When I was a teenager, there were two distinct streams of popular music: one was black, and the other was white. The former could only be heard way at the end of the radio dial, while white music dominated everywhere else. This separation was a fact of life, the equivalent of blacks sitting in the back of the bus and “whites only” signs below the Mason-Dixon line. Satchmo might grin for days on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and certain historians hold forth ad nauseam on the black contribution to American music, but the truth was that our worlds rarely twined.
— MARCIA GILLESPIE, “They're Playing My Music, but Burying My Dreams”
The first sentence announces the topic (there were two streams of popular music: black and white), and all of the other sentences back up this idea. The result is a unified paragraph.
Choose one of the following topic sentences, and spend some time exploring the topic (5a). Then write a paragraph that includes the topic sentence. Make sure that each of the other sentences relates to it. Assume that the paragraph will be part of a letter you are writing to an acquaintance.
Choose an essay you have written recently, and examine the second, third, and fourth paragraphs. Does each have a topic sentence or strongly imply one? Do all the other sentences in the paragraph focus on its main idea? Would you now revise any of these paragraphs — and, if so, how?
In U.S. academic contexts, readers often expect paragraphs to be organized around a clearly defined topic and the relationship among ideas signaled by transitional devices (7d). Such step-by-step explicitness may strike you as unnecessary or ineffective, but it helps ensure that the reader understands your point.
In addition to being unified, a paragraph should hold readers' interest and explore its topic fully, using whatever details, evidence, and examples are necessary. Without such development, a paragraph may seem lifeless and abstract.
Most good academic writing not only presents general ideas but also backs up these generalities with specifics. This balance, the shifting between general and specific, is especially important at the paragraph level. If a paragraph contains nothing but specific details, readers may have trouble following the writer's meaning. If, on the other hand, a paragraph contains only general statements, readers may grow bored or may not be convinced.
A POORLY DEVELOPED PARAGRAPH
No such thing as human nature compels people to behave, think, or react in certain ways. From the time of our infancy to our death, we are constantly being taught, by the society that surrounds us, the customs, norms, and mores of our distinct culture. Everything in culture is learned, not genetically transmitted.
This paragraph is boring. Although its main idea is clear, it fails to gain our interest or hold our attention because it lacks any specific examples or details. Now look at the paragraph revised to include needed specifics.
THE SAME PARAGRAPH, REVISED
Imagine a child in Ecuador dancing to salsa music at a warm family gathering, while a child in the United States is decorating a Christmas tree with bright glass ornaments. Both of these children are taking part in their country's cultures. It is not by instinct that one child knows how to dance to salsa music, nor is it by instinct that the other child knows how to decorate the tree. No such thing as human nature compels people to behave, think, or react in certain ways. Rather, from the time of our infancy to our death, we are constantly being taught, by the society that surrounds us, the customs, norms, and mores of our distinct culture. A majority of people feel that the evil in human beings is human nature. However, the Tasaday, a tribe discovered not long ago in the Philippines, do not even have equivalents in their language for the words hatred, competition, acquisitiveness, aggression, and greed. Such examples suggest that everything in culture is learned, not genetically transmitted.
The patterns shown in 5e for organizing essays can also help you develop paragraphs. These logical patterns include narration, description, illustration, definition, division and classification, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, process, problem and solution, analogy, and reiteration.
Narration tells a story in order to develop a main idea. Although writers usually arrange narrative paragraphs in chronological order, they sometimes use such variations as flashbacks and flash-forwards. Some narratives include dialogue; some gradually lead to a climax, the most dramatic point in the story. Here is one student's narrative paragraph that tells a personal story in order to support a point about the dangers of racing bicycles with flimsy alloy frames. Starting with a topic sentence (shown in italics), the paragraph proceeds chronologically and builds to a climax, saving the most extreme point for last.
People who have been exposed to the risk of dangerously designed bicycle frames have paid too high a price. I saw this danger myself in the 1984 Putney Race. An expensive Stowe-Shimano graphite frame failed, and the rider was catapulted onto Vermont pavement at fifty miles per hour. The pack of riders behind him was so dense that most other racers crashed into a tangled, sliding heap. The aftermath: four hospitalizations. I got off with some stitches, a bad road rash, and severely pulled tendons. My Italian racing bike was pretzeled, and my racing was over for that summer. Others were not so lucky. An Olympic hopeful, Brian Stone of the Northstar team, woke up in a hospital bed to find that his cycling was over — and not just for that summer. His kneecap had been surgically removed. He couldn't even walk.
Description uses specific details to create a clear impression. In the following descriptive paragraph, the writer includes details about an old schoolroom to convey the strong impression of a room where “time had taken its toll.” Although a topic sentence may be unnecessary in such a paragraph (7b), sometimes a topic sentence at the beginning (as shown in italics) helps set the scene. Notice as well how the writer uses spatial organization (5e1), moving from the ceiling to the floor.
The professor's voice began to fade into the background as my eyes wandered around the classroom in the old administration building. The water-stained ceiling was cracked and peeling, and the splitting wooden beams played host to a variety of lead pipes and coils. My eyes followed these pipes down the walls and around corners until I eventually saw the electric outlets. I thought it was strange that they were exposed, not built in, until I realized that there probably had been no electricity when the building was built. Below the outlets the sunshine was falling in bright rays across the hardwood floor, and I noticed how smoothly the floor was worn. Time had taken its toll on this building.
Illustration makes a point with concrete examples or good reasons. To support the topic sentence (shown in italics) in the following illustration paragraph, Mari Sandoz uses one long example about her short hair and short stature.
A SINGLE EXAMPLE
The Indians made names for us children in their teasing way. Because our very busy mother kept my hair cut short, like my brothers', they called me Short Furred One, pointing to their hair and making the sign for short, the right hand with fingers pressed close together, held upward, back out, at the height intended. With me this was about two feet tall, the Indians laughing gently at my abashed face. I am told that I was given a pair of small moccasins that first time, to clear up my unhappiness at being picked out from the dusk behind the fire and my two unhappy shortcomings made conspicuous.
— MARI SANDOZ, “The Go-Along Ones”
In the following excerpt, George Orwell's topic sentence (in italics) begins the paragraph and encourages the reader to ask why? Orwell then provides several reasons (also in italics) for and against shooting the elephant.
But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with the preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast's owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.
— GEORGE ORWELL, “Shooting an Elephant”
You will often need to write an entire paragraph in order to define a word or concept. In many such instances, however, you will want to combine definition with other patterns of development. In the following paragraph, Timothy Tregarthen starts with a definition of economics (shown in italics) and then uses examples to support it:
Economics is the study of how people choose among the alternatives available to them. It's the study of little choices (“Should I take the chocolate or the strawberry?”) and big choices (“Should we require a reduction in energy consumption in order to protect the environment?”). It's the study of individual choices, choices by firms, and choices by governments. Life presents each of us with a wide range of alternative uses of our time and other resources; economists examine how we choose among those alternatives.
— TIMOTHY TREGARTHEN, Economics
Division and classification
Division breaks a single item into parts. Classification groups many separate items according to their similarities. A paragraph evaluating one history course might divide the course into several segments — textbooks, lectures, assignments — and examine each one in turn. A paragraph giving an overview of many history courses at your college might classify, or group, the courses in a number of ways — by time periods, by geographic areas, by the kinds of assignments demanded, by the number of students enrolled, or by some other criterion. In the following paragraph, note how Aaron Copland divides the listening process into three parts:
We all listen to music according to our separate capacities. But, for the sake of analysis, the whole listening process may become clearer if we break it up into its component parts, so to speak. In a certain sense, we all listen to music on three separate planes. For lack of a better terminology, one might name these (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane. The only advantage to be gained from mechanically splitting up the listening process into these hypothetical planes is the clearer view to be had of the way in which we listen.
— AARON COPLAND, What to Listen for in Music
In this paragraph, the writer classifies, or separates, fad dieters into two groups:
Two types of people are seduced by fad diets. Those who have always been overweight turn to them out of despair; they have tried everything, and yet nothing seems to work. The second group to succumb appear perfectly healthy but are baited by slogans such as “look good, feel good.” These slogans prompt self-questioning and insecurity — do I really look good and feel good? — and, as a direct result, many healthy people fall prey to fad diets. With both types of people, however, the problems surrounding such diets are numerous and dangerous. In fact, these diets provide neither intelligent nor effective answers to weight control.
Comparison and contrast
Comparing two things means looking at their similarities; contrasting means focusing on the differences. You can structure paragraphs that compare and contrast in two different ways. One way is to present all the information about one item and then all the information about the other item (the block method). The other possibility is to switch back and forth between the two items, focusing on particular characteristics of each in turn (the alternating method).
You could tell the veterans from the rookies by the way they were dressed. The knowledgeable ones had their heads covered by kerchiefs, so that if they were hired, tobacco dust wouldn't get in their hair; they had on clean dresses that by now were faded and shapeless, so that if they were hired they wouldn't get tobacco dust and grime on their best clothes. Those who were trying for the first time had their hair freshly done and wore attractive dresses; they wanted to make a good impression. But the dresses couldn't be seen at the distance that many were standing from the employment office, and they were crumpled in the crush.
— MARY MEBANE, “Summer Job”
Malcolm X emphasized the use of violence in his movement and employed the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” King, on the other hand, felt that blacks should use non-violent civil disobedience and employed the theme of “turning the other cheek,” which Malcolm X rejected as “beggarly” and “feeble.” The philosophy of Malcolm X was one of revenge, and often it broke the unity of black Americans. More radical blacks supported him, while more conservative ones supported King. King thought that blacks should transcend their humanity. In contrast, Malcolm X thought they should embrace it and reserve their love for one another, regarding whites as “devils” and the “enemy.” King's politics were those of a rainbow, but Malcolm X's rainbow was insistently one color — black. The distance between Martin Luther King Jr.'s thinking and Malcolm X's was the distance between growing up in the seminary and growing up on the streets, between the American dream and the American reality.
Outline the preceding paragraph on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, noting its alternating pattern. Then rewrite the paragraph using block organization: the first part of the paragraph devoted to King, the second to Malcolm X. Finally, write a brief analysis of the two paragraphs, explaining which seems more coherent and easier to follow — and why.
Cause and effect
You can often develop paragraphs by detailing the causes of something or the effects that something brings about. The following paragraph discusses how our desire for food that tastes good has affected history:
The human craving for flavor has been a largely unacknowledged and unexamined force in history. For millennia royal empires have been built, unexplored lands traversed, and great religions and philosophies forever changed by the spice trade. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail to find seasoning. Today the influence of flavor in the world marketplace is no less decisive. The rise and fall of corporate empires — of soft-drink companies, snack-food companies, and fast-food chains — is often determined by how their products taste.
— ERIC SCHLOSSER, Fast Food Nation
You may need to develop a paragraph to explain a process — that is, to describe how something happens or is done: first one step, then the next, and then the next. Every time you give directions or write down a recipe, you are showing a process, usually in chronological order. In college writing, you will probably use process paragraphs most often to tell readers how a process occurs in general — for example, how the Electoral College works or how aerosol sprays destroy the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Here is an example of a process paragraph, with its topic sentence shown in italics:
By the late 20s, most people notice the first signs of aging in their physical appearance. Slight losses of elasticity in facial skin produce the first wrinkles, usually in those areas most involved in their characteristic facial expressions. As the skin continues to lose elasticity and fat deposits build up, the face sags a bit with age. Indeed, some people have drooping eyelids, sagging cheeks, and the hint of a double chin by age 40 (Whitbourne, 1985). Other parts of the body sag a bit as well, so as the years pass, adults need to exercise regularly if they want to maintain their muscle tone and body shape. Another harbinger of aging, the first gray hairs, is usually noticed in the 20s and can be explained by a reduction in the number of pigment-producing cells. Hair may become a bit less plentiful, too, because of hormonal changes and reduced blood supply to the skin.
— KATHLEEN STASSEN BERGER, The Developing Person through the Life Span
Problem and solution
A paragraph developed in the problem-solution pattern opens with a topic sentence that states a problem or asks a question about a problem; then it offers a solution or answers the question.
How prepared is America for the next 9/11? The Bush administration's response to the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies' failure to communicate is the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. Launched last May, TTIC is an independent body manned with analysts from more than a dozen agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the National Security Agency, the Coast Guard, Homeland Security, and the Secret Service. Each day TTIC analysts are supposed to share whatever they hear about potential threats and produce a report that goes to the White House, Pentagon and other major “customers.”
— MICHAEL HIRSCH AND MARK HOSENBALL, “Spies: Too Little Sharing”
Analogies (comparisons that explain an unfamiliar thing in terms of a familiar one) can also help develop paragraphs. In the following paragraph, the writer draws an unlikely analogy (shown in italics) —between the human genome and a Thanksgiving dinner — to help readers understand what scientists know about the human genome:
Think of the human genome as the ingredients list for a massive Thanksgiving dinner. Scientists long have had a general understanding of how the feast is cooked. They knew where the ovens were. Now, they also have a list of every ingredient. Yet much remains to be discovered. In most cases, no one knows exactly which ingredients are necessary for making, for example, the pumpkin pie as opposed to the cornbread. Indeed, many, if not most, of the recipes that use the genomic ingredients are missing, and there's little understanding why small variations in the quality of the ingredients can “cook up” diseases in one person but not in another.
— USA TODAY, “Cracking of Life's Genetic Code Carries Weighty Potential”
Reiteration is a method of development you may recognize from political speeches or some styles of preaching. In this pattern, the writer states the main point of a paragraph and then restates it, hammering home the point and often building in intensity as well. Martin Luther King Jr.'s mastery of this strategy is obvious in the following example. King reiterates the topic of the paragraph (We are on the move) six different ways (shown in italics), repeating the idea like a drumbeat throughout the paragraph:
We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now. The arrest and release of known murderers will not discourage us. We are on the move now. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.
— MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., “Our God Is Marching On”
Most paragraphs combine patterns of development. In the following paragraph, the writer begins with a topic sentence (shown in italics) and then divides his topic (the accounting systems used by American companies) into two subtopics (the system used to summarize a company's overall financial state and the one used to measure internal transactions). Next he develops the second subtopic through illustration (the assessment of costs for a delivery truck shared by two departments) and cause and effect (the system produces some disadvantages).
Most American companies have basically two accounting systems. One system summarizes the overall financial state to inform stockholders, bankers, and other outsiders. That system is not of interest here. The other system, called the managerial or cost accounting system, exists for an entirely different reason. It measures in detail all of the particulars of transactions between departments, divisions, and key individuals in the organization, for the purpose of untangling the interdependencies between people. When, for example, two departments share one truck for deliveries, the cost accounting system charges each department for part of the cost of maintaining the truck and driver, so that at the end of the year, the performance of each department can be individually assessed, and the better department's manager can receive a larger raise. Of course, all of this information processing costs money, and furthermore may lead to arguments between the departments over whether the costs charged to each are fair.
— WILLIAM OUCHI, “Japanese and American Workers: Two Casts of Mind”
Choose two of the following topics or two others that interest you, and brainstorm or freewrite about each one for ten minutes (5a1 and 5a2). Then use the information you have produced to determine what method(s) of development would be most appropriate for each topic.
Take an assignment you have written recently, and study the ways you developed each paragraph. For one of the paragraphs, write a brief evaluation of its development. How would you expand or otherwise improve the development?
Though writers must keep their readers' expectations in mind, paragraph length is determined primarily by content and purpose. Paragraphs should develop an idea, create any desired effects (such as suspense or humor), and advance the larger piece of writing. Fulfilling these aims sometimes requires short paragraphs, sometimes long ones. For example, if you are writing a persuasive essay, you may put all your evidence into one long paragraph to create the impression of a solid, overwhelmingly convincing argument. In a narrative about an exciting event, on the other hand, you may use a series of short paragraphs to create suspense, to keep the reader rushing to each new paragraph to find out what happens next.
Remember that a new paragraph often signals a pause in thought. Just as timing is crucial in telling a joke, so the pause signaled by a paragraph helps readers anticipate what is to follow or gives them a moment to think about the previous paragraph.
Reasons to start a new paragraph
Examine the paragraph breaks in something you have written recently. Explain briefly in writing why you decided on each of the breaks. Would you change any of them now? If so, how and why?
A paragraph has coherence — or flows — if its details fit together clearly in a way that readers can easily follow. You can achieve paragraph coherence by organizing ideas, by repeating key terms or phrases, and by using parallel structures and transitional devices.
When you arrange information in a particular order, you help readers move from one point to another. There are a number of ways to organize details — you might use spatial, chronological, or associational order (5e) or one or more logical patterns, such as illustration, definition, or comparison and contrast (7c). Two other patterns commonly used in paragraphs are general to specific and specific to general.
Paragraphs organized in a general-to-specific pattern usually open with a topic sentence that presents a general idea. The topic sentence is then followed by specific points that support the generalization. In the following paragraph, the topic sentence (shown in italics) presents a general idea about the Black Death, which is then backed up by specific examples:
GENERAL TO SPECIFIC
A massive epidemic, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, brought loss of life in the tens of millions of people and catastrophic debilitation to commerce and agriculture across Eurasia and North Africa. The bubonic plague seems to have initially irrupted into Chinese populations beginning in the 1320s. It spread in many parts of China until the 1350s with great loss of life. At the same time, it appears to have been carried into Mongolia and across the steppes into Crimea. Two Central Asian areas, one inhabited by the Nestorian Christians and the other by the Uzbek Muslims, were devastated by the plague before it struck in Europe, Southwest Asia, and Map 21.1 The Spread of Black Death, around 1350. Northwest Africa. Travel along Chinese and Central Asian trade routes facilitated the spread of this deadly disease (see Map 21.1).
— LANNY B. FIELDS, RUSSELL J. BARBER, AND CHERYL A. RIGGS, The Global PastMap 21.1The Spread of Black Death, around 1350.
Paragraphs can also follow a specific-to-general organization, first providing a series of specific examples or details and then tying them together with a topic sentence that provides a conclusion. The following paragraph begins with specific details about Saturday morning television and ends with a topic sentence (shown in italics):
SPECIFIC TO GENERAL
At 8:01 A.M. on Saturday morning, the bright images hawk cereal: Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch. At 8:11, it's toy time, as squads of delighted children demonstrate the pleasures of owning Barbie, Ken, or GI Joe. By 8:22, Coca-Cola is quenching thirsts everywhere, and at 8:31, kids declare devotion to their Nikes, ensuring that every child tuned in will want a pair. And so goes Saturday morning children's programming: one part “program” (and that exclusively cartoons) to three parts advertising. “Children's television” today is simply a euphemism for one long, hard sell, an initiation rite designed to create more and more American consumers.
A good way to build coherence in paragraphs is through repetition. Weaving in repeated key words and phrases — or pronouns that refer to them — not only links sentences but also alerts readers to the importance of those words or phrases in the larger piece of writing. Notice in the following example how the repetition of italicized key words and the pronoun they helps hold the paragraph together:
Over the centuries, shopping has changed in function as well as in style. Before the Industrial Revolution, most consumer goods were sold in open-air markets, customers who went into an actual shop were expected to buy something, and shoppers were always expected to bargain for the best possible price. In the nineteenth century, however, the development of the department store changed the relationship between buyers and sellers. Instead of visiting several market stalls or small shops, customers could now buy a variety of merchandise under the same roof; instead of feeling expected to buy, they were welcome just to look; and instead of bargaining with several merchants, they paid a fixed price for each item. In addition, they could return an item to the store and exchange it for a different one or get their money back. All of these changes helped transform shopping from serious requirement to psychological recreation.
Read the following paragraph. Then identify the places where the author uses repetition of key words and phrases, and explain how they bring coherence to the paragraph.
This is not to say that technology was an unadulterated plus in the '90s. The Information Superhighway was pretty much of a dud. Remember that? By the mid-'90s, just about everybody was hooked up to the vast international computer network, exchanging vast quantities of information at high speeds via modems and fiber-optic cable with everybody else. The problem, of course, was that even though the information was coming a lot faster, the vast majority of it, having originated with human beings, was still wrong. Eventually people realized that the Information Superhighway was essentially CB radio, but with more typing. By late in the decade millions of Americans had abandoned their computers and turned to the immensely popular new VirtuLib 2000, a $14,000 device that enables the user to experience, with uncanny realism, the sensation of reading a book.
— DAVE BARRY, “The '90s”
Parallel structures — structures that are grammatically similar — are another effective way to bring coherence to a paragraph. Readers are pulled along by the force of the parallel structures in the following example:
William Faulkner's “Barn Burning” tells the story of a young boy trapped in a no-win situation. If he betrays his father, he loses his family. If he betrays justice, he becomes a fugitive. In trying to free himself from his trap, he does both.
For more on parallel structures, see Chapter 37.
Transitional words and phrases, such as after all, for example, indeed, and finally, signal relationships between and among sentences and paragraphs. (For information on linking paragraphs together coherently, see 7e.) Transitions bring coherence to a paragraph by helping readers follow the progression of one idea to the next. To understand how important transitions are in guiding readers, try reading the following paragraph, from which all transitions have been removed:
A PARAGRAPH WITH NO TRANSITIONS
In “The Fly,” Katherine Mansfield tries to show us the “real” personality of “the boss” beneath his exterior. The fly helps her to portray this real self. The boss goes through a range of emotions and feelings. He expresses these feelings to a small but determined fly, whom the reader realizes he unconsciously relates to his son. The author basically splits up the story into three parts, with the boss's emotions and actions changing quite measurably. With old Woodifield, with himself, and with the fly, we see the boss's manipulativeness. Our understanding of him as a hard and cruel man grows.
We can, if we work at it, figure out the relationship of these ideas to one another, for this paragraph is essentially unified by one major idea. But the lack of transitions results in an abrupt, choppy rhythm; the paragraph lurches from one detail to the next, dragging the confused reader behind. See how much easier the passage is to read and understand with transitions added.
THE SAME PARAGRAPH, WITH TRANSITIONS
In “The Fly,” Katherine Mansfield tries to show us the “real” personality of “the boss” beneath his exterior. The fly in the story's title helps her to portray this real self. In the course of the story, the boss goes through a range of emotions and feelings. At the end, he finally expresses these feelings to a small but determined fly, whom the reader realizes he unconsciously relates to his son. To accomplish her goal, the author basically splits up the story into three parts, with the boss's emotions and actions changing quite measurably throughout. First with old Woodifield, then with himself, and last with the fly, we see the boss's manipulativeness. With each part, our understanding of him as a hard and cruel man grows.
Note that transitions can only clarify connections between thoughts; they cannot create connections. As a writer, you should not expect a transition to provide meaning.
Identify the devices — repetition of key words or phrases, parallel structures, transitional expressions — that make the following paragraph coherent.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block on his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
— MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
To signal sequence
again, also, and, and then, besides, finally, first . . . second . . . third, furthermore, last, moreover, next, still, too
To signal time
after a few days, after a while, afterward, as long as, as soon as, at last, at that time, before, earlier, immediately, in the meantime, in the past, lately, later, meanwhile, now, presently, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, then, thereafter, until, when
To signal comparison
again, also, in the same way, likewise, once more, similarly
To signal contrast
although, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on the one hand . . . on the other hand, regardless, still, though, yet
To signal examples
after all, even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, of course, specifically, such as, the following example, to illustrate
To signal cause and effect
accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this purpose, hence, so, then, therefore, thus, to this end
To signal place
above, adjacent to, below, beyond, closer to, elsewhere, far, farther on, here, near, nearby, opposite to, there, to the left, to the right
To signal concession
although it is true that, granted that, I admit that, it may appear that, naturally, of course
To signal summary, repetition, or conclusion
as a result, as has been noted, as I have said, as mentioned earlier, as we have seen, in any event, in conclusion, in other words, in short, on the whole, therefore, to summarize
The same methods that you use to link sentences and create coherent paragraphs can be used to link paragraphs themselves so that a whole piece of writing flows smoothly. You should include some reference to the previous paragraph, either explicit or implied, in each paragraph after the introduction. As with sentences, you can create this link by repeating or paraphrasing key words and phrases and by using parallel structures and transitional expressions.
Repeated key words
In fact, human offspring remain dependent on their parents longer than the young of any other species.
Children are dependent on their parents or other adults not only for their physical survival but also for their initiation into the uniquely human knowledge that is collectively called culture. . . .
Kennedy made an effort to assure non-Catholics that he would respect the separation of church and state, and most of them did not seem to hold his religion against him in deciding how to vote. Since his election, the church to which a candidate belongs has become less important in presidential politics.
The region from which a candidate comes remains an important factor. . . .
While the Indian, in the character of Tonto, was more positively portrayed in The Lone Ranger, such a portrayal was more the exception than the norm.
Moreover, despite this brief glimpse of an Indian as an ever loyal side-kick, Tonto was never accorded the same stature as the man with the white horse and silver bullets. . . .
Look at the essay you drafted for Exercise 5.6, and identify the ways your paragraphs are linked together. Identify each use of repetition, parallel structures, and transitional expressions, and then evaluate how effectively you have joined the paragraphs.
Some kinds of paragraphs deserve special attention: opening paragraphs, concluding paragraphs, transitional paragraphs, and dialogue paragraphs.
Even a good piece of writing may remain unread if it has a weak opening paragraph. In addition to announcing your topic (usually in a thesis statement), an introductory paragraph must engage readers' interest and focus their attention on what is to follow. At their best, introductory paragraphs serve as hors d'oeuvres, whetting the appetite for the following courses.
One common kind of opening paragraph follows the general-to-specific pattern (7d1), in which the writer opens with a general statement and then gets more and more specific, concluding with the thesis (shown here in italics):
Throughout Western civilization, places such as the ancient Greek agora, the New England town hall, the local church, the coffeehouse, the village square, and even the street corner have been arenas for debate on public affairs and society. Out of thousands of such encounters, “public opinion” slowly formed and became the context in which politics was framed. Although the public sphere never included everyone, and by itself did not determine the outcome of all parliamentary actions, it contributed to the spirit of dissent found in a healthy representative democracy. Many of these public spaces remain, but they are no longer centers for political discussion and action. They have largely been replaced by television and other forms of media — forms that arguably isolate citizens from one another rather than bringing them together.
— MARK POSTER, “The Net as a Public Sphere”
In this paragraph, the opening sentence introduces a general subject —sites of public debate throughout history; subsequent sentences focus more specifically on political discussion; and the last sentence presents the thesis, which the rest of the essay will develop.
Other effective ways of opening an essay include quotations, anecdotes, questions, and strong opinions.
Opening with a quotation
There is a bumper sticker that reads, “Too bad ignorance isn't painful.”I like that. But ignorance is. We just seldom attribute the pain to it or even recognize it when we see it. Take the postcard on my corkboard. It shows a young man in a very hip jacket smoking a cigarette. In the background is a high school with the American flag waving. The caption says, “Too cool for school. Yet too stupid for the real world.” Out of the mouth of the young man is a bubble enclosing the words “Maybe I'll start a band.” There could be a postcard showing a jock in a uniform saying, “I don't need school. I'm going to the NFL or NBA.” Or one showing a young man or woman studying and a group of young people saying, “So you want to be white.” Or something equally demeaning. We need to quit it.
— NIKKI GIOVANNI, “Racism 101”
Opening with an anecdote
I first met Angela Carter at a dinner in honor of the Chilean writer José Donoso at the home of Liz Calder, who then published all of us. My first novel was soon to be published; it was the time of Angela's darkest novel, “The Passion of New Eve.” And I was a great fan. Mr. Donoso arrived looking like a Hispanic Buffalo Bill, complete with silver goatee, fringed jacket and cowboy boots, and proceeded, as I saw it, to patronize Angela terribly. His apparent ignorance of her work provoked me into a long expostulation in which I informed him that the woman he was talking to was the most brilliant writer in England. Angela liked that. By the end of the evening, we liked each other, too. That was almost 18 years ago. She was the first great writer I ever met, and she was one of the best, most loyal, most truth-telling, most inspiring friends anyone could ever have. I cannot bear it that she is dead.
— SALMAN RUSHDIE, “Angela Carter”
Opening with a question
Why are Americans terrified of using nclear power as a source of energy? People are misinformed, or not informed at all, about its benefits and safety. If Americans would take the time to learn about what nuclear power offers, their apprehension and fear might be transformed into hope.
Opening with a strong opinion
Men need a men's movement about as much as women need chest hair. A brotherhood organized to counter feminists could be timely because —let's be honest — women are no more naturally inclined to equality and fairness than men are. They want power and dominion just as much as any group looking out for its own interests. Organizing to protect the welfare of males might make sense. Unfortunately, the current men's movement does not.
— JOHN RUSZKIEWICZ, The Presence of Others
A good conclusion wraps up a piece of writing in a satisfying and memorable way. It reminds readers of the thesis of the essay and leaves them feeling that their expectations have been met. The concluding paragraph is also your last opportunity to get your message across.
A common strategy for concluding uses the specific-to-general pattern (7d1), often beginning with a restatement of the thesis (but not word for word) and moving to more general statements. The following paragraph moves in such a way, opening with a final point of comparison between Generals Grant and Lee (shown in italics), specifying it in several sentences, and then ending with a much more general statement (also in italics):
Lastly, and perhaps greatest of all, there was the ability, at the end, to turn quickly from war to peace once the fighting was over. Out of the way these two men behaved at Appomattox came the possibility of a peace of reconciliation. It was a possibility not wholly realized, in the years to come, but which did, in the end, help the two sections to become one nation again . . . after a war whose bitterness might have seemed to make such a reunion wholly impossible. No part of either man's life became him more than the part he played in this brief meeting in the McLean house at Appomattox. Their behavior there put all succeeding generations of Americans in their debt. Two great Americans, Grant and Lee — very different, yet under everything very much alike. Their encounter at Appomattox was one of the great moments of American history.
— BRUCE CATTON, “Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts”
Other effective strategies for concluding include questions, quotations, vivid images, calls for action, and warnings.
Concluding with a question
All so-called “permanent” antifreeze is basically the same. It is made from a liquid known as ethylene glycol, which has two amazing properties: It has a lower freezing point than water, and a higher boiling point than water. It does not break down (lose its properties), nor will it boil away. And every permanent antifreeze starts with it as a base. Also, just about every antifreeze has now got antileak ingredients, as well as antirust and anticorrosion ingredients. Now, let's suppose that, in formulating the product, one of the companies comes up with a solution that is pink in color, as opposed to all the others, which are blue. Presto — an exclusivity claim. “Nothing else looks like it, nothing else performs like it.” Or how about, “Look at ours, and look at anyone else's. You can see the difference our exclusive formula makes.” Granted, I'm exaggerating. But did I prove a point?
— PAUL STEVENS, “Weasel Words: God's Little Helpers”
Concluding with a quotation
Despite the celebrity that accrued to her and the air of awesomeness with which she was surrounded in her later years, Miss Keller retained an unaffected personality, certain that her optimistic attitude toward life was justified. “I believe that all through these dark and silent years God has been using my life for a purpose I do not know,” she said. “But one day I shall understand and then I will be satisfied.”
— ALDEN WHITMAN, “Helen Keller: June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968”
Concluding with a vivid image
It is, in any case, finally you that I end up having to trust not to laugh, not to snicker. Even as you regard me in these lines, I try to imagine your face as you read. You who read “Aria,” especially those of you with your theme-divining yellow felt pen poised in your hand, you for whom this essay is yet another “assignment,” please do not forget that it is my life I am handing you in these pages —memories that are as personal for me as family photographs in an old cigar box.
— RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, from a postscript to “Aria”
Concluding with a call for action
Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are pessimistic when they contemplate the world's growing population and human demands colliding with shrinking resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that humanity's biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our control don't figure high on our list of imminent dangers. To save ourselves, we don't need new technology: we just need the political will to face up to our problems of population and the environment.
— JARED DIAMOND, “The Ends of the World As We Know Them”
Concluding with a warning
Because propaganda is so effective, it is important to track it down and understand how it is used. We may eventually agree with what the propagandist says because all propaganda isn't necessarily bad; some advertising, for instance, urges us not to drive drunk, to have regular dental checkups, to contribute to the United Way. Even so, we must be aware that propaganda is being used. Otherwise, we will have consented to handing over our independence, our decision-making ability, and our brains.
— ANN MCCLINTOCK, “Propaganda Techniques in Today's Advertising”
On some occasions, you may need to alert your readers to a major transition between ideas. To do so in a powerful way, you might use an entire short paragraph, as in the following example from an essay on television addiction. The one-sentence transitional paragraph arrests our attention, announcing that the general characteristics of serious addiction will now be related to television viewing.
Finally a serious addiction is distinguished from a harmless pursuit of pleasure by its distinctly destructive elements. A heroin addict, for instance, leads a damaged life: his increasing need for heroin in increasing doses prevents him from working, from maintaining relationships, from developing in human ways. Similarly an alcoholic's life is narrowed and dehumanized by his dependence on alcohol.
Let us consider television viewing in the light of the conditions that define serious addictions.
— MARIE WINN, The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and the Family
Dialogue can add life to almost any sort of writing. To set up written dialogue, simply start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes, no matter how short each bit of conversation is. Here is an example:
Whenever I brought a book to the job, I wrapped it in newspaper — a habit that was to persist for years in other cities and under other circumstances. But some of the white men pried into my packages when I was absent and they questioned me.
“Boy, what are you reading those books for?”
“Oh, I don't know, sir.”
“That's deep stuff you're reading, boy.”
“I'm just killing time, sir.”
“You'll addle your brains if you don't watch out.”
— RICHARD WRIGHT, Black Boy
Email, online discussion lists, blogs, hypertext — all pose particular challenges for writers trying to create effective paragraphs. Both the limitations of electronic communication (such as lack of indentation in some email software) and the dizzying possibilities (such as ways to arrange hypertext) call for special creativity in writing paragraphs.
Messages and postings
Web pages and hypertext
THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT PARAGRAPHS
Reading with an Eye for Paragraphs
Read something by a writer you admire. Find one or two paragraphs that impress you in some way, and analyze them, using the guidelines on p. 137. Try to decide what makes them effective paragraphs.
Thinking about Your Own Use of Paragraphs
Examine two or three paragraphs you have written, using the guidelines on p. 137, to evaluate the unity, coherence, and development of each one. Identify the topic of each paragraph, the topic sentence (if one is explicitly stated), any patterns of development, and any means used to create coherence. Decide whether or not each paragraph successfully guides your readers, and explain your reasons. Then choose one paragraph, and revise it.