The paragraph is a basic building block of writing, for both fiction and non-fiction. Paragraphs are the vehicles that writers use to put together a story-line or provide chunks of information.
Definition of a paragraph
A paragraph is one of a series of subsections of a document or book that contains one or more sentences. Each paragraph usually contains one idea or chunk of information, and each one usually starts on a new line, may or may not be indented, and so on. At the basic level, a paragraph consists of a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence.
Elements of a paragraph
Frame—A paragraph provides the structure for a specific piece of information, such as a description, an explanation, a clarification, a discussion, or any combination of these.
Link—In addition to providing information, a paragraph connects sections of information that come before with those that come after.
Separator—On the other hand, a paragraph separates sections of information that aren’t closely related (e.g., topics or sections of a narrative). Paragraphs allow readers to make sense of all the pieces of information in a text.
Details of a paragraph
Purpose—A paragraph is used to hold certain information together. The format is traditional and understood by most readers. When used correctly, a paragraph helps readers follow the meaning of the text without becoming lost or confused.
Length—A paragraph can be as short as one word or may extend over several pages, though these tend to be the extremes. Paragraph length is usually dictated by the subject and writing style of the author. A one-word paragraph can sometimes be more powerful than several paragraphs filled with miscellaneous “stuff”. A very short paragraph can be used to grab or jolt the reader or to make a particular point. The length of a paragraph can also be used to affect the pace of the narrative. A series of short paragraphs is like a rapid-fire machine gun, while long paragraphs seem to slowly roll along. Understand, though, that continuous short paragraphs can be unnerving, while long paragraphs, like long sentences, can be challenging for a reader’s understanding—and they can be lulled to sleep.
Order—Information in a series of paragraphs is typically presented in some logical order, either building one on the other or moving forward with time. Whatever order is used, it’s important to stay consistent, or explain why not.
Format—In some works, the first paragraph of a section may or may not be indented, often depending on the type of work involved, a specific style guide, or a publisher’s preferences. The amount of the indent (e.g., ¼ inch or ½ inch) is similarly determined.
A line break between paragraphs may indicate a break in thought. However, the first and last sentence often connect, in some way, to the previous and following paragraphs, respectively. But this may or may not be true in every case.
Paragraphs can add new information to, or expand on, previous paragraphs, or they can present the same information from another perspective. A new paragraph can be used to change thought or direction, go deeper into the same subject, or to summarize, change emphasis or focus.
- Opening and closing sentences—These are the two most important locations in a paragraph. The information presented there is the most noticed by readers, especially if they’re skimming.
Use paragraphs effectively to strengthen your text. In your new writing, or if you’re now editing, try various paragraph lengths to see what effect that has on the tone or pace of your content. Try breaking paragraphs in different places to change their impact. Try different paragraph arrangements to see if that makes your narrative more effective. And maybe most importantly, try eliminating entire paragraphs if they don’t impact your message. Finally, make sure that your paragraphs serve your overall purpose.
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