by Maria McCann
Writing tip from Maria McCann, Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries.
The secret life of the paragraph
I used to mark GCSE papers in which candidates assured me that paragraphs were ‘to give the reader a breather’, because ‘things would get boring without breaks’. The general idea was that nobody can survive much prose, and that the aim of paragraphing was to maximise the white space and keep out all that nasty writing. This misconception was so common that it could only have come from teachers who hadn’t explained that paragraphs exist to group and divide ideas in order to generate meaning.
Inside a paragraph there’s a world of meaning going on. Taking a close look is like peering into the life of some tiny creature through a microscope: surprising things become visible.
First of all comes the topic sentence (you may know it by another name). It encapsulates the message that the rest of the paragraph expands and develops with relevant support: evidence, quotations and so on.
All other sentences in the paragraph exist to serve that topic sentence, as bees exist to serve their queen. (Alien sentences either belong in other paragraphs or are intruders who should be kicked out of the hive.) The loyal sentences inside each paragraph work closely with those around them. Together they explore and elaborate the idea first introduced by the topic sentence, passing it down the paragraph, each new sentence further developing the idea until at the end of the paragraph there comes a halt because no more can be said on that topic ̶ for now ̶ and the paragraph has reached what you might call a mini-conclusion. (All right, I admit it, the hive metaphor breaks down here.)
Since this is a progression, it’s important to get the sentences in the right order, crafting them to fit seamlessly with their neighbours. When people talk of ‘flowing prose’, this is one of the things they mean: the sentences work together, one taking up where another leaves off. This doesn’t mean that the writing is bland, flowery or poetic. It means it’s focused and disciplined. Very often students have sentences in the right paragraph but haven’t put them in the best order inside that paragraph – this is always worth checking before you hand in your work.
Finally, at the beginning and end of the paragraph come markers that link that paragraph with its neighbours, so that the whole piece of writing joins together organically. If this is well done, the paragraphs can be jumbled up and reassembled in the correct order, just by reading their opening and closing sentences. You can test your own essay this way: cut up the paragraphs and ask a friend to reassemble them.
If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills email me at Maria.McCann@uwe.ac.uk. I’m in 3S201 on Frenchay on Wednesdays and Thursdays.