Paragraphs – what should they look like?
In the section on sentences, I suggested that you can also learn a lot about the length of sentences simply by being aware of what you are doing when you are writing. You can do the same with paragraphs. Have a look at your most recent essay. Do your paragraphs have wildly differing lengths – sometimes a few lines, sometimes nearly a whole page? Or are they all about the same length? If you answered ‘yes’ to the second question then you are well on your way to writing good, clear essays.
A good average length for a paragraph is somewhere between 150 – 250 or between a third and two thirds of a double-spaced A4 page. Have a look at paragraphs in books and journals to get a better sense of good paragraph length. A paragraph that is longer than this suggested length gets harder and harder to follow. A paragraph that is shorter looks scrappy, more like a note than part of a coherent, developing argument.
This does not mean that all paragraphs should be exactly the same length but it’s a good rule to follow when you first start writing essays.
Paragraphs – what should be in them?
Each paragraph should represent a new stage in the argument and structure of your essay. A good way to think about the content of paragraphs is the ‘Rubin method’ which says that paragraphs should contain a subject or topic and a series of statements that make clear what the writer thinks is important or pertinent about the subject or topic.
Some people find it useful to think about each paragraph of the essay as a separate component which gets linked with all the others later. Other people find it easy to move from one paragraph to the next.
Some things paragraphs can do
- Divide writing into easily manageable sections.
- Signal a change of direction in an argument: “However, when we apply Professor X’s model to the recent performance of Marks & Spencer we can see…”
- Signal the introduction of a new idea.
- Be containers for separate points in your argument.
- Summarise what’s been said so far before moving on to the next stage of an argument.
Now you’ve written clear sentences and arranged them into clear paragraphs you need to make your essay flow smoothly. You make this happen by linking everything together. Here’s an example from a book about Chinese business practices:
…By using family titles to name their colleagues, Chinese employees shape their business relations in terms of the well-known conventions and roles of the family and social structure.
Interaction between employers and employees also finds a basis in family-centered codes of behaviour.
Our example shows the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. The author’s main point is the way that family relations are the basis for all Chinese social relations, including those in the workplace. The end of the first paragraph sums up the way that Chinese workers interact. The beginning of the second paragraph starts by talking about the way that Chinese employers and their workers interact.
Read the example carefully and you will see that the beginning of the second paragraph mirrors and repeats words from the end of the first one. The words ‘employees’ and ‘family’ appear in both paragraphs. The word ‘interaction’ mirrors the word ‘relations’. The phrases ‘shape their business relations in terms of’ and ‘finds a basis in’ say similar things. The author keeps his main point – all relations are modelled on family relations – in front of the reader and then works through different examples of it.
When you read, see if you can spot when an author is linking things together in this way – it will help your own writing.
Link words and phrases
Here are some link words and phrases that often appear at the beginning of a paragraph:
It is a question that can only be answered by… At this point… We need, at this point, to go back briefly to… So far we have only examined X… This helps explain why… For X, on the contrary,… Such a reading, however,… However, what is most important… Following the model of X, we can see that… A significant implication of Bloggs’s theory is… What distinguishes X from Y is…
Look at these phrases carefully: they all introduce a new beginning while referring to what has gone before. Remember: link words and phrases work in both directions, backwards and forwards.
Of course, you can also use link words and phrases in the middle of a paragraph to start a new sentence. However, make sure you don’t over-use words such as ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘additionally’, ‘nonetheless’ and ‘similarly’ to start either new paragraphs or new sentences.
Another way to understand how link words and phrases work is to take a passage from a book and remove all words that seem to be superfluous to the argument.
Here is an example from Linda Hutcheon’s book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Hutcheon is criticising an article by another critic Terry Eagleton. Here is the passage as it appears in the book:
In fact, much of what is offered here is repeated in other theorizing on postmodernism. Like many before him (both defenders and detractors), Eagleton separates theory and practice, choosing to argue primarily in abstract theoretical terms and almost seeming to avoid mention of exactly what kind of aesthetic practice is actually being talked about. This strategy, however clever and certainly convenient, leads only to endless confusion.
Now here’s the same passage with everything superfluous removed:
Much offered here is repeated in other theorizing on postmodernism. Like many, both defenders and detractors, Eagleton separates theory and practice, choosing to argue in abstract theoretical terms and almost seeming to avoid mention of what aesthetic practice is being talked about. This strategy, clever and convenient, leads to endless confusion.
Read the two passages aloud and listen to how different they sound. In Linda Hutcheon’s original paragraph, we get a sense of a real person talking to us and trying to persuade us of her point of view. In my edited version, over a third of the passage has disappeared and the passage now reads like a collection of notes. It sounds like a robot talking. The sense of a real person talking to us has disappeared. Crucially, it’s now unclear what Hutcheon is saying about Terry Eagleton’s article. Does she agree or disagree? Does she find it helpful or unhelpful. In the edited version, the conclusion is still that Eagleton’s methodology “leads to endless confusion” but it is unclear whether Hutcheon approves, disapproves or is just giving an objective description.
Take a section from a book or journal article and try the experiment for yourself. It will help you in two ways. First, it will help you to recognise link words and phrases. Second, it will help you to understand how writers ensure that their writing has a particular effect on the reader. Understanding that will, in turn, help you achieve the effects you want in your own writing.