Word Nerd: 3 steps to writing a good paragraph

29 May

We’ve talked about how the secret to writing a respectable piece of prose is a good sentence. Today, we take another building block of quality prose – the humble paragraph.

We all feel the pain of trying to write a good paragraph.

As with all great writing, paragraphs are shaped by a writer’s instinct. That said, paying attention to the paragraph, and how it works, can improve your writing significantly. Francine Prose, author of the New York Times bestseller – Reading Like a Writer, says, ‘[A]s with sentences, merely thinking about “the paragraph” puts us ahead of the game, just as being conscious of the sentence as an entity worthy of our attention represents a major step in the right direction.’

To write a good paragraph, we must develop both a logical mind and a good eye. Why? One, it is the shape of our argument. To impress, your argument must be coherent, adequately developed, and shaped as an organic whole. Stylistically, paragraphs carry this responsibility. Each paragraph must clearly communicate an idea, develop it, and link it to what comes next.
Two, paragraphs are the shape of your thought on the screen or the page. If your thought is long and rambling, you might end up with large chunks of text. This can look dull. And your reader’s eye will skip many lines.
On the other hand, if you jump from one idea to the next like a drunk young monkey on a tree – the result is likely to be many small paragraphs. This too can be distracting for a reader.

Of course, there are exceptions. But, in academic writing, it is good to keep the above in mind. As are the 3 tips we share below which can help shape your paragraphs.


  • Choose the topic
    As with the sentence, it helps to decide what you want to say.
    For example, if you are writing a sketch of Madeline Bassett, a character from P.G. Wodehouse, you could have a paragraph on the topic of her daftness. Your next step is to craft the topic sentence. This is the first sentence in your paragraph and it serves as an introduction. For example, “Everyone knows that Madeline Bassett, daughter of the ill-tempered magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett, is a daft girl.”
  • Develop the idea
    Once you have your topic sentence, you need the controlling idea. The controlling idea in the topic sentence above is “everyone knows”. So, the paragraph can elaborate on the perspective of other characters and critics.
    To develop the idea, you must give information. Why is Madeline daft? Is it because she thinks that stars are God’s daisy chain? Or because, to her, every new star on the Milky Way is a fairy’s tear? Possibly both.
    Remember not to choke or clutter a paragraph with excessive information.
  • Connect
    Once you have fleshed out an idea, it is time to articulate the next one, in the next paragraph.
    It is important that your paragraphs are not islands on a sea but steps on a ladder. Therefore, each paragraph must connect to the one that came before, and the one that will come after. The final sentence of a paragraph is your bridge to the next one.
    “What stands out about Madeline is not just her daftness but her impossible idealism.” Now you can continue writing your sketch of the Bassett.


To end, always revise. Do not miss the forest for the tree. Your paragraphs are part of a larger structure. And remember, with writing, as with all art, practice makes perfect.

Are there any tips on writing you would like to share with us? Email us or leave a comment below.


Related stories:

Word Nerd: 4 Secrets to Writing a Good Sentence
Word Nerd: Why it’s important to write concisely
Word Nerd: How to Weaken Your Writing
Develop Your Essay Writing Skills

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