We should pay more attention to paragraphs. I know that sounds obvious, but what I’m fretting about is the advice that beginning writers get to begin paragraphs with topic sentences and end with summary sentences.
Such a topic sandwich—filled in with subpoints, supporting sentences, and examples—lends itself to formulaic writing. This strategy of tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them can be useful for public speaking, where listeners don’t have a text to follow. But in written exposition, readers don’t need you to be quite such a tour guide. They can refer back to the previous text. They can read slowly when they need to, or skim or skip ahead when they get bored. And if you bore them, they will skip ahead.
Designing good paragraphs is not about talking people on a walk, but about treating them to an experience. So paragraphing is less about being a tour guide than it is about being the conductor of a symphony.
A paragraph can end in a sharp point, a pin-prick that wakes readers up and focuses their attention on what you’ve just written. Readers should think “Oh!” not “Yup.” (I tried to do that just before with the sentence “And if you bore them, they will skip ahead.”)
Sometimes good paragraphing is as simple as letting the start of one paragraph serve as the conclusion to the last, leaving readers hanging for half a beat. Raffi Khatchadourian does this in his essay “The Taste Makers,” writing about the flavor industry. Khatchadourian tells readers about the confidentiality agreements that makers of food flavorings sign. The paragraph ends with an example of a company honoring the agreement even years later. Asked about their flavor development for Snapple, the Brooklyn-based flavoring company Virginia Dare “refused to discuss the matter.” The next paragraph opens with the broader point: “Such secrecy helps shape the story of our food.” Had Khatchadourian ended his previous paragraph with that line, it would be a flat summary. At the beginning of the next paragraph, however, it sets the trajectory for the next part of the essay.
Another example comes from Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food. In one paragraph, Jurafsky explains the early technology of distillation, its perfection by Arabic and Persian scientists, and its geographic spread. The next paragraph opens with the sharper linguistic point that “All this history, of course, is there in the words.” Khatchadourian and Jurafsky let their examples sink in for a moment before telling us why they are significant.
A paragraph can end in a jump cut, an image or idea that occurs in a slightly different form later. Writer Louie Menand does this in his essay “Cat People.” Menand engages his readers in a literary analysis of “The Cat in the Hat.” “Every reader,” he deadpans, “will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information,” where does the mother go, and why. It is a story, he suggests of the “violation of domestic taboos.” The paragraph that follows segues neatly from literary analysis to Suess’s biography. Menand begins the paragraph with the sentence “The decision to turn ‘The Cat in the Hat’ on the trope of the mater abscondita is not without interest, coming, as it does, from a writer who chose his mother’s maiden name as his pen name.” The reader is hooked.
On occasion too, the best paragraphs are single sentences. In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer gives a long, complex discussion of the effect of mass movements on individuals. The explanation involves concepts like diminuation, the untenable self, and the burdens of autonomous existence. His next paragraph drives the point home: “The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”
We often read for information and for story. We sometimes pause to enjoy great sentences, fresh images, and lyricism. Let’s not ignore the humble—but noble—paragraph.
Featured image: “Writing” by OuadiO. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.