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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2012. Do not copy without permission.
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Anatomy of a Paragraph

In any writing assignment, there are all sorts of paragraphs. You might need to define something, describe something or how it functions, make an argument, compare one thing to another, or reveal a sequence of events. Although those are different types of paragraphs as far as the content goes, there are useful parallels about the way you present content to keep in mind.

 

Let’s assume that you’ve identified your audience and your topic and that you know better than to start writing from the beginning of the introduction. You’ve selected the first heading (or any other) and now you just need to know how to get those first few words onto the page. It’s not that hard because most good paragraphs contain basic elements:

 

If you are writing the first paragraph of a lengthy discussion, think of the narrowest aspect of the first paragraph’s subject and put it succinctly into a first sentence. If your topic is huge, you’ve probably already broken it into palatable chunks in your introduction (and during the outlining process) and have already narrowed the subject of this particular section. If you haven’t outlined, stop right away and make an outline, silly. How on earth do you expect to get more than a couple of hundred words going in a nice linear path without one?

 

A paragraph’s first sentence needs to do one thing: introduce the rest of the paragraph. It can be literal (“After you install the program and reboot, open a new session by double-clicking on the program icon and choosing New from the File menu”). It can be leading (“After opening the program and exploring the basic menu options, open a new session”). It can be encouraging (“The first time you open a new session, you’ll want to use all the product’s special features”). It can be discouraging (“There are forty-eight new performance-enhancing features in this release, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a use for all of them in the first session”). Choose a style that is appropriate to your audience and to the voice you’re using.

 

Occasionally, I find it simpler to write the last sentence before writing the middle of a paragraph. Look at that last paragraph, for instance. In truth, couldn’t I have written only the first and last sentences and have made my point equally well?

 

Okay then, if the point of the first sentence is to introduce a topic, the point of the last sentence in that same paragraph is to finish the discussion or lead to the next discussion. Go back to my example-laden paragraph. Where does the last sentence leave you?

 

Because back in the beginning I thoughtfully provided a bulleted list outlining the discussion to come, you can assume that the next paragraph discusses the middle of a paragraph, or possibly discusses voice. I’ve already written a blog or two about voice, so on I went with the middle sentence discussion. I didn’t get very far because the last sentence of this new paragraph proved that I didn’t need the whole middle of the previous paragraph. Because that point was made, I wandered on to cover the closing sentence for my topic and here we are.

 

Closing sentences are often the strongest place to make a point. As the last thing someone reads, the point you make at the end should be the point for which you were gathering steam all along. (You can use that philosophy to create an arc of information throughout the body of the work, too.)

 

You can use the closing sentence to restate your premise, to lead into the next topic, or to draw a conclusion from the argument you’ve been building. If you restate your premise, make sure that it needs restating: paraphrasing an obvious point is a terribly dull way to bulk up your work. When you restate your premise, come at it from a new point of view. You may have to change your opening sentence to be more vague in order to have a really strong final sentence.

 

Okay, so if you have a first sentence introducing a topic and a last sentence restating or leading into the next paragraph, what DO you do with the middle?

 

Use the middle of your paragraph to explore the topic you introduced in the first sentence. If you’re writing instructions, that’s easy. The first sentence tells where the instructions are headed, the middle sentences tell how to accomplish the task at hand, and the last sentence tells us to save the work or open the next page, and prepares us for the next task. If you’re exploring a theoretical subject, like how a product works at a surface level, you’ll want to bundle the sentences into topical paragraphs. As usual, outlining simplifies that.

It’s possible to have a one-sentence paragraph. If it really covers the entire topic, go ahead and be brief. Two sentences are similarly possible. Consider your audience first, and you should be able to decide if you’ve provided enough information to move on. Or maybe you want to isolate an idea in order to make your point more strongly or make your reader think about something.

 

It’s not at all difficult to imagine a too-long paragraph—everyone has seen those. If you think your audience will be unintimidated and stay focused for a two-page paragraph, I admit to being skeptical about that, but you know your audience. It’s a good idea to have at least two paragraphs on any given page, but three or four seems more accessible even if only visually, and gives the reader a place to pause and reflect. Most of the time, you can find obvious changes of direction to break one long paragraph into several, but sometimes, you have to break a lengthy paragraph at less logical places solely to have shorter paragraphs.

 

If you are concerned that your subject might be considered dry (like the minutia of technical writing) try to put your ideas into fairly short paragraphs. Then your piece doesn’t seem like a big commitment to intimidated readers. But make sure the sentence-lengths are varied enough for your piece to read smoothly and be sure that most of the new paragraphs are warranted.

 

Okay, it’s time to see if you learned anything. Within this blog: