Center for Writers - Resources


Paragraph Conventions

        Some writing situations call for fairly strict conventions for paragraphing. Readers may not be conscious of these conventions, but they would certainly notice if custom were not observed. For example, readers would be surprised if a newspaper did not have narrow columns and short paragraphs. This paragraphing convention is not accidental; it is designed to make newspaper reading easy and fast and to allow the reader to take in an entire paragraph at a glance. Business writing also tends to adhere to the convention of short paragraphs. Memo readers frequently do not want an excess of details or qualifications. Instead, they prefer a concise overview, a capsule that is easy to swallow.

        College instructors, on the other hand, expect students to qualify their ideas and support them with specifics. They care less about how long it takes to read a paragraph than about how well developed the writing is. Therefore, paragraphs in college essays usually have several sentences. In fact, it is not unusual to find quite long paragraphs, as this example from an undergraduate history essay on the status of women in Victorian England illustrates:

                        A genteel woman was absolutely dependent upon the two men in her life: first her father, and then her
                        husband. From them came her economic and social status; they were the center of her thoughts and the
                        objects of any ambitions she might have. The ideal woman did not live for herself; she barely had a self,
                        because her entire existence was vicarious. Legally, a woman had almost no existence at all. Until her
                        marriage, a daughter was completely in the power of her father; upon her marriage, she was legally absorbed
                        by her husband. Any money she had became his, as did all of her property, including her clothes and even
                        those things that had been given her as personal gifts before her marriage. Any earnings she might make by
                        working belonged to her husband. A woman could not be sued for debt separately from her husband because
                        legally they were the same person. She could not sign a lease or sue someone in court without having her
                        husband be the complainant, even in cases of long separation. In cases of a husband's enmity, she had almost
                        no legal protection from him. Under English law, divorces could be obtained, in practice, only by men. A man
                        could divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery, but the reverse was not the case.

        If any rule for paragraphing is truly universal, it is this: paragraphs should be focused, unified, and coherent. That is, the sentences in a paragraph should be meaningfully related to one another, and the relationships among the sentences should be clear. The following sentences - although they may look like a paragraph - do not constitute a meaningful paragraph because they lack focus, unity, and coherence.

                        Maturity and attitude go together because both determine why you want to become a model. I went to the
                        university for two years, not because I wanted to but because I was pushed into it. I used to think models
                        were thought of a dumb blondes, but after being here at the university I realized that people still have respect
                        for modeling and know all the hard work put in it.

        Even though each of these sentences mentions either modeling or the university or both, the two topics are not connected. With each sentence, the focus shifts - from the general desire to become a model, to the writer's attending university, to the attitude of people toward models. There is no unity because there is no single idea controlling the sentences. The various elements of the writing do not "stick together" to form a coherent meaning, and the reader may well become disoriented. The topic-sentence strategies discussed in the following section are useful for ensuring this crucial sense of coherence.

Topic-sentence Strategies

        A topic sentence lets readers know the focus of a paragraph in simple and direct terms. It is a cuing strategy for the paragraph much as a thesis or forecasting statement is for the whole essay. Because paragraphing usually signals a shift in focus, readers expect some kind of reorientation in the opening sentence. They need to know whether the new paragraph is going to introduce another aspect of the topic or develop one already introduced. This need is especially strong when readers are under pressure to read quickly and efficiently.

        Announcing the topic. Some topic sentences simply announce the topic. Here are a few examples taken from Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams:

                    A polar bear walks in a way all its own.
              The surface of the great expanse of ice covering Bering Sea in April and May is infinitely varied.
                    What is so consistently striking about the way Eskimos used parts of an animal is the breadth of their
                                understanding about what would work.
              Distinctive landmarks that aid the traveler and control the vastness, as well as prominent marks on the land made
                                inadvertently in the process of completing other tasks, are very much apparent in the Arctic.
              The Mediterranean view of the Arctic, down to the time of the Elizabethan mariners, was shaped by two
                                somewhat contradictory thoughts.

        These topic sentences do more than merely identify the topic; they also indicate how the topic will be developed in subsequent sentences - by citing examples, describing physical features, presenting reasons and evidence, relating anecdotes, classifying, defining, comparing, or contrasting. Paragraphs may be developed in any one of these ways or by a combination of strategies.

        Following is one of Lopez's paragraphs that shows how the topic in the first sentence is developed:
                 What is so consistently striking about the way Eskimos used parts of an animal is the breadth of their
                      understanding about what would work. Knowing that muskox horn is more flexible than caribou antler, they
                        preferred it for making the side prongs of a fish spear. For a waterproof bag in which to carry sinews for
                        clothing repair, they chose salmon skin. They selected the strong, translucent intestine of a bearded seal to
                        make a window for a snowhouse - it would fold up for easy traveling and it would not frost over in cold
                        weather. To make small snares for sea ducks, they needed a springy material that would not rot in salt water -
                        baleen fibers. The down feather of a common eider, tethered at the end of a stick in the snow at an aglu,
                        would reveal the exhalation of a quietly surfacing seal. Polar bear bone was used anywhere a stout, sharp
                        point was required, because it is the hardest bone. Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

        Forecasting subtopics. Other topic sentences do more than simply announce the topic and indicate how it will be developed. They actually give readers a detailed overview of forecast of subtopics that will be developed. The following paragraph shows how the subtopics mentioned in the opening sentence appear later in the paragraph. The subtopics are underscored in the first sentence and then connected by lines to the point in the paragraph where they subsequently appear.

        Notice that the subtopics are taken up in the same order they are presented in the opening sentence: education first, followed by economic independence, power of office, and so on. This correlation between topic sentence and paragraph organization makes the paragraph easy to follow. Even so, such a structure is not necessarily mechanical in its execution. One subtopic may be developed in a sentence while another requires two or more sentences. The last two subtopics in Millett's piece - equality of status and recognition as human beings - are not directly brought up but are implied in the last sentence.

                 Oppressed groups are denied education, economic independence, the power of office, representation, an
                      image of dignity and self-respect, equality of status, and recognition as human beings. Throughout history
                        women have been consistently denied all of these, and their denial today, while attenuated and partial, is
                        nevertheless consistent. The education allowed them is deliberately designed to be inferior, and they are
                        systematically programmed out of and excluded from the knowledge where power lies today - e.g., in science
                        and technology. They are confined to conditions of economic dependence based on the sale of their sexuality
                        in marriage, or a variety of prostitutions. Work on a basis of economic independence allows them only a
                        subsistence level of life - often not even that. They do not hold office, are represented in no positions of
                        power, and authority is forbidden them. The image of woman fostered by cultural media, high and low, then
                        and now, is a marginal and demeaning existence, and one outside the human condition - which is defined as
                        the prerogative of man, the male. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics

        Asking a question about the topic. Writers occasionally put their topic sentences in a question-answer format, posing a rhetorical question in one sentence which is then answered in the next sentence. Here is a paragraph illustrating this strategy.

                  What about motion that is too slow to be seen by the human eye? That problem has been solved by the use of
                        the time-lapse camera. In this one, the shutter is geared to take only one shot per second, or one per minute,
                        or even one per hour - depending upon the kind of movement that is being photographed. When the
                        time-lapse film is projected at the normal speed of twenty-four pictures per second, it is possible to see a
                        bean sprout growing up out of the ground. Time-lapse films are useful in the study of many types of motion
                        too slow to be observed by the unaided human eye. James C. Rettie, "But a Watch in the Night"

        Question-answer topic sentences do not always appear at the beginning of a paragraph. On occasion, a question at the end of one paragraph may combine with the first sentence of the following paragraph.

        Making a transition. Not all topic sentences simply point forward to what will follow. Some also refer back to earlier sentences. Such sentences work both as topic sentences, stating the main point of the paragraph, and as transitions, linking that paragraph to the previous one. Here are a few topic sentences from Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer J. Adler which use specific transitional terms (underscored) to tie the sentence to a previous statement:

                   Nevertheless there is something permanent in this special kind of change.
                       Like sensations, ideas are neither true nor false.
                       On the other hand, a piece of music - a song that is sung over and over again - does not exist just at one place
                                    and at one time.
                       So, too, are teachers.
                  There is one further difference between a song or a story and a painting or a statue.
                  Not only must these basic biological needs be satisfied beyond the level of the barest minimum required to
                                    sustain life but, in addition, many other human needs must be satisfied in order to approach the
                                    fulfillment of all our capacities and tendencies.

        Sometimes the first sentence of a paragraph serves as a transition, while a subsequent sentence - in this case the last - states the topic. The underscored sentences illustrate this strategy in the following example:

                    What a convenience, what a relief it will be, they say, never to worry about how to dress for a job interview, a
                                    romantic tryst, or a funeral!

                Convenient perhaps, but not exactly a relief. Such a utopia would give most of us the same kind of chill we feel
                    when a stadium full of Communist-bloc athletes in identical sports outfits, shouting slogans in unison, appears on
                    TV. Most people do not want to be told what to wear any more than they want to be told what to say. In
                    Belfast recently four hundred Irish Republican prisoners "refused to wear any clothes at all, draping themselves
                    day and night in blankets," rather than put on prison uniforms. Even the offer of civilian-style dress did not satisfy
                    them; they insisted on wearing their own clothes brought from home, or nothing. Fashion is free speech, and one
                    of the privileges, if not always one of the pleasures, of a free world. Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes

        Occasionally, particularly in long essays, whole paragraphs serve as transitions, linking one sequence of paragraphs with those that follow.