Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 30, 2016 1:40 pm

When I was teaching writing to high school students, they frequently asked me, “Mrs. Ackerson, how many sentences are there in a paragraph?” That frustrated me, because, as you’ll see, there’s not one particular correct answer to that question—not the answer they were looking for, at any rate. Even worse was when a student would tell me, “Mrs. Smith told us that a paragraph has to have four sentences.” Once they’d learned that ‘rule’ in an earlier grade, it was difficult to persuade them otherwise.

With that out of the way, here’s a somewhat adequate definition for a paragraph: a unit of writing that contains one idea and its elaboration or support. Since paragraphs are handled a little bit differently in nonfiction and fiction writing, I’ll cover them one at a time.

Nonfiction

Some of you were probably taught that a ‘proper’ paragraph contains a topic sentence and some (usually three) sentences of support. That’s certainly one acceptable paragraph structure, but it’s not the only one. A paragraph may or may have a topic sentence, and if it does, the topic sentence may be found at the beginning, or the middle, or the end of the paragraph. And the sentences in the paragraph, may support or elaborate on the topic in any number of ways.

So please don’t get hung up on being sure that your paragraphs fit into a prescribed formula: topic sentence, support, summarizing sentence. That may work for some kinds of writing, but for compelling and creative writing that people want to read, you’ll want to vary it somewhat. Some of your paragraphs may be quite long, others very short. Some may only contain one sentence that you really want to stand out.

Here are a few examples of non-fiction paragraphs that take different approaches:

From A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

For various practical reasons, principally to do with the long, punishing winters of northern New England, there are only so many available months to hike the trail each year. If you start at the northern end, at Mount Katahdin in Maine, you must wait for the snows to clear in late May or June. If, on the other hand, you start in Georgia and head north, you must time it to finish before mid-October, when the snows blow back in. Most people hike from south to north with spring, ideally keeping one step ahead of the worst of the hot weather and the more irksome and infectious of insects. My intention was to start in the south in early March. I put aside six weeks for the first leg.

***

That’s a really good example of the ‘topic sentence + elaboration’ structure. A few things to point out: Despite the fact that it fits into a formula, it’s an interesting and well-written paragraph, using excellent word choices and varied sentence structures. Also, it ends with a few sentences that transition seamlessly into the next paragraph, which is about the length of the trail and the times that it takes to walk each leg. I have other lessons about word choice, sentence structure, and transition, so I won’t say more about that here.

Here’s another example of a good nonfiction paragraph, from the blog of Rachel Held Evans:

I once spoke with a young woman who was raised in a very liberal mainline tradition who told me she left the church because, “I wasn’t learning anything there about tolerance, love, and good stewardship of the planet that I wasn’t learning at my public high school, so what was the point?” As passionate as young Christians are about social issues, we realize that both Jesus without social justice and social justice without Jesus leaves something to be desired. If you don’t like how conservative evangelicals talk about the Bible, then talk about it better, but don’t not talk about it at all. If you don’t like how conservative evangelicals proselytize, then preach the gospel better, but don’t not preach it at all.

***

That paragraph doesn’t really have a topic sentence, but it develops a thought—first with a little anecdote, and then with some imperative sentences in a pleasing parallel structure.

Finally, here’s one more nonfiction paragraph that has still another structure, from Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy:

There’s something about depression that allows you (or sometimes forces you) to explore depths of emotion that most ‘normal’ people could never dream of. Imagine having a disease so overwhelming that your mind wants to cause you to murder yourself. Imagine having a malignat disorder that no one understands. Imagine having a dangerous affliction that even you can’t control or suppress. Imagine all the people living life in peace. Imagine the estate of John Lennon not suing me for using that last line. The imagine that same (often fatal) disease being one of the most misunderstood disorders … one that so few want to talk about and one that so many of us can never completely escape from.

***

This one starts out like a topic sentence + support paragraph, takes a few hairpin turns, and comes back with some emotionally impactful conclusions (that also transition to the next paragraph). And this one if full of an authentic and recognizable writer’s voice.

So…my main points:

1. Paragraphs should cover one topic only
2. They can do that in any number of acceptable ways.
3. They can be any length (while the examples I gave here are all of similar lengths, paragraphs can be very short or very long).
4. They should transition to the following paragraph
5. Even in nonfiction, they should not be dry or uninteresting. Use great words, varied sentences, and your own voice

Finally, a note about formatting paragraphs here on FaithWriters, especially for you who may be new here. The FaithWriters site supports block paragraphing, as in this posting, where the paragraphs are single-spaced, not indented, and separated by a blank line. Sometimes, when you copy and paste something that’s been written in a different format, it doesn’t look right in FaithWriters; specifically, the paragraphs sometimes get smooshed together with no white spaces, making it very difficult to read. You have to manually add those spaces back in before you hit ‘Submit.’

I’m going to cover paragraphs for fiction writers next week.

No homework this week, but if you have a question or comment about this lesson, feel free to post it here.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by Caleb Cheong » Thu Feb 04, 2016 11:48 am

Hi Jan!

Thank you for this new topic. I'm interested in writing about my life journey with my wife from her

stroke to post-stroke situations. Will this be nonfiction narrative writing when I share my life episodes

with my readers? Is there any standard structure for this genre of story telling?



Thank you

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by glorybee » Thu Feb 04, 2016 1:08 pm

Caleb Cheong wrote:I'm interested in writing about my life journey with my wife from her stroke to post-stroke situations. Will this be nonfiction narrative writing when I share my life episodes with my readers? Is there any standard structure for this genre of story telling?
Yes--since this actually happened to you, it will be nonfiction. It could also be considered autobiography or memoir.

You might want to check out the lesson on '1st person and memoir' for some tips about this kind of writing. It could also fall under 'creative nonfiction,' a lesson that I'll be writing and posting soon (so check back a few times in the next week or so).

Here's a quick preview of some of the points of creative nonfiction:

1. Use some of the best features of fiction--dialogue, descriptions of actions and events
2. Use interesting words
3. Vary your sentence structures and your paragraph structures
4. There's no 'standard sturcture'--you can use flashbacks and flash forwards, just as you might if you were writing fiction

I'll save the rest for the actual lesson--hope to see you there!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by Caleb Cheong » Fri Feb 05, 2016 12:12 pm

Hi Jan!

Thank you very much for answering my questions. I look forward to learning from you about creative nonfiction.



Regards

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by Caleb Cheong » Fri Feb 12, 2016 1:53 am

Hi Jan!

I certainly agree with you that we should not be

pigeonholed by a 4-sentence paragraph

( opinion->explanation->example/elaboration->link).

Ijust remember that we sometimes write

spontaneously in a longer paragraph, reflecting

a different version of paragraphing. The first

sentence is introductory, the second topic sentence

, from the third to eighth sentences support

sentences, and the last one the conclusion

sentence. I personally prefer this style because

it offers certainty and creativity.

What is your comment?


By the way, can fragment sentences

work together with ellipses in writing? What's your advice?

:thankssign :thankssign

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by glorybee » Fri Feb 12, 2016 12:03 pm

Your formula for a paragraph is fine, and it certainly would have its uses, particularly in academic writing. I'd just caution you not to stick to any one style of paragraphs, lest your writing become predictable and overly formulaic.

Ellipses can indeed be used with sentence fragments...no problem. (See what I did there?)

However, I find that ellipses are used too often in this way, when that's not their primary use. In academic writing, ellipses are used to indicate omitted material in a block of quoted text. In fiction, ellipses usually indicate drifting off of speech or thought.

In the example above, I'd actually prefer an em dash to the ellipsis:

Ellipses can indeed be used with sentence fragments--no problem.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PARAGRAPHS FOR NONFICTION WRITERS

Post by Caleb Cheong » Fri Feb 12, 2016 12:42 pm

Hi Jan!


Thank you for enlightening me on these.



Regards

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