Paragraphs are meant to make reading a text easier. When a writer composes for school or work purposes, paragraphs help promote the brevity, clarity, and simplicity expected of formal writing. Each new paragraph signals a pause in thought and a change in topic, directing readers to anticipate what is to follow or allowing them a moment to digest the material in the preceding paragraph. Reasons to start a new paragraph include
- beginning a new idea,
- emphasizing a particular point,
- changing speakers in dialogue,
- allowing readers to pause, and
- breaking up lengthy text, usually moving to a subtopic.
Once a writer is satisfied with their paragraph content, they take their readers into consideration. They revise and edit to make their paragraphs both engaging and easy to read. Key considerations for revising and editing paragraphs are length, variety, clarity, and transitions.
Effective paragraphs vary in length. Paragraph lengths should invite readers in, neither seeming too daunting nor appearing incomplete. Paragraphs of more than one double-spaced page will appear too dense and too long to be inviting. However, short paragraphs can appear choppy and undeveloped. In fact, one-sentence paragraphs are rarely effective. Not only can a one-sentence paragraph seem abrupt, but it can also leave readers puzzled. A sentence that makes a point about a topic will typically need at least one or even more sentences to illustrate and explain that point.
For complex concepts such as those in persuasive essays that demand detailed explanation and supporting evidence, longer paragraphs are necessary. However, when narrating an example or explaining a process, shorter paragraphs will best emphasize the order of ideas or importance of each step.
Most people have experienced a lecture or presentation given by someone who talks in a monotone. It probably puts the audience to sleep. The equivalent of such monotony in writing occurs when sentences have the same structure and the same length. Once the content of the writing is solid, an experienced writer revises, paying attention to sentence variety. Strong paragraphs contain a variety of sentence structures, sentence types, sentence openings, and sentence lengths.
One method for gaining sentence variety is to use all of the below sentence structures in your paper.
1. Simple Sentence = one independent clause with no subordinate clause
Music is life itself (Louis Armstrong).
2. Compound Sentence = two or more independent clauses with no subordinate clauses
One arrow is easily broken, but a bundle of ten can’t be broken.
independent clause, [conjunction] independent clause
3. Complex Sentence = one independent clause with one or more subordinate clauses
If you scatter thorns, don’t go barefoot.
subordinate clause, independent clause
4. Compound-Complex Sentence = at least two independent clauses and at least one subordinate clause
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you [what you are].
independent clause, [conjunction] independent clause [subordinate clause]
Another method for adding variety is to use different sentence types:
- Declarative = makes a statement: The echo always has the last word.
- Imperative = makes a demand: Love your neighbor.
- Interrogative = asks a question: Are second thoughts always wisest?
- Exclamatory = makes an exclamation: I want to wash the flag, not burn it!
Declarative sentences will naturally be used the most in academic writing. But imperative and interrogative sentences can make the content stronger and add sentence variety. Exclamatory sentences are used rarely in academic writing and professional writing but can occasionally be effective, depending on context, audience, and purpose.
Another way to add sentence variety is with sentence openings. Many writers fall into a pattern of starting sentences the same way, generally with the subject of the sentence. Here is a sample of what can be done with the simple sentence “John broke the window.” The different openings not only add variety, but also create more interesting content.
- Subject: John broke the window.
- Conjunction: But John broke the window.
- Adverb (answers how, when, why): Afterwards, John broke the window.
- Adverb Clause: While hitting a fly ball in the vacant field, John broke the window.
- Expletive (there, it): There is the window John broke.
- Correlative Conjunction: Either John broke the window with the fly ball or he did not.
- Prepositional Phrase: During the game, John broke the window.
- Infinitive Phrase: To complete the destructiveness of the baseball game, John broke the window.
- Passive Voice: The window was broken by John.
- Participle Phrase: Testing his father’s patience, John broke the window.
- Subordinate Clause: Although John hit a home run, the price was a broken window.
- Inverted Word Order: The window John broke.
Inverted word order should not be overused. But occasional use at an important point where the writer wants to grab the reader’s attention can add surprise and drama as in the following example:
o Normal Word Order: The Christmas treats, the bright, beribboned presents, and the charitable love of the season are all gone.
o Inverted Word Order: Gone are the Christmas treats, the bright, beribboned presents, and the charitable love of the season.
Varied Sentence Lengths
A final way to vary sentences is with length. Experienced writers strive to compose sentences that are short, medium, and long in length. They can check sentence length by beginning each sentence of a paragraph on a separate line, so they can scan the lengths. Here is an example:
- Kirilov’s home is described as dark, in part because of his son’s sickness and death, which occurred barely five minutes before Aboguin rings the doctor’s doorbell.
- The entry is dark and the lamp in his drawing room is unlighted, allowing the twilight and the dark September evening to fill the room, relieved only by a light in the adjoining study that lights his books and a big lamp in the dead boy’s bedroom.
- The darkness extends to Kirilov himself.
- Chekhov describes him as having a prematurely gray beard and skin with a pale gray hue.
- His hands are stained black with carbolic acid, marking him as a laborer.
- His dark home and gray appearance exemplify the grayness and monotony of life that characterize his recent loss and years of poverty.
The varied lengths are easy to see at a glance. If the writer decides the paper’s sentences need to be more varied in length, much can be done. For example, clauses can be converted to phrases: Sentence one in the paragraph above could be changed to the following:
- Kirilov’s home is described as dark, in part because of his son’s sickness and death, occurring barely five minutes before.
Sentences can be combined. Sentences three and four above could become the following:
- The darkness extends to Kirilov himself as Chekhov describes him as having a prematurely graybeard and skin with a pale gray hue.
Long sentences can be divided. Sentence two above could become the following:
- The entry is dark, and the lamp in his drawing room is unlighted, allowing the twilight and the dark September evening to fill the room. The darkness is relieved only by a light in the adjoining study that lights his books and a big lamp in the dead boy’s bedroom.
Phrases can become one or two words. Sentence four above could become the following:
- Chekhov describes him as prematurely gray.
These changes do not necessarily make the sentence better, but they serve as good examples of what can be done to change sentence length and add sentence variety.
Sentence clarity requires grammatical correctness; however, mixed constructions, faulty predication, and inconsistent or incomplete comparisons are common causes of garbled sentences that writers must check for when revising and editing.
A mixed construction occurs when a sentence begins with one grammatical pattern and concludes with a different grammatical pattern, as if the writer started writing a sentence, was interrupted, and then finished it without referring back to the beginning.
- The fact that our room was hot we opened the window between our beds.
- By not prosecuting marijuana possession as vigorously as crack possession encourages marijuana users to think they can ignore the law.
- Because of the European discovery of America became a profitable colony for Britain.
An easy way to identify mixed constructions is to read a paper backwards, one sentence at a time so that each sentence is isolated.
Faulty predication occurs when the predicate of a sentence does not logically complete its subject. Most often, faulty predication involves the verb “to be.” We know that “to be” verbs act like equal signs between the subject and predicate:
- The piano player is skilled.
However, if the predicate is logically inconsistent with the subject, the sentence will confuse readers.
- The power of a skilled piano player is keenly aware of being able to raise strong emotions in listeners. [Can the power of a piano player be keenly aware?]
- Listeners are keenly aware of the power a skilled piano player has to raise strong emotions in listeners. [Now it is the listeners who are keenly aware.]
Inconsistent or Incomplete Comparisons
When making comparisons, the writer must make sure they are consistent and complete.
- Inconsistent: Brownlee’s business proposal is better than Summers. [Brownlee’s business proposal is being compared to Summers, a person.]
- Consistent: Brownlee’s business proposal is better than the one by Summers.
- Incomplete: I was ashamed because my background was so different. [Different from what?]
- Complete: I was ashamed because my background was so different from that of my new co-workers.
Inconsistent and incomplete comparisons are common in speech. Context, facial expression, and body language supply the missing information. But in formal writing, care must be taken to compose clear sentences.
Transitions are one of the methods used to make paragraphs flow smoothly. Transitions are connectors or bridges between thoughts. When the reader knows the relationship between concepts or sentences, the thoughts flow smoothly and the paragraph is easier to read. Writers use both transition words and transition sentences.
Transition Words and Phrases
Transitional expressions work well between sentences when the relationship between sentences is not already evident. Transitional expressions can also be used between paragraphs so that the content of one paragraph leads logically into the next paragraph. In these cases, the transition highlights the relationship that is already clear. If someone reads the word “however,” they know that the next thought will be in contrast to the previous one. The word acts as a bridge explaining the relationship between the two thoughts. If someone reads the word “meanwhile,” they know that the next event is happening at the same time as the event discussed previously. The word explains the simultaneous relationship between the two events.
Example of Transition Words and Expressions
- To Indicate Time Order: in the past, before, earlier, preceding, recently, presently, currently, now
- To Provide an Example: for example, for instance, to illustrate, specifically, in particular, namely, in other words
- To Indicate Results: as a result, consequently, because of, for this reason, since, therefore, thus, accordingly
- To Concede: although, even though, admittedly, granted, while it is true, of course
- To Compare: in comparison, in like manner, in much the same way, likewise
- To Contrast: and yet, but, despite, nevertheless, nonetheless, notwithstanding, however, contrary to, on the other hand
- To Emphasize: above all, undoubtedly, most importantly, moreover, furthermore, without question
For more sophisticated transitions between paragraphs, writers use whole sentences. Types of transition sentences include the following:
- Echo Transition: The writer echoes a word, phrase, or idea from the last sentence of one paragraph in the first sentence of the next paragraph. Here is an example:
. . . Throughout the story, the husband’s word is considered law, and the wife barely dares to question it.
This unequal marriage fits perfectly into the historical period of the setting. . .
The italicized phrase echoes the idea in the previous paragraph, providing a bridge to the next paragraph.
- Key Word Transition: The writer repeats key words from one paragraph to the next. Here is an example:
. . . Shirley Jackson shows the uselessness of the lottery and the selfishness of human nature through Mr. Warner’s ignorance.
This selfishness of human nature is shown very clearly through Tessie in the story….
The repetition of key words demonstrates the relationship between the ideas in the two paragraphs.
- Look Backward and Forward: In one or two sentences, the text looks back at the ideas of the preceding paragraph and then looks forward to the ideas in the next paragraph.
…These first two stanzas set up the theme of triumph in life.
In contrast to this victory, stanza three moves to the issue of dying….
In the italicized sentence, the first phrase (“in contrast to this victory’) looks backward at the ideas of the preceding paragraph. The second clause (“stanza three moves to the issue of dying”) looks forward to the ideas in the next paragraph.