Writing Workshops & Seminars               
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.
 


 Search
www.wilbers.com


Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact
 

 


Paragraphing

“Write in sentences, but think in paragraphs”

“Structuring your paragraphs so that the reader gets the point”

“Use paragraphs for four Cs: clarity, coherence, control, & credibility”

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Write in sentences, but think in paragraphs

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

"Here’s your strongest paragraph," I said to a young writer last week, "and this one is your weakest."

"What’s the difference?" the writer asked.

She was a bright, capable employee, known for her rapport with customers, but her writing was weak. She had been told that it was not "business-like," that it sometimes lacked organization and emphasis, and her manager had asked me to work with her.

"This paragraph states its topic and comes to a conclusion," I said. "This one doesn’t."

Her problem was not wording. She had a good vocabulary and a good ear for language. Her style was fluent and natural. Her problem was paragraph structure.

She laughed when she read over the weak paragraph.

"You know, I didn’t really know what I was trying to say there, so I just went on."

I told her that paragraphs come in all sizes and shapes, but whenever you feel you’re losing focus, go back to the basic paragraph structure: topic, development, resolution.

The third component is key. State your conclusion. Don’t make your reader guess. One advantage of this approach is that it encourages clarity in your own thinking.

"Now look at your strong paragraph," I said. "You present a number of ideas, but each is clearly related to your main point. The connections are clear, and you come to a definite conclusion."

As Strunk and White advise in The Elements of Style, make the paragraph your basic unit of composition. Every point in a paragraph should be clearly linked to your main purpose. With this approach, writing becomes a process of constructing and arranging these building blocks into a coherent whole.

As I often tell writers in my seminars, write in sentences, but think in paragraphs. It’s at the level of the paragraph – not the sentence – that your strategy and organization are carried out.

Consider the following incomplete paragraph: "Customers seem unimpressed with our new product. They think it’s too expensive."

Now add a resolution statement: "Let’s review our pricing strategy."

Consider this paragraph about wilderness preservationist Ernest Oberholtzer by Louise Erdrich in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country:

"He was born in 1884, grew up in an upper middle-class home in Davenport, Iowa, suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. He went to Harvard, where he made friends with bookish people like Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. His heart kept bothering him. Told by a doctor he had just one year to live, he decided to spend it in a canoe. He traveled three thousand miles in a summer. Paddling a canoe around the Rainy Lake watershed and through the Quetico-Superior wilderness was just the thing for his heart, so he kept on paddling. He lived to be ninety-three years old."

In one sharply drawn paragraph, organized around the theme of a weakened heart, Erdrich summarizes a man’s life. Her structure: topic, development, resolution.

If your writing seems to lack focus, take a look at your paragraph structure.

 

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

 Structuring your paragraphs so that the reader gets the point

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Good things come in threes.

 

Messages should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In speeches you should tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you’ve said. And in paragraphs you should organize your information by topic, development, and resolution.

 

One, two, three.

 

Consider the following paragraph about how demands for greater productivity are taking a toll on workers, adapted from an article by Alana Semuels:

 

“In their zeal to make sure that not a minute of time is wasted, companies are imposing rigorous performance quotas, forcing many people to put in extra hours, paid or not. As a result, many workers are wondering how much longer they can keep up the breakneck pace. Video cameras and software keep tables on work performance, tracking their computer keystrokes and the time spent on each customer service call. The relentless drive for efficiency at U.S. companies has created a new harshness in the workplace.”

 

Hard to follow, isn’t it? That’s because I scrambled the order of its four sentences.

 

To create coherence and flow in your writing, organize your paragraphs into three components: topic, development, resolution.

Following that formula, see if you can number the four sentences of the scrambled paragraph in the order in which they originally appeared. If you’re reading this column on hard copy, you can write on your newspaper. If you’re reading this online, it’s fine to find an indelible marker and write right on your screen.

 

Hint #1: The topic sentence usually states the unifying theme of the paragraph.

 

Hint #2: The second component in a paragraph, the development, often consists of a sentence that clarifies, elaborates, or expands on the topic sentence, followed by an example.

 

Hint #3: It’s a pretty good bet that sentences beginning with phrases such as in conclusion, consequently, and as a result come at the end.

 

Hint #4: If you just wrote on your computer screen with an indelible marker, you might want to make sure your company doesn’t have a video camera pointed in your direction. (Also, what are doing reading this column on company time, anyway?)

 

Here’s how the paragraph was originally written:

 

“The relentless drive for efficiency at U.S. companies has created a new harshness in the workplace. In their zeal to make sure that not a minute of time is wasted, companies are imposing rigorous performance quotas, forcing many people to put in extra hours, paid or not. Video cameras and software keep tables on work performance, tracking their computer keystrokes and the time spent on each customer service call. As a result, many workers are wondering how much longer they can keep up the breakneck pace.”

 

Note how the clarifying sentence is followed by an example. Much easier to read, isn’t it?

 

This three-part formula has another important application. By modifying it slightly to purpose, background, proposed action, you can use it to organize your messages.

 

Remember: Beginning, middle, end. Topic, development, resolution.  Purpose, background, proposed action.

 

It’s as easy as one, two, three.

 


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Use paragraphs for four Cs:
clarity, coherence, control, & credibility

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

I do love my iPhone. I do love my computer. I do love the Internet.

 

I love their power and speed and instantaneous access to information. I love the things they do for me. I love the way they guide me to my destination, highlight my errors, and suggest alternative word choices. I love the way they let my father see his only great grandchild and hear her sweet newborn sounds six weeks before he died.

 

I do hereby profess my affection for – and near total dependence on – these devices and technologies. I make this declaration so that you won’t think me a Luddite for writing another column on how these technologies may be undermining your ability to communicate.

 

 But, in fact, they may be.

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with quick, short communication, no more than it’s wrong to occasionally use a one-sentence paragraph to create emphasis (as I did with the previous paragraph). Texting is concise and to the point, and dropping in a one-sentence paragraph varies the pace. But if all you ever write are quick, disjointed messages and one-sentence paragraphs, you may be losing your ability to organize your thought into longer, logically developed arguments. You may be losing your ability to think deeply.

 

Carefully structured paragraphs are the building blocks of writing. They give us the four Cs of effective communication: clarity, coherence, control, and credibility.

 

Clarity

If you want the reader to follow your thought, you need to do three things: Tell the reader where you’re going, present your information or explain your thinking, and offer your conclusion. In brief exchanges, with the context established, this three-part structure may not be needed, but for more substantive, deliberate, thoughtful writing, it’s essential. The three-part paragraph provides a roadmap: topic, development, resolution.

 

Coherence

Paragraphs help you connect your thoughts. A paragraph may contain a number of points, but every point is linked to a unifying theme and every sentence supports the main purpose. After you have drafted your document, you can check its organization by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Have you created a logical progression? Have you repeated yourself? Have you omitted a key point?

 

Control

These building blocks of composition help you set your pace and control your emphasis. Shorter paragraphs create a faster pace and a less formal style. Longer paragraphs create a slower pace and a more formal style. Because first and last sentences have natural prominence, key points go there. Quotations normally work best in these locations. In legal writing, positive information is presented first and last; negative information is buried in the middle.

 

Credibility

Credibility results from multiple factors: command of language, knowledge of subject, rapport with audience, word choice, sentence structure, and – perhaps surprisingly – paragraphing. To write in paragraphs is to demonstrate how your mind works. When the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address is rendered in PowerPoint, their power is lost. Outline format presents information but fails to convey an essential element: quality of mind, sometimes called “voice” in writing.

 

Write in sentences, but think in paragraphs.

 

Top
 

 


Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact