Ode to Style (and Grammar)

Tips for strengthening your writing, part II: Make the paragraph the unit of composition

I won’t waste your time telling you what a paragraph is—hopefully you already know that! I’ll restrict myself to sharing some helpful hints to strengthen your paragraphs and also share what Strunk and White say on the subject in The Elements of Style.

Sometimes the trickiest question is when to start a new paragraph. Strunk and White suggest that when writing, each topic within your larger framework (see last week’s post for outlining advice) should start a new paragraph. They note, “The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.”

I appreciate the implications of this statement: dividing text into paragraphs isn’t some arcane style rule we hold to because we don’t know any better, it’s a practical way to help readers follow a writer’s thought process. Authors who use very long paragraphs (see the last chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses or basically any Faulkner) have their reasons for doing so; but no one claims their work is easy.

Accordingly, Strunk and White offer another piece of advice on using paragraphs to aid the reader:

In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to a reader. He has a certain reluctance to tackle them; he can lose his way in them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs into two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help.

So, using your logical mind and discerning eye, you should be able to decide when to start a new paragraph—but how to do so well? Elements of Style offers several options (examples are taken from The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle):

  • A straightforward topic sentence. Transition words can be effective here. See the bottom of the post for a helpful list.
    • “Thus encouraged, our scientific friend drew his papers from his pocket and presented the whole case as he had done upon the morning before.”
  • A summary sentence of what is going to follow. This works best in narration or description.
    • “The appearance of our visitor was a surprise to me, since I had expected a typical country practitioner.” The narrator, Watson, then goes on to describe the appearance of the visitor.
  • A sentence with a clear subject that “indicates … the direction the paragraph is going to take.”
    • “With long bounds the huge black creature was leaping down the track, following hard upon the footsteps of our friend.” We suspect from the subject that something is going to happen between the creature and the man.

There is also the option of no topic sentence at all—“In animated narrative, the paragraphs are likely to be short and without any semblance of a topic sentence, the writer rushing headlong, event following event in rapid succession.” And these are just a few ways to start paragraphs. Keep in mind that continuously starting your paragraphs in the same way can seem repetitive, so be creative and try to mix it up.

A brief list of transition words:

Causality: Accordingly, consequently, therefore, thus

Emphasis: Above all, certainly, in fact, of course

Amplification: Again, finally, first, second, etc., in addition, moreover

Intention For this purpose, to this end, with this in mind

Closure: In conclusion, on the whole, to summarize

Detail: Especially, in particular, namely, specifically

Location: Beyond, nearby, opposite, to the right (left)

Similarity: Likewise, similarly

Comparison/Contrast: Nevertheless, however, before, on the other hand, still

Time: Afterward, at the same time, next, soon

Concession: At any rate, earlier, at least, in the meantime, later

Example: For example, for instance, to illustrate

Interpretation: Fortunately, interestingly, significantly, surprisingly

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