by Eric Wharton
How to organize and improve paragraping
|FROM PILCROW TO PARAGRAPH|
For those of you who don't know, which at one time included myself, the pilcrow is a typographical character that looks like a backward P (¶). It's used today by editors to inform an author that a new paragraph should be started. However, it was once used in everyday writing to mark the beginning of every paragraph—long before line breaks and indentations became conventional. So the pilcrow was what a writer scribbled when concluding a thought or topic, and about to begin a new one. That was the easy part. What followed the pilcrow took skill, practice, and persistence to make the form and function of paragraphs effective.
If you were like me, you fell asleep when your English teacher started taking about the form and function of paragraphs. All I ever learned was that every paragraph should have a topic sentence. When I started writing seriously, I had to read instructional books to recover from my earlier lack of attention. I learned, for example, that paragraphs are the primary unit of composition and help control ideas to form logical conclusions. They also help organize ideas so they flow freely from one to the other.
I'm falling asleep again.
Instead of the formal rhetoric, let me focus on an essential point: you should think in paragraph units rather than sentence units. Each paragraph forms a complete thought. That thought has an introductory idea followed by supporting statements, and an ending that also serves as a springboard to the next paragraph. Sometimes this can be incorporated into a single sentence or two, like the previous paragraph. Most times it cannot.
For example, if I want to describe why I love my spouse, I think of why I do: she has a beautiful heart. That is the single, complete thought I want to express in a paragraph. But, I can't just leave it at that, I have to justify my feelings to the reader. So, I would probably write:
My wife is beautiful, as much inside as outside. (I have taken my thought and made it real with the proverbial topic sentence—now why is she beautiful inside?) She cries at sappy love stories, hugs little children for no other reason than they deserve hugging, and gives selflessly of her time to others. (Nice beginning, but is there more to her than tears and hugs?) She also loves a long-haired, leaping gnome such as myself. (Now we know she's a saint and worthy of a first-class ticket directly to Heaven with no layovers.) She dotes on our family, but still finds time to visit the elderly at the Harvest Home Retirement Center. (I've ended this particular thought, but notice how I left the paragraph hanging in order to continue talking about how she helps the elderly.)
Remember, you don't conclude a paragraph, you entice the reader to continue reading. If you fail to do this for any single paragraph, you may loose the reader's interest. One bad paragraph and anything that follows, no matter how brilliant, may end up just vain scribblings.
Put that thought into personal perspective. Have you ever read a book late into the night, unable to put it down, shut off the light, and go to sleep? That's because the author is leading you along from paragraph to paragraph, thought to thought. This is the essence of good paragraphing—take a single thought, expand on it, then make the reader want to continue to your next thought.
How to do this takes skill. Fortunately, there are some guidelines that will make it easier for you. These have to do with:
When to change paragraphs.
How to transition paragraphs.
Internal paragraph structure.
Making paragraphs look appealing.
Lets examine each of these components.
Control the length of each paragraph by making it just long enough to support and develop the controlling idea. Don't run different ideas together in one paragraph. Separate those thoughts.
Try to limit your paragraph to five lines. Notice I said lines, not sentences. This means you need to be fully aware of your outlet before deciding what constitutes five lines. If it's a term paper, figure out how much fits into five lines of typewritten text. If it's a magazine article, get a copy of the magazine and do the same.
If a paragraph is too long, break it down into a series of paragraphs with subtopics. Long paragraphs are sometimes needed to get your point across, so a series of short paragraphs surrounding a long paragraph is effective for improving readability. Avoid midget paragraphs if you can, but you can use one-sentence paragraphs to emphasize a point. Be sure to do so sparingly.
Some of these concepts about paragraph length may sound mutually exclusive. Conform to them when you can, but break them when you need to do so. The simplest summary I can offer is: try and keep single thoughts together, entice your reader along from paragraph to paragraph, while allowing your writing to appear visually pleasing by varying paragraph length. This will keep your reader hooked.
Begin a new paragraph:
1. When a thought or idea changes. This has to do with what we've discussed above. Don't run your thoughts and ideas together. When you've ended a thought, move on to a new paragraph.
2. When the scene shifts. It could mean something as simple as moving to a different chair within the same room, or something as complex as skipping to another quadrant of the universe.
3. When the time shifts. Whenever there is a significant change in time, start a new paragraph. Readers get lost if time is flying past to quickly—or worse, skipping whole sequences—in a single paragraph.
4. When the speaker changes. Never have two or more people speaking in the same paragraph. When a different person starts talking, start a new paragraph.
5. When you want to expand on a specific topic. An example would be going into additional detail. If I were to introduce a person, such as Abraham Lincoln, I might write in the first paragraph about his gangly physical appearance. In a subsequent paragraph, I might write in more detail about his ethical approach to life (how he walked six miles to return six cents to a customer he had accidentally overcharged). The topic remains the same—Abraham Lincoln and his characteristics—but the details are different.
Paragraph transitions are words or phrases that link paragraphs and create a smooth transition. For example, if this is the last sentence of a paragraph:
The plane left Newark International Airport destined for San Francisco.
You can transition to the next paragraph by:
1. Repeating the same word
The plane, a Boeing 707, was almost filled to capacity.
2. Using a similar word
The flight left Gate 17 and lifted off from Runway 4-Left, passing the Twin Towers before banking to the west.
3. Supplying more detail
Flight 93, owned and operated by United Airlines, was just beginning a six-hour passage over a continent stirring from sleep.
4. Using a pronoun to refer to the previous noun
It was a solidly built aircraft, 110 feet long, that had withstood winds and storms throughout the world.
5. Combing any of the above and asking a question (called hypophora)
Where did [the plane, the flight, it] end up? It ended up near an obscure town in the forests of western Pennsylvania.
6. Using introductory words (in addition, meanwhile, since, however, etc.)
Meanwhile, a group of four men led by Ziad Jarrah—a Sunni Muslim who blended with other first-class passengers—were about to unleash a firestorm on the quiet American countryside.
Paragraph problems often arise from three interrelated difficulties:
Lack of Unity
Maria was a beautiful woman and the town where she lived had many amenities. There were many restaurants on the nicer side of town, and a large variety of other stores. Other parts of town experienced a high crime rate, which Maria had read about in the local paper.
This paragraph jumps from subject to subject with no clear sense of goal or purpose. What do Maria's looks, the town where she lives, and the crime scene have to do with one another? Until the writer provides an idea to unite the sentences and give it focus, the reader will never know.
Maria was fascinated by the duality of her life. She was a beautiful woman who pampered herself at the beauty salons and fine eating establishments on the nicer side of town. There was also a seedier side to the town which she found oddly alluring and was captivated by it's criminal element.
Notice that the writer has supplied a controlling topic at the beginning and eliminated sentences that don't contribute to the paragraph's main idea. The writer has also supplied a jumping off point—we learn that Maria's interest in the crime scene holds a deep fascination, and we’re sure to learn more about it in the paragraphs to come.
Lack of Coherence
Paul felt isolated where he lived. The quality of the food was poor. In the evening, he wanted a choice of entertainment. Most of the friends he was living with spent too much time together day after day. He felt that soon they would all go crazy.
This example contains a topic sentence, and the sentences that follow bear some relation to that controlling idea. However, the individual sentences are not knit together in a meaningful way. Because ideas are not clearly connected, the paragraph doesn't stick together.
Paul felt isolated where he lived. He wanted to be able to go out for a meal if he felt like it, but he lived far from populated areas. The isolated location forced him to spend all his time with his house mates—day after day. Before long, he was ready for a change of food, entertainment, and company.
Notice how the writer has used transition words and a new organization, among other things, to establish logical relationships among the ideas. The paragraph flows more easily from sentence to sentence to an understandable conclusion.
Lack of Development
His room had it's good points and bad points. It was a drab place, and he didn't like living there.
Only one bad point (drab place) is mentioned. What does "he didn't like living there" mean? If the reader is to understand the main idea, or even be interested in it, it must be explained and supported sufficiently.
He faced the reality of his surrounding room. Paint peeled from the walls. Drab half-light and a random buzzing filled it. The blinking of a single neon light outside the window, the source of the buzzing, was the only illumination interrupting the grayness. A light fixture in the middle of the room had fallen from the ceiling and hung tilted at an odd angle. It’s empty socket dangled at the end and testified to the pervasive gloom. He turned from it and tried to separate himself from a creeping sadness.
Notice how the writer has fleshed out details and fully developed the central idea. The reader comes away with a deep and compelling understanding of why the character doesn’t like his room.
Making Paragraphs Look Appealing
Good writers use a variety of means to organize material for the most effective presentation. They know how to make paragraphs look appealing to the mind. The technical term for this is RHETORICAL MODES or ORDERS OF DEVELOPMENT.
Because humans think in certain ways, we can communicate better if we use basic thought patterns in our writing. There are seven ways that are useful to organize paragraphs in such a manner. Rather than give you long and detailed descriptions about them, examples from classic literature may be more useful to help you more fully understand.
Narrative Time Order (or Chronological Order)
This pattern organizes things in the order in which they occur. This results in a narrative paragraph, as in this paragraph recounting a classic tale of murder.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could to maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me – the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eve would trouble me no more.(1)
Narrative Space Order
This pattern organizes things according to their placement and arrangement within a given space–east to west, bottom to top, near to far, the center outward, etc. In the following paragraph, the author is describing a physio-graphic region pivotal to the story. The description moves north to south in explaining the ground upon which a major military confrontation would occur.
The facilities which nature had there offered to the march of the combatants were too obvious to be neglected. The lengthened sheet of the Champlain stretched from the frontiers of Canada, deep within the borders of the neighboring province of New York, forming a natural passage across half the distance that the French were compelled to master in order to strike their enemies. Near its southern termination, it received the contributions of another lake, whose waters were so limpid as to have been exclusively selected by the Jesuit missionaries to perform the typical purification of baptism, and to obtain for it the title of lake "du Saint Sacrement." (2)
Expository Support Order (General to Specific)
Most paragraphs in fiction begin with a topic sentence that makes a general statement, followed by sentences supporting the general statement with details, examples, and evidence. In this pattern, the topic sentence comes first and is followed by specific evidence. They may be arranged in various patterns, such as order of importance.
In the following paragraph the author begins with a general statement—that of winter coming to a valley. The successive sentences list examples of why that's so.
The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves. (3)
Expository Climax Order (Specific to General)
This is the opposite of general-to-specific order. A paragraph arranged in a specific-to-general order begins with details and examples to support a generalization at the end of the paragraph.
Notice in the following paragraph how the author gives examples first of how his "sin" would benefit him. He uses these to support a general conclusion.
Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance. And then he regarded it with what he thought to be great calmness. At least, he concluded he saw it in quaint uses. He exclaimed that its importance in the aftertime would be great to him if it even succeeded in hindering the workings of his egotism. It would make a sobering balance. It would become a good part of him. He would have upon him often the consciousness of a great mistake. And he would be taught to deal gently and with care. He would be a man. (4)
Cause and Effect
Some paragraphs are best organized by causes or effects. These are often used in Science-fiction to explain consequences. In the paragraph that follows, the writer explains a chain of multiple effects from a particular causal agent, the cholera organism. He uses this example to explain how the failure to investigate the implications of an effect led to disastrous consequences.
For centuries, men had known that cholera was a fatal disease, and that it caused severe diarrhea, sometimes producing as many as thirty quarts of fluid a day. Men knew this, but they somehow assumed that the lethal effects of the disease were unrelated to the diarrhea; they searched for something else: an antidote, a drug, a way to kill the organism. It was not until modern times that cholera was recognized as a disease that killed through dehydration primarily; if you could replace a victim's water losses rapidly, he would survive the infection without other drugs or treatment. (5)
Compare and Contrast
Some paragraphs either directly provide, or imply, a contrast. In the paragraph below, the writer opens his story by contrasting the feelings of the times in which he lived.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (6)
Sometimes key ideas or terms need to be defined. Paragraphs of definition are frequently used in nonfiction: articles and essays. In fiction, it is used primarily in Science Fiction to explain circumstances beyond the bounds of known natural science. Sometimes, in order to insure clarity, these paragraphs use dialogue to provide explanations.
"You see," said the Captain, "I use Bunsen’s elements, not those of Ruhmkorff. His would not have been powerful enough. Bunsen’s are fewer in number, but strong and large, which experience proves to be the best. The electricity produced passes to the stern, where it operates the electromagnets of great size, on a special system of levers and gears that transmit the movement to the axle of the screw. The screw has a diameter of nineteen feet, and a thread of twenty-three feet, and performs almost a hundred and twenty revolutions a second." (7)
In conclusion (notice the effective use of a transitional phrase), your paragraphs should respond to the questions: "What do I want to say?", "To whom do I want to say it?", and "How do I want to say it?" These questions, as always, respond to the larger question, "Why do I want to say it?" What is your goal, and have you constructed paragraphs that will accomplish it?
Words create imagery in the mind, sentences bind feelings and ideas together to impact the soul, but paragraphs are the steady heartbeat–subtle and often overlooked. Pay attention to them as you would a heart monitor in an intensive care unit, repetitively registering the pulse of your writing. As long as the steady beep continues, everything is fine. One tiny palpitation, however, and a story or article can go into cardiac arrest.
Keep your writing alive and moving forward, paragraph to paragraph, thought to thought.
(1) Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Tell-Tale Heart", The Pioneer. Leland and Whiting, Boston, MA. January, vol 1(1): 29-31. 1843.
(2) Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. H.C. Carey & I. Lea, Philadelphia, PA. 1826.
(3) Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums", The Long Valley. Viking Press, New York, NY. 1938.
(4) Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 1952.
(5) Crighton, Michael. The Andromeda Strain. Centesis Corporation, New York, NY. 1969.
(6) Dickens, Charles. "A Tale of Two Cities", All the Year Round. A Weekly Journal. Charles Dickens, London, [England]. Serial, April-November, 1859.
(7) Verne, Jules. "Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers", Voyages Extraordinaires. Hetzel Publishing, Paris, [France]. 1870.
Brooke, Bob. Bob Brooke's Writer's Corner. Bob Brooke Communications.
www.bobbrooke.com/WritersCorner/writers_cornerhome.htm, accessed 2006.
Hopper, Vincent F.; Gale, Cedric; Foote, Ronald C. Essential of English, 4th ed., rev. by Benjamin W. Griffith. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY. 1990.
Strunk, William Jr.; White, E.B. The Elements of Style, 3rd Edition. MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, NY. 1979.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 5th ed., rev. and updated. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY. 1994.