WRITING AN EFFECTIVE PARAGRAPH

(From Wheeler & Walshe Mastering English p. 99)

A properly structured paragraph is a microcosm of the essay and has its unity too. Sentences in a paragraph can be connected by craft, not just by implied meanings . See that sentence by sentence, the same reference is carried forward for easy reading. Consider this faulty piece:

Librarians have recently voiced concern at a decline in the reading of imaginative literature by young children. Informational literature is being bought by parents in the belief that it is more educational. Childhood imagination , however, needs at all costs to be nourished. It is better to do so than to din children's minds with nothing but facts, facts, facts.

My comment: You can see that each of the four sentences starts with a new reference, sometimes with a sharp shift away from the initial focus. The reader is expected to keep up with the writer and move from "librarians" to "informational literature" and then to "childhood imagination", an abstract enough idea anyway. The "It" in the last sentence is ambiguous, meaning either "imagination" or the impersonal it as in "It is raining." Recast, the paragraph reads much better:

Young children , according to reports by worried librarians, are reading less and less imaginative literature. They are reading, instead, factual or informational books which their well-meaning but short-sighted parents believe are more educational. Most children , if given the chance, would probably prefer imaginative books. Their imaginations are languishing while parents overlook the importance of mankind's treasury of stories and legends.

Use these four methods to make your paragraphs more cohesive:

  • make the topic sentence the one idea to control the whole paragraph
  • use connecting words
  • repeat key word and
  • use reference words (like this, it, these, etc.). e.g.,

Good health depends on a number of factors. Probably its first essential is good food and an adequate diet; however this must not be allowed to produce over-eating, which is nearly as much a health hazard as malnutrition. Its next essential is exercise, which need not be strenuous but certainly should be fairly regular. Another essential is cleanliness, for health is clearly in danger when it is absent. Two other factors also need to be mentioned, though some people will question whether they are essentials. Good posture is surely necessary for health , because it keeps the skeletal frame in proper shape, with all that this means for the related internal organs and good breathing. Overall, for good health our mental attitude needs to be positive, for medical science grows increasingly aware that the mind in negative states either causes disease or in some way inhibits the body's ability to guard against invasion by the ever-present germs.

Comment: Reference to "Good health" is repeated by the reference words highlighted. This structures connectedness so we keep on the one focus throughout. The paragraph is unified; it does not drift from one topic to another or others. A paragraph is one point clarified, expanded, illustrated, reinforced. A well constructed paragraph needs only one reading!

Now consider this paragraph from a recent student draft and rewrite it according to the four rules illustrated above:

Attached to the administration office is a well laid out museum. Its many exhibits give one an understanding of the prehistory and geological movement of the land mass in the local Bass Strait area. The immediate history is recorded in black and white photographs as well as in press clippings of early pioneering on the Promontory. Tidal River was a military training camp during World War II because it has swamps and mountain peaks in such a condensed location.

Comment: We sort of get the idea but the writing craft could be better. First the topic sentence says "museum" is the key idea so further this idea sentence by sentence:

A well laid out museum is attached to the administration office. Its many exhibits give one an understanding of the prehistory and geological movement of the land mass in the local Bass Strait area. It houses the immediate history of the area in black and white photographs as well as in press clippings of early pioneering on the promontory. The museum shows that Tidal River was a military training camp during World War II because it has swamps and mountain peaks in such a condensed location. The Wilson's Promontory museum is well worth the visit.

The paragraph now has connectedness, a structure (a beginning, middle and conclusion) and needs to be read only once. Go now and write likewise!

Homework exercise: Build up a paragraph within the body of an expository essay on this topic sentence:

Today's school student must cope with many different influences. . .

Decide what is your key idea: will it be "different influences" or "cope"? Let's itemise them in one paragraph then discuss cope in a second. The phrase "different influences" contains a plural noun which can be unpacked, itemised: the influences could be listed as peer pressure, academic demands, time constraints, need to develop relationships, etc. Then ROUND off the paragraph with the key idea in a slightly different form so it acts as a springboard for the next paragraph:

Today's school student must cope with many different influences. Influences for good or bad come from peers; the student must find an acceptable path between what peers think and what he wants. Parents and school are on-going strong influences demanding success at his or her academic studies. A school student can also find his time is too short as he tries to pack many activities into his day. Finally a school student needs to give time to developing a significant relationship. Like it or not, the student must learn to juggle all these demands in all their variety.

Consequently, the school student has to find ways to cope with these many and various demands. He will inevitably fail here and there to anticipate, plan and meet demands. He will inevitably experience stress in meeting them. To cope well, he must learn to delay satisfactions, to prioritise his time and define his responsibilities. Otherwise he will be all at sea, blown about by competing needs, and achieving very little very well. Not coping, he will please neither himself nor anyone one else. Coping skills then ought to be taught as part of the school curriculum.

Teaching and learning coping skills at school will . . .

For more paragraph writing techniques: see

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G. Smith January 1, 1992. Revised 28/1/00, 5/2/00.If you printed this page, it can be found again at: http://www.thehub.com.au/~greg/paragraph.html