Episode 65: What’s in a Paragraph?

Don’t worry—this is not a high school primer. Most people know a paragraph when they see one: a block of text, the first line possibly indented, one main idea explained.

But what’s less known is how to sculpt paragraphs, how to use them to capture and sustain interest. After all, it’s this attention to detail (i.e., “the craft”) that sets apart good writing from almost-there writing.

To show you what I mean, let’s perform a paragraph autopsy to examine the parts. (We’re going to limit this examination to non-dialog, multi-sentence paragraphs.)

  • Topic or main sentence: The first sentence establishes the tone and topic of the rest. Readers tend to remember these sentences more and focus on them.
  • Filler: The middle section is important, but—we’re being honest here—minds tend to wander most often in the middle of paragraphs. Questions pop up. What happened to Rose? Is this related to the article I read yesterday? Did I really have toothpaste on my chin all day?
  • Ending: This is the part that wraps up the thought and keeps the reader engaged by leading to the next paragraph.

Paragraphs function like handholds on a climbing wall. Each paragraph should address some plot element, important point, evidence, character detail, description, etc. In other words, each one builds upon the last to solve the problem that you’ve presented to the reader—whether that’s a mystery or a news report.

Write like each paragraph is important to the overall direction of the prose—because it is.

Here are some tips for crafting better paragraphs:

  • Begin with action or a “big” statement if at all possible. This goes back to the first sentence establishing the rest of the paragraph. Most of the time it’s best not to ease into your point or bury the suspenseful moment in a sea of words. Make the door burst open at the outset—and then explain who’s standing behind it. Tell your readers what poignant fact they need to know and then explain what it means.
  • Keep them short (four sentences or less on average). Long paragraphs look tedious on the page. Readers need breaks and white spaces to keep the prose flowing. There are legitimate reasons for making something long (e.g., to slow down the pace), but keep it rare.
  • Use one-sentence paragraphs on occasion. This used to be an egregious error (and it still is for most formal writing), but a few of these can add drama or make a point stand out.
  • End with something that provokes thought or leaves the reader wanting more. Making every paragraph obey this rule isn’t feasible, but it’s a good goal to shoot for. The more you build interest into the last sentence, the more engaged the audience.

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