The reason we divide a piece of writing into paragraphs is to help the reader understand what belongs together. The reader is always making guesses about your topic, always asking, "How does this fit together and fit into the whole?" Here's a definition from Wikipedia that gives a good starting point:
A paragraph typically consists of a unifying main point, thought, or idea accompanied by supporting details. The non-fiction paragraph usually begins with the general and moves towards the more specific so as to advance an argument or point of view. Each paragraph builds on what came before and lays the ground for what comes next. Paragraphs generally range three to seven sentences all combined in a single paragraphed statement.
In academic writing, you will often see a paragraph that begins with a topic sentence that pretty much says it all, followed by a specifics to flesh it out. Here's an example. The topic sentence is in blue—notice how the rest of the paragraph explains the concept of fear being a tool.
Fear can be used as a powerful tool. I use fear myself when I need to complete assignments for school. By reminding myself of the dreaded F or the embarrassment of being behind, I can frighten myself into completing my work on time. A foreman can use fear as a tool at work to keep production booming. A worker who needs his job to survive will usually work harder when there is fear of losing it. But the most natural kind of fear is that which nature provides. Adrenaline flows quickly when something unexpected happens, allowing fear to be used by a sudden burst of energy. I once read of a man who lifted the end of a car, freeing a victim wedged beneath. Through fear the man had become a tool—more effective than the jack, which had failed.¹
The unity of a paragraph is very specific—it's not just a grab-bag of stuff that's somehow related. It's a single idea that gets worked out in details, explanations, and examples. Here's a paragraph that begins well, but runs into trouble (the topic sentence is in blue again).
The backhand in tennis causes average weekend players more trouble than other strokes. Even though the swing is natural and free-flowing, many players feel intimidated and try to avoid it. Serena Williams, however, has a great backhand and she often wins difficult points with it. Her serve is a powerful weapon, too. When faced by a backhand coming at them across the net, mid-level players can't seem to get their feet and body into the best position. They tend to run around the ball or forget the swing and give the ball a little poke, praying that it will not only reach but also go over the net.²
Yes, the whole paragraph is about tennis, and yes, it often mentions backhands, but the original promise seemed to be about average weekend players. Serena Williams certainly is not one of those, and the category doesn't seem to include mid-level players either. The original plan of the paragraph seemed to be to encourage the average weekend player to use a backhand. The writer, though, got seduced by a sort of daisy-chain organization:
In your reading, you will see many paragraphs that begin with a topic sentence. It's so common that a good way to review for a quiz is to simply read all the topic sentences in your textbook chapter. (That way you will get a general overview of each paragraph.) Sometimes, though, you will see a paragraph that begins with the specifics and works up to a topic sentence at the end to summarize the whole thing. Skillful writers will occasionally write paragraphs that have implied topic sentences (easy to figure out, but not actually on the page).
When you write the final Qualifying Essay for this course, paragraph structure is very important. Here's the standard: "Paragraphs are coherent; they follow an explicit or implied topic sentence and are focused around a controlling idea."
Each paragraph should have a particular task in an essay, and a particular reason to be where it is. An essay isn't just an assortment of paragraphs; it's a large, complex thought that moves forward from one sub-point to the next. We'll take this up in Essay Organization, but I should mention two problems I keep running into. A paragraph needs to relate to the material before and after, so it needs some sort of transitional device.
#1: Transitions are not all equal. Words such as "on the other hand" or "for example" or "furthermore" have more meaning than "here comes more stuff." Pay attention to their sense.
#2: Don't violate your paragraph unity. I sometimes run into students who say they have been taught to stick the topic sentence of a paragraph on the end of the previous paragraph. That's not a transition. It's confusing (and it violates the unity of the paragraph where you tacked on that fake "transition"). Don't write like this:
The shirt is extra large, and it fits me like a tent. The shoulder line comes to mid-arm; I have to roll the sleeves way up. The end of the shirt comes almost to my knees. It is so wide that I could get two of me in it. The shirt is light brown, really a faded medium brown.
It goes with anything else I wear, especially my jeans. But I like the color especially because it is almost exactly the color of my eyes, and it makes my hair look really dark.
The first little paragraph is about the size of the shirt and the second is about its color—that comment at the end of ¶1 about color isn't a transition; it's the topic sentence that belongs on the beginning of the following paragraph.
You often see advice like the advice from Wikipedia above: make paragraphs three to seven sentences. Teachers get very tired of seeing essays that never take a breath or break into subtopics—usually amounting to a three-page rambling freight train. We also get very tired of essays in which no paragraph is more than three lines, essays that could be titled "Twenty-five random thoughts I had."
The problem, though, with the "five to seven sentence" rule is that it often produces disasters like the Serena Williams paragraph above: six sentences that are only vaguely related to tennis strokes. Another problem with the "five to seven" rule is that it doesn't understand genre. Newspaper paragraphs tend to be very short because of column width and because readers are in a hurry. Academic essays tend to have long paragraphs because their points are long and complex and their readers are used to carefully thinking through issues as they read.
The real rule of paragraphing (and it's something of an art) is related to content, purpose, and audience.
Both logic and aesthetics dictate when it is time to begin a new paragraph. Think of a paragraph as something that gathers together in one place ideas that connect to each other and to the main purpose of the piece of writing.²
Because of the way the Internet works, paragraphs here will not look the way they should on a typed page. When you turn in a paper:
¶ coh means things are not sticking together too well—there's no coherence. It's probably a set of short, jumpy sentences.
¶ unity means it's really not unified, much like the Serena Williams paragraph above.
¹Nicholas, J. Karl, and James R. Nicholl. Models for Effective Writing. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994. p. 99.
²Raimes, Ann. Keys for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. p. 22f
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Revised 8/8/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.