Good writing flows. You find yourself at the end of a well-written piece surprised to have arrived so quickly and disappointed that the ride has concluded. The secret of flow lies in how well you have collected, ordered, and presented the sentences within each paragraph and how well you have collected, ordered, and presented the paragraphs into a whole. Each word is a brick, each sentence a course, each paragraph a collection of courses. The paragraphs are the walls that link and interlock to create the whole. You can write the most wonderful sentences ever, but unless they smoothly take the reader through paragraphs that transition out of and into the next, their individual quality is lost; they’re like bobbing debris in a muddy, rain-swollen stream.
Knowing the structure of a good paragraph is like having a cheater card on what makes for a good writing generally. Obviously, for my purposes here, the writing referred to is an essay as opposed dialogue stitched together with an occasional narrative paragraph thrown in to clarify, defined, describe, or otherwise keep the reader oriented within a story.
The essay is another matter. It needs careful attention to structure to be successful. You can’t allow it to wonder off into the wilderness very far before the reader gets lost or gives up or is pulled under and drowned in confusion and frustration. Dialogue on the other hand almost forces continuity on you. A says this, B responds with that, and A picks up on that and says something else to which B replies and so on. That is an oversimplification but I’ll return to dialogue in a separate blog.
The flow of the sentences and paragraphs in an essay is almost totally dependent on the writer and the attention s/he gives to content and structure. The essay writer must be ever vigilant to the need to hold the readers’ attention and propel him or her along on a current of a logical and consistently presented sentences and paragraphs.
There are three key elements of a good paragraph. The first is unity; the second is coherence; and, the third is development. Unity means each sentence in the paragraph supports the main idea of the paragraph, which, you will recall, is supposed to be presented in the topic sentence. Thus, as each sentence supports the topic of the paragraph, each paragraph collectively supports the topic of the essay. It’s the topic sentence’s assignment to provide a sort of overview of the paragraph’s subject. The introductory paragraph in an essay does the same thing for the essay.
The topic sentence is like a billboard. It announces the message(s) contained in the paragraph. The other sentences of the paragraph define, explain, or support the topic sentence by adding details. Parenthetical phrases or information set off by dashes within the separate sentences of a paragraph should in some way support the topic and not interject new and unrelated information, otherwise you create potholes in your flow.
Something is coherent if it’s logical and consistent, and the constituent parts together form a whole. Coherency serves as a good test to determine if a paragraph is complete, i.e., contains sufficient detail to do the job of supporting the topic set forth in the topic sentence. Within the paragraph, coherence means that each sentence logically follows the one before it and transitions smoothly into the one that follows. It creates the current of the paragraph’s stream. Within the essay, the collected paragraphs assume that role.
There are several ways that sentences support a paragraph’s topic sentence: (1) chronological, (2) climactic (starts at the high point); (3) order of importance; (4) general to the specific, or vice versa, (5) spatial order (elements that relate to one another); (6) question-answer, (7) problem-solution, or (8) topic-restriction-illustration. The latter type is when the topic might be introduced generally but is narrowly focused and supported by examples or an illustration to assure clarity. Here’s an example from Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook (14th ed., 2001):
The civility that lingers on in Japan is the most charming and delightful aspect of life there today. Taxi drivers wear white gloves, take pride in the cleanliness of their vehicles, and sometimes give a discount if they mistakenly take a long route. When they are sick, Japanese wear surgical masks so they will not infect others. The Japanese language has almost no curses, and high school baseball teams bow to each other at the beginning of each game.
Notice how the above paragraph could serve as the opening (topic) paragraph to a longer essay on Japanese civility. Each subsequent paragraph would pick up the topics of the sentences and expand them with additional details, examples, or anecdotes. It’s important to keep in mind as you read a sample paragraph where it might fit into a longer piece. That exercise will help you learn to see the bigger picture. That is what essays are about, a collection of well-crafted paragraphs that sufficiently expand topics to cover a selected subject.
An example of spatial order from the list above:
The ranger’s residence stood in the middle of a large, well-kept yard. Within the confines of the yard there were other structures. Off in one corner sat the smoke house, used to prepare Christmas hams and turkeys. In the opposite corner, a coop within a fenced area confined a small brood of chickens that produced a daily supply of eggs. Along the right fence sat a combination garage and workshop. Little paths connected these structures and led to the backdoor of the main house.
Note that in the above paragraph I use transitions (within, off in one corner, along) to tie the sentences together and sketch the scene. In a chronological paragraph, the transitions might include after, as soon as, before, next, finally, etc. These transitions are similar to those you might use to tie the various paragraphs of an essay together. If you are writing about a state park, for example, the various paragraphs might deal with location, geology, trees, fauna, wildlife and so on. The paragraphs might rely on introductory transitions that link them together, for example, in chronological order. The order of topics of an essay or article is usually easily identified. Even in a longer magazine article, you can identify the organizational structure that the author has applied as s/he shifts from one topic to another. Rather than a single paragraph, you’ll encounter multiple paragraphs that are tied together to cover a topic before they transition into another topic.
While sentences within a paragraph may reflect grammatical rules of construction, they typically provide you with the sense as to whether you have put them in proper order. I call paragraphs where the sentences lack this cohesion “popcorn paragraphs” because the sentences seem to pop up or hop around chaotically. These paragraphs can leave you confused and you read them again to try and determine what it is you might have missed. Thus, a paragraph might be unified—cover but one topic—but still lack coherence because it fails to flow logically. Like stepping back to consider a piece of art on the wall of the museum, you need to step back to see if a paragraph flows. The sentences might be perfectly good sentences but need to be rearranged and/or tweaked to achieve the proper effect and impact.
This is when you discover that coherence of your paragraph can be improved by transitional devices that tie the interior sentences together as needed. These devices include pronouns, repetition, use of transitional words or phrases, or parallel construction. Some examples are called for here:
Note how the pronoun they ties the sentences of the following paragraph together:
Shoplifters exhibit several traits or tendencies that can give them away. Most of these traits involve their attempts to look interested but are really used to determine whether they are being watched and thus might get caught. They also tend to display suspicious interest in an eclectic range of products. They usually pick up a product and hold it so they appear to be inspecting it or reading a label but in reality are scanning their surroundings. They prefer products that have higher value and are easily concealed. When they seem to return the product to the shelf or bin they display a flurry of activity to make it appear they are moving on but in reality the actions conceal their theft. They frequently stop and survey the area they are working to assure they have not been spotted. They tend to flitter from one department of a store to another, touching and checking products innocently to conceal the theft of what they really want.
Columnist Ellen Goodman provides a good example of repetition in her “Waving Goodbye to the Country”:
The weekend is over, and we drive down the country road from the cottage to the pier, passing out our last supply of waves. We wave at people walking and wave at people riding. We wave at the people we know and wave at the people who are strangers.
Conjunctions and transitional phrases can add to contrasts or clarifications within a paragraph. She cried and he teared up. – Her frown was narrow and tight while his smile spread from ear to ear. – She cried because the dog snarled.
As you would expect, there are transitions for every occasion: alternatives, additions, comparison and contrast; those that set place (e.g., here, adjacent to, opposite to); purpose (e.g., to this end . . .); result or cause; summary (e.g., to summarize, in any event); repetition; exemplification (for example); intensification (I would stress or point out); time (e.g., meanwhile, afterward).
Parallel structures is another way of saying parallelism or the repetition of a sentence pattern or grammatical structure. (When A, you deserve B; If that then this.)
You can see how these alternative structures can add variety to a paragraph and make it sound less like you’re presenting a list. But what is most important is to not get bogged down in trying to write alternative structures in your initial draft where your primary focus should be on content. During editing and rewriting is the best time to carefully review the structure of your paragraphs to determine if an available alternative structural technique would enhance the individuality and uniqueness of the paragraph and thus its flow.
Similarly, the editing and rewriting process is a good time to see whether the sentences in your paragraphs that add information, definitions, or explanation are built on the subject or predicate of your topic sentence. Bear with me here because this can sound like a “grammatical nitpick.” It simply means that when reviewing a paragraph, you might want to see if the sentences you used to add detail relate to either the subject or the predicate of your topic sentence. Yes, while some sentences might legitimately relate to the subject and others to the predicate of the topic sentence, if you bounce around too much—alternate between the two—coherence can suffer. The following example shows how the subjects of the supporting sentences relate to the subject of the first (topic) sentence. Note how this helps with the flow of the sentences:
Women of all classes joined in the suffragette movement to demand equality in voting rights between men and women. These demonstrators joined together to march and demand equality in other endeavors as well. Not only did they demand equality in voting rights but also in fair working conditions and wages. Women today continue to make the same demands.
Just be aware that if you bounce between supporting the subject and predicate of your topic sentence in your supporting sentences, you can loose a sense of cohesion and not quite realize your paragraph just doesn’t sound right. But again, this should be a test applied during the editing and rewriting process. If you are mindful of it, your results will be improved, but if you are too mindful of it while writing your initial draft, you can get bogged down and the quality of the flow of your thoughts might actually suffer. It’s also during the review time that you can assess whether you have provided sufficient details or examples to support and illustrate your topic sentences.
Being mindful of these details will result in you writing better paragraphs. After a while, you’ll develop a sense about whether the paragraph you are constructing adheres to these rules of clarity. That’s the beauty of learning to be a better writer. The rules cease to be compliance lists and become part of your developing style and technique. All that is required is patience, practice, and time.
One of the plagues that hit Grammarland is what I call the “clincher disease.” Many texts and grammar teachers say that a paragraph needs a summary or closing sentence that clinches the topic or in some way restates or summarizes the main idea of the sentence. Maybe so, if it would add to the clarity and flow of the piece, but so many times the lesser-experienced writer will merely repeat the topic sentence in some minor way. The worst paragraphs are those that begin and end with near identical sentences. The test for whether a paragraph needs a clincher is whether at the end of last period you have an understanding of what was written. A clincher can assure that a paragraph is easily understood.
Whoever thought up the idea of clincher sentences probably was more focused on the grammar perfection than the clarity and flow of writing. They are the same small minds who excoriated those who use sentence fragments. If a fragment works best, then fragment away. When writing for the grammar teacher, you’re probably best advised to pander to their expectations; when writing for a “normal” reading audience, think of their enjoyment. If you consistently apply the pattern of topic-support-clincher, you will assure a sing-song rhythm to your writing that gets very old, very fast. If, however, you are writing a longer paragraph filled with details, a summary sentence might be helpful; but what is always important is to end a paragraph in a way that will assure that it transitions smoothly into the next paragraph.
There is a distinction in grammar studied as a student and grammar used by a writer. The student is confined to the classroom-textbook environment replete with examples and exercises. Writers don’t exercise; they create. There is a distinction between reading a textbook paragraph and applying the rules to your own writing. Keep that in mind. That is why you find yourself writing something, and later, during the review and editing process, you spot things that don’t work quite right. It has little or nothing to do with your competence. Your story lives in one part of your brain, and the rules of grammar in another. Over time the writer part and the grammar part develop more instant interaction and what you put down first gets closer to what you want to put down first. It is the review and editing that will make you a better writer on the long haul.
I use Hemmingway as an example. His goal was to write 500 words a day. But the reason only 500 was likely that it took a day to whittle away the unneeded to find the quality he sought. We see the 500 words on the page, not the few thousands that littered the floor—the remnants, like the shavings made by the cabinetmaker to form a smooth, curved table leg.