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blog | June 18, 2015

Clear Thinking for Great Copy, Part 3: Building the Right Paragraph

By David Hopkins

On the subject of writing a novel, Neil Gaiman once said, “You put one word after another like putting brick onto a wall. And sooner or later, you look and you’ve managed to build the palace of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria… out of matchsticks.” I love this quote, and it’s a beautiful sentiment on the end results of the often-tedious writing process. However, with all due respect to Neil, the writer doesn’t organize his ideas “one word after another.” The paragraphs are the matchsticks we use to build our castle.

I hear you saying, “Hey idiot, aren’t there words in the paragraphs?” Yes, of course, my oddly belligerent hypothetical reader-friend. Think of it this way: It’s absurd for a builder to work with atoms and molecules. While the wooden beams and bricks are comprised of atoms and molecules, the builder functions at the level of wooden beams and bricks, nails and cement. Likewise, while the words and sentence reveal an attention to nuance and craftsmanship, the writer must build and think through an essay, a blog post, website content, or a novel with paragraphs.

The “word” is not my end result. I’m working toward a paragraph and then another paragraph. The paragraph is a slippery concept. You shouldn’t be too surprised teachers gloss over it hastily. Many writers can’t explain what a paragraph is. They know it when they see the indention, or they give terribly rigid—ultimately inaccurate—definitions like “a paragraph is a group of three or more sentences.” A paragraph is a complete thought dealing with a single theme, often developed and supported by other ideas. A paragraph can be a single word, a single sentence, or it can be established over several sentences. (So, forget counting sentences.)

Paragraphs form the basis of a mental outline. This outline helps writers organize their thoughts, providing a foundation to build upon, and guidance when they’re lost. It’s the lighthouse guiding a ship into harbor during a rainy, foggy night. In this metaphor, the fog is your scattered, disorganized brain.

Why paragraphs fail?

A paragraph fails when the sentences, while they make sense as individual units, do not connect in a logical or meaningful way. I need a sense of cohesion with what I’m writing. The sentence following this sentence should contribute to a linear thought process. I can do without the non-sequiturs.

That’s not to say people who are distracted by shiny objects can’t write. Far from it. You just need to make sure you bring the party along for the ride. If the subject changes: make a new paragraph, create a new subhead to give direction, or opt for bullet points if the ideas are flying furiously.

Other paragraphs fail because each sentence is simply restating the previous sentence but with different words. You have sentences, and they all say the same thing, but the words are different. New sentences, different words, no new information. The new sentences simply restate what previous sentences already stated. (Hopefully, you get what I’m saying. There’s no progression.)

Do I need a main sentence?

Desperate teachers in an effort to systematize the amorphous process of writing a paragraph talk about needing a “main sentence” and “supporting sentences.” You remember school assignments where you had to circle the main sentence that was hiding within each paragraph. Honestly, I don’t know if you need an explicit main sentence. I don’t look for one every time I finish writing a paragraph, and I can’t always find one when I’m reading someone else’s work.

Instead, every paragraph needs to have a main or controlling idea, which is different than a main sentence where all the other sentences flow. You should be able to read a paragraph, and see the subtle, but ever present, idea developing.

The long and the short paragraph

I’m a fan of the short paragraph. A little bit of me dies when I see an entire page of text with no paragraph breaks and no indentions. My brain shuts down. Nope, nope, nope! That doesn’t mean I always write short paragraphs.

How long should a paragraph be? It depends on the subject of course.

Like a sentence, a long paragraph can convey a depth of necessary information. When done right, there is an odd beauty in it. The short paragraph is best used for emphasis and style. It’s a nice break for the reader. (See previous paragraph for an example at work.) Ultimately, the best paragraphs have an innate sense of when they should end. Nothing is wasted.

The stylistic paragraph break

One reason paragraphs are so tricky: the construction can be a matter of style and not some timeless law, separating right from wrong. Sometimes we break one paragraph into two or more paragraphs, because the break itself creates a necessary or intriguing shift.

And then, we pick up where we left off with another sentence. (See what I just did there?) The stylistic paragraph break should not be overused. Like all great tricks, it has a diminishing return.

The ultimate goal of the paragraph is to communicate clearly what we’re thinking. We do this by grouping our ideas into sections. When organizing what we write, the writer needs to think one paragraph at a time. For example, before I started writing this paragraph, I had a note here that said: “Insert the concluding paragraph here that summarizes my point. Make it short, sweet, take a bow, and exit the stage.”

Next week: Editing to Perfection