Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

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Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by glorybee » Sat Oct 31, 2015 8:42 am

When I was teaching high school, some of my students had great difficulty with rules for creating paragraphs. “How many sentences are there in a paragraph?” they’d ask, and it frustrated them when I couldn’t give them a precise answer. That’s because paragraphs are dependent on content, not on size.

1. In nonfiction, each paragraph should cover one topic or one approach. When the topic changes, or when you are presenting a new aspect of that topic, start a new paragraph. Often, there’s a transitional sentence, either at the end of the first paragraph or at the beginning of the new one.

Here’s an example from Richard Lederer’s A Man of My Words:

***

…I will go anywhere to spread the word about words, and in going anywhere…I hear America singing. We are teeming nations within a nation, a nation that is like a world. We talk in melodies of infinite variety; we dance to their sundry measures and lyrics.

Midway through John Steinbeck’s epic novel The Grapes of Wrath, young Ivy observes, “Ever’body says words different. Arkansas folks says ‘em different, and Oklahomy folks says ‘em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, ‘an she said ‘em differentest of all…”

One aspect of American rugged individualism is that not all of us say the same word in the same way. Sometimes we don’t even use the same name for the same object.

***

Lederer’s first paragraph is general, presenting the concept of variety in American language. The second paragraph gives a specific example from literature. The third paragraph continues that concept, but sets up a series of paragraphs to follow in which he talks about regional differences like soda or pop and hoagie or po’boy.

Note that all three of Lederer’s paragraphs cover the same topic, but that he starts a new paragraph when he changes his approach to the topic.

You can probably see that I shortened those paragraphs to fit here; the original paragraphs were 5, 4, and 2 sentences long, but a glance through the book shows me that he has some very lengthy paragraphs that take almost an entire page, and some that consist of only one sentence or even a sentence fragment. There’s no rule about paragraph length.

2. In fiction, start a new paragraph whenever the action changes, or the location changes, or the focus switches from one character to another, or whenever a new character speaks.

As with nonfiction, there’s no set number of sentences in a paragraph.

Here’s an example from one of my challenge entries:

***

When Bob spoke Jocelyn’s name, it broke a silence of more than two hours. She was startled, and actually looked around for the source of the sound, then flushed at the realization that they spoke so infrequently that she didn’t readily recognize the sound of her husband’s voice. “What?” she said, more snappishly than she’d intended.

Bob said her name again, more softly this time. “Jocelyn. I had an idea.”

She felt as if this might be more important than a suggestion for tomorrow’s dinner, and she put down her knitting. “What is it?”

“I thought maybe you’d like to take a class with me.” Bob looked away from Jocelyn, toward the window, where nothing was happening.

“A class? What kind of class?” Jocelyn hadn’t taken a class in thirty years; algebra sprang to her mind, but that was ridiculous. Surely Bob didn’t intend to go back to high school with her.

***

You can see that each paragraph contains the actions, thoughts, and dialog of one of the two characters, and when any of those switches, the paragraph switches as well.

3. You were probably taught in English class that a paragraph starts with a topic sentence, followed by three or more sentences that support the topic sentence, followed by a conclusion. While this is certainly one way to write a paragraph, it’s not by any means a rule. I’d expect to see a sentence like that in nonfiction, perhaps academic writing. But if you’re one of those folks who clings to rules, kindly let go of that one. It’s only one of many, many possible ways to write a valid paragraph.

4. Paragraphs can contribute to the flow of your piece, whether its fiction or non-fiction. Shorter paragraphs will pick up the pace; longer ones will slow it down. Be purposeful, then, in creating paragraphs, and be sure that their lengths are effective for your content.

5. Especially in nonfiction (but sometimes in fiction as well), it's important to have smooth transitions between paragraphs. There’s a lesson on transitions here.

A few things to note about paragraphing in the computer age:

When writing something that will go online (a blog or this website, for example), you’ll probably use block paragraphs—single spaced, no indents, with a white space between paragraphs. That’s the way most sites are set up for online writing. If you’re a beginner here, and you’re of the generation that learned to type on actual typewriters, you may have to unlearn some typewriter-specific habits.

It’s very difficult on your readers’ eyes to have to cope with large blocks of text on screen. So be sure that you manually enter those white spaces after each paragraph, and check the preview screen to be sure that they’re there.

However, if your work is going to be in print, you need to unlearn online block paragraphing, and to go back to double-spaced and indented paragraphs. It’s one thing I always ask of my editing clients. And for that format, you do NOT need an extra white space between the indented paragraphs; it should be uniformly double-spaced throughout.

HOMEWORK:

1. Ask a question or make a comment about paragraphs and paragraphing.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by JudySauer » Sat Oct 31, 2015 2:51 pm

HOMEWORK: Ask a question or make a comment about paragraphs and paragraphing.

Suppose you have a MC who is processing internally a lot of information, and the thoughts ramble to different topics. In addition to putting the mind talking in italics, I presume when thoughts shift to different ideas that creating a new paragraph would be appropriate. Is this correct?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by glorybee » Sat Oct 31, 2015 3:30 pm

JudySauer wrote:HOMEWORK: Ask a question or make a comment about paragraphs and paragraphing.

Suppose you have a MC who is processing internally a lot of information, and the thoughts ramble to different topics. In addition to putting the mind talking in italics, I presume when thoughts shift to different ideas that creating a new paragraph would be appropriate. Is this correct?
Good question! A stream of consciousness like this would be best all in one paragraph, as formatting it into paragraphs would imply an organization of the character's thoughts--the exact opposite of what's happening.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by CatLin » Mon Nov 02, 2015 8:24 pm

]
JudySauer wrote: Suppose you have a MC who is processing internally a lot of information, and the thoughts ramble to different topics. In addition to putting the mind talking in italics, I presume when thoughts shift to different ideas that creating a new paragraph would be appropriate. Is this correct?

Hi Judy - Here is a link to one of my challenge entries in which the majority is stream of consciousness if you'd like to check it out.

Unquenched


I've learned the art using of the one-sentence paragraph - it's a very effective way to make a dramatic "pause" in transitioning to a different topic, or to grab the reader's attention at the of longer paragraph.

I often find a good breaking point while editing even if a paragraph is legitimately "long". People tend to have shorter attention spans these days, and shorter paragraphs (on line) is more liable to keep them reading. (my opinion, based on personal observation. :) )
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by sarita2 » Thu Nov 05, 2015 2:22 pm

Maybe this is a whole different topic deserving of its own lesson - but what about paragraphs in poetry? Some poets seem to just throw their words around in random spacing, paragraphs, indents, stair-stepping letters and such. (Which is one reason I think poetry can be so fun!) But are there any paragraph "rules" that apply to poetry?

Thanks!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS

Post by glorybee » Thu Nov 05, 2015 2:25 pm

sarita2 wrote:Maybe this is a whole different topic deserving of its own lesson - but what about paragraphs in poetry? Some poets seem to just throw their words around in random spacing, paragraphs, indents, stair-stepping letters and such. (Which is one reason I think poetry can be so fun!) But are there any paragraph "rules" that apply to poetry?

Thanks!
Sarita, thanks for bringing this up. There are definite poetry conventions--different ones for free verse and structured poetry. That's a great idea for a future lesson. Stay tuned...
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