Paragraphs

Look to the paragraphs, and the discourse will look to itself.
--Alexander Bain, Rhetoric and Composition: A Manual (1866)

You build palaces out of paragraphs.
--Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (2015)

What do a nineteenth-century philosopher and a twenty-first-century composer of rap musicals have in common? They know that paragraphing is key to the success of any piece of writing, whether it’s a college essay or a love letter. And that’s our advice: when you plan a paper, plan its paragraphs. Think about what should happen in the first, second, third, and onward. Think about how paragraphs should build upon one another, relate to each other, support each other.

But then it comes to writing the paragraphs themselves. If you look at the whole universe of written communication, there is not a single set of principles that govern all paragraphs. A news article, for instance, follows different principles than a business letter, which follows different principles than a scientific report. What we lay out here are principles that will work for most or your college assignments: unity, focus, and development. We also introduce a few tools to help you practice these principles in your own papers.

Unity

Except for special paragraphs like introductions or conclusions, paragraphs should be about one thing--usually a single point that supports your overall purpose. If you’re writing a proposal, you may have two paragraphs that describe two features of the problem, and a third on how these features hurt those whom the readers care about. You might go on to describe the solution in one paragraph, and in the next you show the good consequences that flow from that solution. You might then have a paragraph about a reader’s likely objection and another that addresses it. If a lab report, you might have one paragraph that describes a scientific question, another that presents your hypothesis, three paragraphs that lay out separate phases of your experiment, and so on. The point is this: paragraphs guide readers through the logical phases of your paper, and having one point per paragraph optimizes a reader’s abilities to follow your progression 1.

Practice with paragraphing to create a clear progression with unified paragraphs.

Exercise: 1 ›

Focus

Whatever your single point might be, stick to it through every sentence in the paragraph. Sticking to one point is to stay focused, and the best way to focus a paragraph is to kick it off with a topic sentence. Not only does a topic sentence shape your readers’ expectations for what follows, it can help you stay on track as you compose. The paragraph below illustrates how Isabel Wilkerson maintains focus as she dismantles misconceptions of black migrants moving north in The Great Migration:

The misconceptions about the migrants carried over to their presumed behavior upon arrival. Contrary to popular convention, the migrants were more likely to be married and remain married, less likely to head single-parent households than the black northerners they encountered at their destinations. They were more likely to be employed, and, due to their willingness to work longer hours or more than one job, they actually earned more as a group than their northern black counterparts, despite being relegated to the lowest positions. (The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 263-64)

The topic sentence announces the general theme of misunderstanding the black migrants who fled the South from World War I to the 1970s. The red text shows how that theme is announced at the very top of the paragraph and restated in the second sentence. The green text shows how Wilkerson keeps our attention trained on “the
migrants” by using that phrase twice in a row, followed by the three uses of the pronoun “they.” Note too that these focusing pronouns do not sound repetitious because they introduce eight facts about the migrants that correct stereotypes.

If these strategies work for an accomplished, award-winning author, think what they can do for you!

Practice editing a paragraph that has problems with focus.

Exercise: 2 ›

Development

Whatever your unified and focused point may be, develop it through relevant details: examples, illustrations, analogies, comparisons, analyses, reasons—whatever it takes to fulfill that paragraph’s reason for being there. Here’s a full list of paragraph activities from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University:

  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences
  • Analyze the topic
  • Describe the topic
  • Offer a chronology of an event (time segments)

To illustrate development, look at this paragraph from The Meaning of Life, in which British critic Terry Eagleton argues that live sporting events have supplanted religion as the source of meaning in modern life:

In our own time, one of the most popular, influential branches of the culture industry is unquestionably sport. If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply “Football.” Not many of them, perhaps, would be willing to admit as much; but sport, and in Britain football in particular, stands in for all those noble causes—religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity—for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths.
Sport involves tribal loyalties and rivalries, symbolic rituals, fabulous legends, iconic heroes, epic battles, aesthetic beauty, physical fulfillment, intellectual satisfaction, sublime spectaculars, and a profound sense of belonging. It also provides the human solidarity and physical immediacy which television does not. Without these values, a good many lives would no doubt be pretty empty. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people. Indeed, in the world of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, religion is less the opium of the people than the crack of the masses.

Note how even a professional writer will use a topic sentence at the start of a paragraph to focus the reader’s attention. Following the general assertion, football (soccer) becomes the example Eagleton uses to support his point. With this example in mind, he provides seventeen illustrations of how it replaces “noble causes” and other values. And while example and illustration are the chief means by which he develops his paragraph, note how he uses contrasts in the second and third sentences, and how the last two examine consequences of his point.

Now, take a look at one of your own paragraphs: what did you do to support fulfill its intended purpose? How did you use examples? illustrations? analysis? comparisons? Thinking ahead to your next writing assignment, how can you bring more paragraph activities into play as you build your argument?

What about paragraph length? There is no set rule here. Outside academic settings, a paragraph may only be one or two sentences long, but college writing typically demands longer trains of thought. In that light, paragraphs two or three sentences long are usually underdeveloped. Above all, make sure every detail in the paragraph relates to its purpose, and that the entire paragraph has a clear role in your argument.