Category Archives: Ode to Style (and Grammar)

Each blog in this series focuses on a piece of grammar or style advice found in The Elements of Style

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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Ode to Style (and Grammar)

Tips for strengthening your writing, part I

Following the launch of our book contest last week, I’ve been thinking about the authors who are writing and revising their manuscripts in preparation for submission. There is a huge amount of writing advice out there, but one of the most widely used guidebooks to the subject is The Elements of Style.

Self-published by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 and expanded by E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) in 1959, the book is a legend to anyone who has ever studied the English language. I love it for its usefulness, brevity, and occasional humor.

In the weeks leading up to the January 10 contest deadline, I’ll be sharing some rules and advice from the book in the hopes you’ll find it as helpful in writing and revising your work as I have.


I’ll start with the first of Strunk’s “Elementary Principles of Composition”: Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

Says Strunk,

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. The writer will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to his skill, his needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition…The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

Strunk’s example is a sonnet, which has a strict form, but he admits that this rule gets fuzzier when dealing with other forms of writing, like novels. I’ve always found that the best way to “foresee or determine the shape of what is to come” is to create an outline before I start writing.

There are no real rules for an outline. It doesn’t have to be an extensive multilevel list delineated with Roman numerals, etc.—I usually just jot down a list of the essential parts of my story in a logical order. Once you start writing, you might learn that you need to deviate from your outline. There’s nothing wrong with that. But an outline is still useful, even if you don’t always stick to it. As White says, writing an outline “does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.”

This rule doesn’t apply only to fiction. Nonfiction, including biographies and memoirs, also benefits from the author contemplating the grand design before she starts writing. As White notes, “to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors.” An outline can help you decide which facts, events, descriptions, etc. are important and which are nonessential to the real story you are trying to tell.

If you’ve already started writing without an outline, it’s not too late. You can “reverse-outline”—reread each paragraph or chapter, note the main point, and decide how it fits in with the whole story. This might lead you to move a whole paragraph to a different section or even delete parts that are unnecessary. In the end, you’ll have a more coherent, readable piece of writing.

Next week: Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

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