Why Do Paragraphs Matter?
Reason #1. Focus.
A paragraph is a handy way to develop a thesis. Every paragraph must have a thesis, or a main idea; sometimes, but not always, with a topic sentence. Contrary to what you may have
learned in high school English, a topic sentence doesn’t have to occur at the beginning of the paragraph; it may occur at the end of the paragraph, or somewhere in the middle. In the following two paragraphs, the topic sentences are in bold type:
I have always hated peanut butter. I know, peanuts are good for you. They have nutrients and vitamins discovered by George Washington Carver, without which American children would reach adulthood stunted and retarded. In addition to the nutrition benefits, peanut butter is fun food, perfect on sandwiches with jelly or alone; perfect for eating with your fingers; a sensuous, sticky delight. But I don’t care about that. To me, peanut butter tastes like, and has the consistency of, baby poop. Not surprisingly, the mere thought of peanut butter makes me gag.
I cannot shoot a basketball. I cannot throw or catch a baseball. If you throw me into a swimming pool, I drown. I cannot skate or play football. I cannot play lacrosse, Ping Pong, or hockey, et cetera, et cetera, et-fucking-cetera. I stink at all sports.
Reason #2. Design.
Paragraphs break up the page and comfort the reader’s eyes. No one wants to look at a full page of type. So break up your text. Feed oxygen to your reader’s eyes. The white space on a page is air for the eyeballs and the mind.
Reason #3. Momentum.
Paragraphs, if placed in proper sequence, build your argument’s momentum. Some writers make an outline that builds momentum.
Reason #4. Paragraphs create unity.
As stated above, a paragraph must focus on a central idea.
Two kinds of paragraph: the chain-link paragraph and the list paragraph.
The Chain-link paragraph.
In the chain link paragraph, every sentence is linked—through a word, a phrase, or an idea—to the sentence that comes before, and the sentence that follows. Good writers pay attention to how sentences link. Below is “The Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the greatest political speech in American history. The sentences are separated and numbered so that you can more easily examine the links. In parentheses, following each sentence, are words that link the sentences.
1. Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
2. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. (nation, conceived, dedicated)
3. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. (we, war)
4. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. (we, field, nation)
5. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. (“this” refers to the previously stated idea)
6. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. (dedicate)
7. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. (consecrated, it)
8. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (here, they)
9. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. (dedicated, they)
10. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (dedicated, dead, they, nation)
In his great speech, a single paragraph, Lincoln hit all the marks: unity, cadence, momentum, political acumen. The paragraph is unified because it focuses on a single, albeit complex, idea (honoring the dead for preserving the nation’s founding ideals). It achieves cadence by repeating certain words. It achieves momentum by starting out with a simple idea, gradually becoming more complex; ending with a stupendous display of prosaic fireworks.
The List Paragraph.
To convey a single idea, a paragraph can also be a list. The sentences below are a list of ideas supporting a single idea; the narrator is a loser in the girlfriend department.
When it comes to women, I am, it would seem to casual observers, a loser. I stand barely 5’ 2” tall. I weigh a mere 115 pounds. My hair is curly and thinning. I am broke, earning just enough money at my fast food job to pay rent. I am not, by any measure, bright, having dropped out of high school in the ninth grade . And because of an aversion to water I developed early in childhood, I bath only once a month. Yet, I have four girlfriends, all of whom are desperate to marry me.
Through clarity and organization, you are leading your reader by the hand. After you have written your paragraph, examine each sentence to make sure it logically follows the sentence before it, and logically precedes the sentence after it.
Examples of well-written paragraphs:
The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,” I said, “is that I can’t even date.” Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word “date,” which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and since the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant, I got a laugh on it, though for all I know my group was only laughing because they were trying to cheer me up. I needed cheering up. I was in New York, staying at my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.
–Nora Ephron, Heartburn
Fishing is one of my favorite sports, and one of these days I expect to catch a fish. I have been at it fourteen years now and have caught everything else, including hell from the wife, a cold in the head, and up on my drinking. Next comes the fish. Immediately after that I’ll take up something else.
—Robert Benchley, “The Lure of the Rod”
This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?
—Viktor E. Frankle, Man’s Search for Meaning
Types of Paragraphs
An exemplification paragraph explains a general idea by offering specific examples. The following is an exemplification paragraph:
For ten years, I taught public school. Aside from the kid who ruined my carefully-planned lessons by making animal sounds, nothing bothered me more than the language of educators; the jargon and clichés and euphemisms found in school brochures. Take, for example, The Parent and Student Middle School Guide from Region Nine, which governs fourteen schools in Manhattan. In the booklet, one school brags that it provides all students with “academic preparation” while helping them “to think clearly” in “an enriched environment.” Another Region Nine middle school claims that its staff “is comprised of” (sic) “highly qualified professionals who specialize in the teaching of young adolescents.” A third school says that it “is dedicated to students seeking an atmosphere that offers academic rigor through intensified literary arts instruction, science and math investigations” and “an exciting inter-disciplinary, multi-cultural curriculum.” This is blather, the equivalent of a political stump speech (well, maybe not that bad). It would be impossible for any parent reading these vagaries to picture what goes on in the schools’ classrooms.
In your own words, what is the thesis of this paragraph?
From the paragraph, list five examples that support this thesis.
Choose one of the topics below as the topic for an exemplification paragraph:
How to deal with lazy colleagues
Dates from hell
Dream boyfriends or girlfriends
What good teachers have in common
Prejudice I have encountered because I am (black, Asian, Jewish, Hispanic, etc.)
Examples of successful parties I’ve attended
Choose your own topic.
Writing Tip: Free Writing.
Free-writing is a good way to come up with ideas. Write for ten minutes straight. For the duration of these ten minutes, do not lift your pen. If you cannot think of anything, write, “I can’t think of what to write.” If you get stuck, keep rewriting the sentence you are stuck on until you get unstuck. You can also write down random thoughts. If you do this with an open mind, great ideas will come.