Writing Effective Paragraphs

Focus on a Main Idea

Use Specific Details

Develop Using a Pattern

Make Paragraphs Coherent

Transitional Words and Phrases

Cohesion and Coherence

Cohesion
Coherence
Combining Cohesion and Coherence
Avoiding Illusory Cohesion

 

A paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences set off as a unit. Usually all the sentences in a paragraph can be related to a single main idea.

The main problems affecting paragraphs are focus and development. A poorly focused paragraph is difficult to understand because there seems to be no relation between the individual sentences. A paragraph may appear to be poorly focused because it is (the writer tries to cover too many ideas instead of focusing on the single important idea), or because the writer has not provided transitions to connect the ideas together.

A poorly developed paragraph can be well-written, but it is usually ineffective and unpersuasive. Poor development usually results from an over-reliance on generalization (and a parallel lack of specific detail), and a misunderstanding of audience. Often, the writer leaves out important information, such as background and context for someone else's idea, description of setting, definition of a key term, or evidence to support an assertion. The writer omits such information because she or he believes the reader already knows it and would be "bored" by seeing it again.

This section contains some basic advice for good paragraphs.

Focus on a Main Idea

Most paragraphs have recognizable main ideas. The main idea is simply what the paragraph is about, and may be stated in a topic sentence which occurs at the beginning of the paragraph, or may be so obvious that it is implied.

All other sentences in the paragraph should be related to and contribute to the main idea.

Use Specific Details

An effective paragraph develops the main idea with enough detail to hold the reader's attention and explain the writer's ideas. Too little detail produces boring and abstract paragraphs. Too much detail produces unfocused paragraphs that overwhelm the reader.

Develop using a Pattern

The structure of a paragraph can take almost an infinite variety of forms. However, certain patterns occur frequently.

Narration A narrative paragraph uses a story or part of a story to develop the main idea. Often the story serves as anecdotal evidence in support of the main idea, producing a paragraph similar to the example and illustration pattern.
Description A descriptive paragraph uses specific details to create a clear idea of a place, time, person, or object. Descriptive paragraphs show rather than tell, and use details such as sensory details to help the reader construct a "picture" of the scene.
Definition A definition paragraph provides a detailed definition of a key term in the essay.
Example and Illustration An example or illustration paragraph illustrates a point with one or more examples.
Division and Classification A classification paragraph groups items into categories according to some specific principle. A division paragraph breaks a single item into its parts according to some specific principle.
Comparison and Contrast A comparison paragraph looks at the similarities between two or more items. A contrast paragraph looks at the differences between two or more items. Sometimes items are both compared and contrasted.
Analogy Occasionally, analogies can be used to develop an idea. An analogy draws a comparison between two items, usually for the purpose of showing some surprising similarity.
Cause and Effect A cause and effect paragraph develops an idea by explaining the causes of something or by showing the effects of something. The paragraph might move from cause to effects or from an effect to its causes.
Process A process paragraph depicts or explains a process, often using chronology to order the individual stages in the process.

Make Paragraphs Coherent

A paragraph has coherence, or flows, when the details of the paragraph fit together in a way that is clear to the reader. Coherence is partially the product of choosing an appropriate paragraph pattern for your ideas, and partially the product of sentence-level control.

Here are some ways to improve paragraph coherence:

Transitional Words and Phrases

Transitions are words or phrases that specify a relationship between sentences and between paragraphs. They help direct the reader from one idea to another. Skilled writers use transitions with care, making sure to use the correct one and also making sure not to overuse them. Commonly used transitions are shown below:

To Specify Sequence again, also, and, and then, besides, finally, first . . . second . . . third, furthermore, last, moreover, next, still, too
To Specify 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 Specify Comparison again, also, in the same way, likewise, once more, similarly
To Specify 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 Specify Examples after all, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, of course, specifically, such as, the following example, to illustrate
To Specify Cause and Effect accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if . . . then, since, so, then, therefore, thereupon, thus, to this end
To Specify 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 Specify Concession although it is true that, granted that, I admit that, it may appear that, naturally, of course
To Specify 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

 

Cohesion and Coherence

Cohesion: Readers must feel that they move easily from one sentence to the next, that each "coheres" with the one before and after.

Coherence: Readers must also feel that sentences are not just individually clear but constitute a unified passage focused on a coherent set of ideas.

Cohesion

Cohesion refers to how a group of sentences "hang together." Sometimes, to achieve better cohesion we have to "violate" other writing "rules" we think are sacrosanct. Take for example the following two sentences:

  1. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole.
  2. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

Given a choice between these two sentences we would probably choose the first since it uses an active verb while the second uses a passive verb. But the passive does have its uses, such as helping readers create that sense of flow that characterizes a coherent passage. Which of the following two passages "flows" better?

  1. Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.
  2. Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

The second passage reads more coherently because the concept introduced by each new sentence seems to follow from the previous sentence. This technique is called "old-to-new" and is one of the most important principles of a cohesive writing style. The principles of old-to-new are:

  1. Begin your sentences with information familiar to your readers.
  2. End your sentences with information your readers cannot anticipate.

Coherence

However, writing can have a cohesive "flow" and be almost indecipherable. Consider the following passage:

Saner, Wisconsin, is the snowmobile capital of the world. The buzzing of snowmobile engines fills the air, and their tanklike tracks crisscross the snow. The snow reminds me of Mom’s mashed potatoes, covered with furows I would draw with my fork. Mom’s mashed potatoes usually made me sick, that’s why I play with them. I like to make a hole in the middle of the potatoes and fill it with melted butter. This behavior has been the subject of long chats between me and my analyst.

This passage is cohesive, moving from Saner to snowmobiles to snow to Mom’s mashed potatoes to behavior, but it certainly is not coherent.

To understand coherence we need to consider how readers make sense out of larger groupings of sentences. Readers feel a passage is coherent when the writer helps them accomplish two tasks:

  1. Identify the topics (what the sentence is about) of individual sentences quickly.
  2. Recognize how the topics form a connected set of ideas.

Readers want to know what a sentence is about, its topic. However, this is not always easy to find. Consider the following sentences. What are the topics?

  1. And therefore, politically speaking, in Eastern states since 1980, acid rain has become a serious problem.
  2. International cooperation is still the goal of most countries.
  3. It is impossible for your claims to be proved conclusively.
  4. In regard to these questions, I believe there is a need for more research.
  5. It is likely that our proposals will be accepted.
  6. Results like these no one could have predicted.

Topic refers not to the grammatical subject of a sentence, but to its "psychological" subject, and we expect to find the topic in the first few words of the sentence. Readers are more comfortable with these early topics because it helps them understand what the sentence is about. More important, readers depend on seeing in a sequence of topics (in a sequence of sentences) what the whole passage is about.

Combining Cohesion and Coherence

If you begin sentences and even clauses with information familiar to your readers, with phrases that are short, simple, and familiar, your readers are more likely to think you can write clearly and coherently. And no two units of information are shorter and simpler than the subject of a sentence and that subject’s specific actions as a verb.

Try revising the following:

Some sort of palace revolt or popular revolution plagued seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line after Peter the Great. In 1722, achievement by merit was made the basis of succession when the principle of heredity was terminated by Peter. This resulted in many tsars’ not appointing a successor before dying, including Peter. Ivan VI was less than two months old when appointed by Czarina Anna, but Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, defeated Anna and ascended to the throne in 1741. Succession not dependent upon authority resulted in the boyars’ regularly disputing who was to become sovereign. Male primogeniture became the law in 1797 when Paul I codified the law of succession. But conspirators strangled him, one of whom was probably his son, Alexander I.

Avoiding Illusory Cohesion

This handout lists ways of improving cohesion through providing consistency of topics and by helping the reader see the movement between various ideas. Some writers try to create cohesion by using logical conjunctions like thus, therefore, however, and so on, regardless of whether those words signal any genuine logical connections. Is the following passage cohesive?

Because the press is the major medium or interaction between the president and the people, how it portrays him influences his popularity. Therefore, it should report on the president objectively. Both reporters and the president are human, however, subject to error and favoritism. Also, people act differently in public than they do in private. Hence, to understand a person, it is important to know the whole person, his environment, upbringing, and education. Indeed, from the correspondence with his family, we can learn much about Harry S. Truman, our thirty-third president.

The connectors are virtually meaningless. Experienced writers rely more on the intrinsic flow of their prose than on connecting devices like these. While you might need a but or however when you contradict or qualify what you have just said, and a therefore, consequently, or as a result to wind up a line of reasoning, you probably should not need more than a few such connecting devices per page. Any more than that and it begins to look as though you were worried that the prose did not hang together on its own.

In short:

  1. Begin sentences with short simple words and phrases communicating information that appeared in previous sentences, or with knowledge that you can assume you and your reader share.
  2. Through a series of sentences that you want your readers to understand as a coherent, focused passage, keep your topics short and reasonably consistent.

This handout made extensive use of the following sources:

Hacker, Diane. A Writer's Reference. 4th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

Lunsford, Andrea. The Everyday Writer. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Williams, Joseph. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.