How do you go about putting together paragraphs the right way?  Unfortunately, different people will give you different answers.

For example, some people will tell you that every paragraph has to be made up of five sentences, in the following order:

  • the topic sentence
  • three sentences supporting or explaining the topic sentence
  • a concluding sentence

The five sentences must be complete sentences made unified and coherent by using transitions and paragraph hooks.

On the other hand, there are people–like me–who will tell you that paragraphs don’t have to follow strict blueprints; it’s most important that you keep your logical process clear for the reader.  With that in mind, a paragraph can, technically, consist of one word.

See?

By making “See?” a paragraph by itself, I’ve brought emphasis to it, which supports my point.  It’s a lot like deciding where to break up the lines when you write poetry.

However, you have to walk before you run; you have to know the rules inside and out before you can get away with breaking them.

When I was in elementary school band, I was a fan of Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpeter who puffed his cheeks out like melons when he played.  I tried it during band class one day, and the director immediately brought everything to a stop when he saw what I was doing.

“I’m trying to look like Dizzy Gillespie.”

“Listen,” he said.  “When you can play notes like Dizzy Gillespie, then you can look like Dizzy Gillespie.  Until then, do it the right way and keep your cheeks in tight.”

Would you believe that there was a time (a pretty long time) when Shakespeare was reviled?  Yep.  A gang of English literary snobs–the Neo-Classical Critics–decided that Shakespeare’s plays were no good because they didn’t follow the classical Greek blueprint for plays as established by folks like Aristotle and Sophocles.

It stayed that way until Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an essay called “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to his Genius.”  Coleridge argued that Shakespeare had an intuitive and superior sense of how to write, and didn’t have to follow the old rules; rules are for people who need them to help keep them from doing dumb things.  Shakespeare’s genius was organic–God-given and unshakable–rather than mechanical–dictated by plans, rules, and templates cobbled together by dead Greeks.

To be fair, there’s a lot to be said for following the rules, especially if you’re just starting out–my old band director was right.  The rules are in place to keep you from doing counterproductive things.

For example, have you ever been told that you must not begin a sentence with “And” or “But”?  Strictly speaking, you can get away with it and still have a perfectly grammatically correct sentence:

But for the rain, I would have gone to the show.

That sounds like a pretty high-falutin’ sentence, though.  How many people really write that way?

More to the point, how many people talk that way?  As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to write in a way that more resembles the way you speak–comfortably and naturally–and speak in a way that more resembles the way you write–carefully and thoughtfully.

You might be able to get away with writing “But for the rain, . . . .” if you are a Victorian gentleman, but as far as I know, there aren’t any of them left.  If you’re not a Victorian gentleman, don’t try to sound like one.  You’ll just come off sounding like a pretentious nut and not like yourself (unless you are a pretentious nut, in which case you have more going on than I can address here).

So what’s with the prohibition against starting sentences with “And” or “But”?

Simple.  If you do start a sentence with one of those words, there’s a very good chance that you’ll wind up writing an incomplete sentence, and those are bad.  Incomplete sentences reflect incomplete thoughts.

It’s not just “And” and “But,” either.  We also have to be on the look-out for:

after     although     because     before     during     if     since     unless     when     while

But beginning a sentence with one of these words does not mean that you are doomed to write an incomplete sentence (often called a “sentence fragment”).  You just have to be careful and know what you’re doing.

You may also have been told not to end a sentence with a preposition.  Anybody ever tell you why?  Again, it’s simple.  Prepositions are weak, boring words, and your sentences ought to end with new and/or interesting information.  Things like transitions and prepositions–logically uninteresting elements that are grammatically necessary–belong at (or at least near) the sentence’s beginning.

Sometimes, though, if you bend over backwards to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, you come off sounding like a kook:

That is something I will not put up with

breaks the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” “rule” because “with” is a preposition.  If you rewrite it to move the preposition, you’ll wind up with something like:

That is something up with which I will not put

and if you said or wrote that, people would go away thinking that you’re a kook.

At the end of the day, there are just too many rules to keep up with.

For my money, the best way to learn how to write good paragraphs is to read good paragraphs.  Read a lot, everything you can, and aim for variety–not just novels, but poetry, essays, textbooks, box-tops, billboards, ingredients and warning labels, etc.  Everything.

Eventually you’ll develop a sense of what makes a good paragraph and what doesn’t.  You might not be able to explain what makes one paragraph good and another one lousy, but you’ll be able to look at a lousy one and know how to turn it into a good one–even if you don’t know how to diagram a sentence or assign grammatical names to all the parts.

You also have to slow down, think clearly, make sure you can show the logical relationship between one thought and the next, and–for God’s sake–allow time to rewrite.  Writing is objectively reading what you’ve written, is rewriting, is rethinking.

It’s critical that you have pity on your reader.  Your ideas might be crystal-clear to you, but you must make sure that they come across the same way for your reader.

After you’ve written something, stick it in a drawer for a day or two and try to forget all about it.  Then go back and read it, trying to approach it as someone who’s never seen it before (better yet, get a friend to read it).  Rewrite it to make it clearer and more important and interesting for whoever your final reader might be.

When you rewrite your sentences, put your effort into choosing specific nouns and verbs.  “Car” is not a specific noun (or noun phrase); “white 1961 Chevrolet Corvair convertible” is.  “Go” is not a specific verb; “ride” is.

Don’t worry about adjectives and adverbs or making your writing colorful or painting a picture with words.  Nouns and verbs are the bricks and mortar of sentences.  Everything else is frippery.  Nobody ever built a house out of paint and doilies, so put your effort into nouns and verbs and let the frippery fall where it may.

I’ll give you an example.  Here is–technically–a perfectly fine English sentence:

The man went over the hill.

It’s grammatically correct, but let’s face it–it’s boring.  If it were the first sentence of a novel you picked up, would you want to keep reading?

Let’s try to spruce it up with adjectives and adverbs:

The sweaty man went over the rocky hill.

That’s a bit of an improvement, but “man” and “went”–the key ideas of the sentence–are still too vague.  Let’s put some effort into making them more specific:

The sweaty priest staggered over the rocky hill.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

If you’re staggering, you’re probably also sweating, so we don’t need both of those words:

The priest staggered over the rocky hill.

Personally (and some matters of writing do come down to personal style), I don’t think that we need the word “rocky” any more.  So:

The priest staggered over the hill.

“Over,” as a preposition, is pretty flimsy by itself.

The priest staggered over the crest of the hill.

Now that’s something I can picture, something I’d like to keep reading (to answer some questions, if nothing else–what the heck is a priest doing staggering over a hill?), and all without sweating over adjectives and adverbs.

So, how do you take your good sentences and put them into good paragraphs?

First of all, you have to be organized.  Wait a few days, as I said earlier, and then read over your draft.  For each paragraph, ask yourself whether a reader would be able to figure out what the central idea is, and whether that paragraph contributes to the paper as a whole.  Does each paragraph lead logically to the next?  If your thinking is not muddled, your writing shouldn’t be either.

For example, if the logical relationship between one paragraph and the next is one of cause and effect, you should make it clear by using a transition word like therefore.  If the logical transition is one of contrast, you might begin the second paragraph with however.  If it’s comparison, try similarly.

Each paragraph must lead logically to the next one, and you want to avoid jumps or gaps that can confuse the reader and fail to support the development of your main idea.

When you write something, the logic might be clear to you in your head, but that does not mean that your mental clarity has carried over to the printed word.  When you read something that you’ve written, it’s easy for your brain to fill in the logical gaps (“Well, I know what I meant to say, so that’s what I’m seeing”), but your reader doesn’t have that privilege; the reader doesn’t have access to your logical processes, so you must make those connections clear with your words–not for you, because you already know what you want to say, but clear for your reader.

When it comes to generating and organizing thoughts, you probably already know what technique works for you.  Some writers benefit from “clustering” or “brainstorming.”  Some people still use old-school outlines.  Let’s say your assignment is analyzing a short story:

I.  Introduction to text

II.  Summary of text

III.  Responses

A.  Point 1

1.  Support

2.  Refutation

B.  Point 2

1.  Support

2.  Refutation

C.  Point 3

1.  Support

2.  Refutation

IV.  Conclusion

That works for some people, but not for everyone.  You should do whatever you know works for you.  In my case, lists work best.  I’ve learned that over the years, so that’s what I do.  I know that clustering or making an old-school outline would be a waste of my time, so I don’t do it.  I jot down a sloppy list, cross things out, scribble in the margins, draw lots of arrows showing that I should move one idea to another place, and so on.  It works for me, so that’s what I do.

Your paragraphs need to be concise and complete at the same time, too.  In other words, don’t tell your reader unnecessary things (things that don’t immediately support your thesis) but make sure that you tell them everything they need to know to believe you.  Again, try to read your paper like a newbie, and ask yourself what’s missing and what’s unnecessary.  Rewrite it to provide what’s missing and to rip out what’s unnecessary.  It might hurt, but do it anyway.

Along the way, put some thought into transitions (between paragraphs and sentences).  Transitions connect everything into a seamless whole.  They function like road signs, letting your reader know when to stop, when to pause, when to yield–they let your reader know where you’re heading, and they make it easy for them to follow you.

Overall, that’s about the best advice I can give you.

I had a writing professor–Jim Crumley, RIP–who said that “The best thing I ever got out of college was my own ass.”  I took it to mean that he had learned how to survive college, and honestly that might be your best bet:  do whatever your wacky teachers want you to do.  Keep ‘em happy, shut ‘em up, and move on with your life.  If they want your paragraphs to follow a certain pattern, you should probably do it, just to avoid the agony and bad grades.

Early on in college, unfortunately, your purpose is largely to prove that you know the most basic stuff and can take orders (even if they contradict orders you’ve been given before).  It’s frustrating, I know–believe me, I know–but you do have to get your ass out of there.  Put your organic genius on the back burner, listen to what your teacher tells you, take notes, do the required reading, and prepare to kiss some ass.  That really is your best survival strategy.

I absolutely hated the first college English class that I had (ENG 3111, English Composition).  The teacher was a spiteful, hideous shrew, and nothing I ever did was good enough.  I tried and tried, but I still wound up with a D.

The first class I taught, four years later?  ENG 3111.  I’ve taught it countless times since then.

Point being, don’t give up.  Relax, concentrate, don’t try to sound like someone you’re not.  Put your effort into nouns and verbs.  Pity the reader.  Maybe some day you’ll find yourself teaching the class you hated most.

Read, re-read, write, re-write–all while putting yourself in your reader’s shoes. Remember that, remember what you’re trying to accomplish, temper it all with your instructor du jour‘s personal likes and dislikes, and you should be fine.

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