Writers on Writing: The Art of Paragraphing

How to Compose an Effective Paragraph

Quote about paragraphing
Richard M. Coe, Toward a Grammar of Passages (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).

Getty Images

Paragraphing, says William Zinsser in his book "On Writing Well," is "a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books—a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas."

In theory, composing a paragraph is a fairly simple, straightforward process: start with a main idea, compose a topic sentence, add three to five supporting sentences, and end with a concluding sentence that either sums up the main idea or lets readers know why they should care about or agree with the point you are making. Purdue OWL, the online writing lab at Purdue University, expresses the point succinctly: "The basic rule of thumb with paragraphing is to keep one idea to one paragraph. If you begin to transition into a new idea, it belongs in a new paragraph."

If you're prepared to go beyond conventional formulas for dividing a text into paragraphs, consider these observations by experienced authors and scholars.

Guiding Readers With Paragraphs

A paragraph should enlighten readers by shining a bright light on the point you want to make, and you can navigate different perspectives of an argument using carefully constructed paragraphs. Isaac Babel, as quoted by Konstantin Paustovsky in "The Story of a Life: Years of Hope," explains:

"The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation has to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect."

Babel, the late Russian writer and playwright, is saying that you should keep the reader experience in mind when writing and that paragraphs should be composed with the purpose of guiding your audience smoothly through your point. You need to start a new paragraph every time you have a new idea to explain.

Each new paragraph a writer composes is like taking a new breath, as Francine Prose explains in "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them":

"In general, I would suggest, the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended—in some cases very extended—breath. Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale again at the start of the next."

Composing each paragraph, then, should become as instinctual as "breathing"; every time you pause to consider your next thought is an indication that you need to start a new paragraph.

Follow Your Instincts

Paul Lee Thomas, in "Reading, Learning, Teaching Kurt Vonnegut," agrees that rigid rules don't make it easier to write a paragraph:

"Paragraphing is often taught in English classes with the same sort of false dictums that poisons much of writing instruction. ... [Encourage] students to experiment with paragraphing in their own essays, looking to see how paragraphing develops their intended rhythm and tone."

In other words, rather than following a set of fixed rules, you should examine your paper as a whole and consider how each paragraph works to create a specific "rhythm and tone" and advance your narrative.

Richard Palmer, in "Write in Style: A Guide to Good English," says that composing an effective paragraph really relies more on your instincts than on any fixed process:

"[P]aragraphing is ultimately an art. Its good practice depends on 'feel,' voice and instinct rather than on any formula or techniques that can be dutifully learnt."

Just as you follow your instincts to start and finish a paragraph, you should also learn to use your instincts to assess the effectiveness of paragraphs and identify off-topic sentences, explains Marcia S. Freeman in "Building a Writing Community: A Practical Guide."

A Signal to Readers

Richard M. Coe, in "Toward a Grammar of Passages," calls each paragraph a "signal to readers" that a new idea is about to be discussed. "We must think of paragraphing as a kind of macro-punctuation mark that guides readers' interpretation of passages much as commas guide readers' interpretation of sentences," he writes. You can think of paragraphs as large punctuation marks that show the reader where to go and how to read your essay.

A paragraph centers around a specific idea and all the paragraphs in an essay should connect ideas to each other. This is done to remove some of the burden of understanding from the readers' shoulders, as H.W. Fowler explains in "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage":

"The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: 'Have you got that? If so, I'll go on to the next point.' There can be no general rule about the most suitable length for a paragraph. ... The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length."

When composing a paragraph, Fowler explains, you shouldn't think so much in terms of length. A topic sentence, three or four supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence might be sufficient, but it also might not. Instead, you should focus on a main idea, explain it fully, and then move onto the next idea in a new paragraph, giving your reader a logical and natural flow through the paper or essay.

Sources

  • Coe, Richard M. Toward a Grammar of Passages. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
  • Fowler, Henry Watson., and R. W. Burchfield. The New Fowlers Modern English Usage. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.
  • Freeman, Marcia S. Building a Writing Community: a Practical Guide. Maupin House, 2003.
  • “On Paragraphs.” Purdue Writing Lab.
  • Palmer, Richard. Write in Style: a Guide to Good English. Routledge, 2002.
  • Paustovsky, Konstantin. Story of a Life: Years of Hope. Harvill Press, 1969.
  • Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Media Production Services Unit, Manitoba Education, 2015.
  • Thomas, Paul Lee. Reading, Learning, Teaching Kurt Vonnegut. Lang, 2006.
  • Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction Paperback. Harper Perennial, 2016.
Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Writers on Writing: The Art of Paragraphing." ThoughtCo, Jun. 15, 2021, thoughtco.com/art-of-paragraphing-1689246. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 15). Writers on Writing: The Art of Paragraphing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/art-of-paragraphing-1689246 Nordquist, Richard. "Writers on Writing: The Art of Paragraphing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/art-of-paragraphing-1689246 (accessed October 20, 2021).