Essential Elements in Writing

(from Paragraph Practice: Writing the Paragraph and the Short Composition. Fourth Edition; (c) 1980 Kathleen E. Sullivan. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.)

What does a paragraph look like on a page?

A paragraph begins with an empty space called an indentation. (In some texts, like this page and the pages in most other Web sites, the paragraphs are not indented, because a space after the paragraph shows that a new paragraph is about to begin.) The indentation of a paragraph indicates where the paragraph begins. A composition, which contains several paragraphs, will have several indentations, making it easy for the reader to see where each new paragraph or idea in the composition begins. One paragraph, however, contains only one endentation because there is only one beginning point. Figure 1-1 shows how a paragraph should look. Indent--once only!

How long is a paragraph?

If the idea of the paragraph is simple, the paragraph will usually be rather short. If the idea is complicated, the paragraph will probably be somewhat long. You should keep in mind this principle: The paragraph should be neither so short that the subject of the paragraph is underdeveloped and insufficiently explained, nor so long that it tends to break down into too many subtopics that would be better organized into separate paragraphs.

Paragraph length varies according to place and purpose as well as idea. In a newspaper, for example, where the column of newsprint is narrow, one-sentence paragraphs are common. Because comparatively few words can be contained in each line of newsprint, several lines are often necessary in order to print one sentence. To provide breaks or resting spots that make reading easier, newspapers indent or paragraph frequently. Purpose also determines the length of a paragraph. Newspapers, novels, textbooks, and college compositions each have particular purposes and paragraph accordingly.

A. The paragraph should contain one central idea only.

1. A paragraph with more than one central idea is usually overworked and tends to break down under the strain. Limit the paragraph. Limiting the paragraph is something like taking a snapshot with a small camera You should not try to get everyone in your hometown into your picture. Even your own family is too large or too interesting for your paragraph-sized camera. You had better settle on one member of your family, and keep in mind that you cannot tell everything about even one person in a single paragraph of eight to twelve sentences. Make your picture a small portrait. See Figure 1-4.

Like a small portrait, the paragraph should be limited to one part of a subject, although the subject is probably much larger than the single aspect discussed in the paragraph. To illustrate this idea, suppose you are asked to write something about your house in a paragraph. You cannot tell all about your house. The subject is too big. Even your living room may be too large a subject to discuss in a single paragraph. You need to select a part of the room such as your fireplace or your favorite chair. Examine the following paragraph.


My favorite chair is ugly, but I love it. It is a recliner. Because it is shapeless, heavy, and covered with horrible material, it is an eyesore in my living room. However, it is so comfortable that I would not trade it for the finest piece of furniture I might ever hope to own. There is nothing quite so delightful after a hard day at work as sinking my weary body into that chair. With my back eased into it and my feet eased up from it, I am in heaven. I notice other people like that chair, too. Whenever I have company, the first chair everybody heads for is my ugly, lovely recliner.

2. Limiting the paragraph is not an exact matter, but a useful rule of thumb may help you determine its approximate limitation: the more deeply you go into a subject, the more the paragraph must be narrowed down or limited.

A comparison of a paragraph to a camera is useful again. This time think of the process of enlargement. Suppose you take a picture of a standing figure. Then you decide that the expression in the face is good and that you want to see it in more detail. You decide to have that portion of the picture enlarged. Then you decide that there is something in the eyes that is fascinating (perhaps you see a mysterious figure reflected there) and that you want to enlarge that portion of the face. The closer you get to the subject, the more you see in it. Similarly, the closer you get to the subject in the paragraph, the more you see to discuss and consequently the more the subject must be narrowed if you want to discuss in one paragraph all that you see. Figure 1-5 may clarify the rule of limitation.

As Figure 1-5 indicates, the paragraph must narrow down or limit its subject to the degree that it concentrates on it or any part of it. Figure 1-5A shows the whole subject, but at some distance. Such a paragraph, although it may give an overall view, cannot go into much detail Figure 1-5B represents a paragraph that, by limiting itself, can develop its subject more fully. Figure 1-5C shows further limitation that makes further or closer examination of its subject possible.

Although some of the paragraphs that you write may be like Figure 1-5A, your main aim is to develop skill in writing paragraphs like Figure 1-5B, or, in some cases, like Figure 1-5C.

3. Focus the paragraph. First, decide what the center of interest in your paragraph is and then make sure it is central and unmistakably clear. The following paragraph is focused.


My father's face is rough. His complexion is leathery and wrinkled. There are large pores in the skin that covers his nose and cheeks. H is nose, broken twice in his life, makes him look like a boxer who has lost too many fights. His mouth, unless he smiles, looks hard and threatening. His chin is massive and angular. Shaved or not, my father's face is rugged.

The following paragraph is out of focus.


I want to talk about my father. He is strict with his children, especially me. He won't let me out of the house unless I've done all my homework. He is a tall and rather skinny man. Some people say he is good-looking. He has a nice streak of gray in his hair. He laughs a lot and enjoys life. My father is interesting.

The second paragraph fails to focus upon a particular aspect or make a main point about its subject.
Focusing the paragraph is also like taking a good picture. Like the picture, the paragraph must have a center of interest that is obvious and unmistakable. Bad paragraphs are sometimes like the pictures in Figure 1-6, fuzzy or off-center.

B. The paragraph should have unity.

Unity means that the paragraph should be of one piece, a distinct unit that has one fundamental purpose. Remember that even though the paragraph is a subdivision or part of a larger unit, it should be complete in itself.

The example given previously of a paragraph that is focused serves also as an example of a unified paragraph. Notice that although the paragraph discusses only one part of a much larger subject than that contained in the paragraph, the part discussed is complete in itself and does not need the larger unit to be understood. The paragraph could fit easily into a whole composition entitled "My Father." Other paragraphs would be needed, of course, to give a complete picture of the larger subject, and they would each need to be distinct units also.

A paragraph should not be a fragment. It should not be like part of a conversation that is overheard but not quite understood because the complete conversation has not been heard, nor should it be like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle with shapes or colors that confuse the mind. It should be a whole, complete unit, understandable no matter whether it stands alone or is combined with other parts to form a larger whole.

Remember to stick to the subject! One of the easiest ways to destroy the unity of a paragraph is to skip from subject to subject, as in the following example.


My father is very strict with his children, especially me. He won't let me out of the house unless I've done all my homework. Frankly, I don't care whether I go to school or not. School is such a waste of time. There aren't any good jobs, anyway. My mother doesn't agree with my father. They quarrel a lot. Sometimes I wish they would get a divorce, but then who would I live with?

The paragraph above lacks unity because it jumps from subject to subject. (Although it has psychological interest partly because of its lack of unity, the lack is a definite fault in a paragraph.)

Stick to the subject. If you begin a paragraph about dogs, don't switch the subject to parakeets in the middle of your paragraph unless, of course, you must talk about parakeets in order to clarify what you want to say about dogs.

C. The paragraph should have coherence and continuity.

The terms coherence and continuity are closely related. Coherence means that the parts of the paragraph should be logically connected. Continuity means that the connection of the parts should be smooth. To make a comparison, a coherent paragraph is like a motor that is properly assembled; with all the parts in the right places, the motor can run. Continuity is like an oil that lubricates the operation making it smooth and preventing the motor from burning out.

1. To be coherent, the paragraph must have order or sequence. The particular order or sequence needed depends on the subject. For instance, people are usually described from head to toe rather than vice versa On the other hand, house building begins at the bottom and works up. Photographs are most often discussed from left to right. Recipes usually begin with ingredients and end with the oven. Dressmaking starts with the selection of a pattern rather than the final ironing process. (These subjects illustrate the idea of order or sequence, though some of them are too large to be contained in a single paragraph.) The order or sequence that, is logical depends on the nature of the subject to be discussed. The following paragraph is coherent because it has order or sequence.


To get the most out of his textbooks, a student should follow several steps carefully. He should make a survey of each book to get a general idea of what the book contains. He should read for understanding and formulate questions. He should make notes of the major points of each chapter. He should test himself to be sure that he can answer questions likely to be raised in class and in examinations He should review his notes and reread any parts of the book that are unclear to him.

The previous paragraph is coherent, but it is not as smooth as it might be. Let's look at the paragraph again, with added continuity.


To get the most out of his textbooks, a student should follow several steps very carefully. First, he should make a preliminary survey of each book to get a general idea of what the book contains. Second, he should read for deeper understanding and formulate questions as he reads. Next, he should make notes of the major points of each chapter. After that, he should test himself to be sure that he can answer questions likely to be raised in class and in examinations. Finally, he should review his notes and reread any parts of the book that are unclear to him.

2. Continuity is added by the underlined words that provide transition. Transitional words or phrases are like pass words. They permit easy passage throughout the paragraph by showing the relationship between one sentence or thought and another. They make the sequence of ideas within the paragraph clearer, and they make the paragraph as a whole more flowing.

A good paragraph is a joy to read. It is not something stumbled through with great labor. It does not stop and start and turn around. It is not jerky. Coherence and continuity, working together, make a paragraph clear and easy to read.

D. The paragraph should be adequately developed.

That is, it should do fully what it sets out to do. It should not leave the job half done. The degree of development depends on the aim or purpose of the paragraph. For example, if the purpose of the paragraph is to explain how to build a bookcase, don't leave the bookcase unfinished. It will probably need paint or stain before you can put books in it, and the paragraph is not complete until it mentions the final part in the building of the bookcase. Don't just end the paragraph-complete it!

1. Most paragraphs have three basic parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. These parts are often called the introduction, the discussion, and the conclusion. (a) In the introduction, which may be simply the topic sentence, you should indicate what you'll talk about in the paragraph. (b) In the discussion, you talk about the topic. (c) In the conclusion, you complete your discussion; you get your reader to reflect on your main point stated in the introduction.

2. To be adequately developed, the paragraph must have proper proportion in its three main parts. That is, each part should be a certain length or size. The approximate size of each part is shown in Figure 1-7. The discussion is the biggest part of the paragraph. The introduction and the conclusion are smaller. Bad paragraphs are sometimes poorly proportioned as shown in Figure 1-8.

The following paragraph is poorly proportioned. As stated in the topic sentence, the main purpose of the paragraph is to tell about a bad automobile accident. However, most of the paragraph is spent on introducing the subject. The discussion, which is underlined, consists of only two sentences.


I had one of the worst experiences of my life when I witnessed a terrible automobile accident a little over a year ago. I was on my way to a party with my boyfriend. It was about eight o'clock at night, and it was raining. Though we were in a hurry to get to the party, my boyfriend was driving slowly because of the poor visibility. We were happily looking forward to seeing our friends, gossiping about some of them, listening to music on the car radio, and humming some of the tunes. We were stopped for a red light at an intersection when the accident occurred. A car in the lane next to us sped through the red light and crashed into a truck which was just pulling into the intersection from the cross street There was a terrible crush of metal, splintering of glass, and screaming and moaning of people. We didn't feel much like going to a party after that.

The preceding paragraph has interesting (if horrible) possibilities and could be improved by correcting its proportions. The introduction should be shortened, and the discussion should be expanded.

3. Expanding the paragraph is not simply a matter of making it longer. (a) Never pad a paragraph. Don't just write more; instead, say more. A paragraph should not go on and on; it should go in and in. That is, it should be developed by going more and more into its subject.

The best way to develop a paragraph is to (b) be specific rather than general. In other words, discuss one thing in definite, exact, precise detail. Don't discuss many things vaguely. Although your paragraph may begin with a statement that is to some extent (within the limits of the paragraph) broad or general, you should develop it by becoming more and more specific, narrowing down your subject and saying exactly what you mean. Your paragraph should do what is done in the diagram in Figure 1-9, not what is done in Figure 1-10.

A general statement should not be developed with a series of further generalizations. A generalization is a statement about all or most of a group or category. It is not definite, not particular, and sometimes not accurate, because it does not allow for exceptions. Moreover, it is vague. It says everything about everything but nothing about anything in particular. Your objective in developing the paragraph is just the reverse. You should develop the one central idea of the paragraph with particulars or details that make the idea clear and meaningful.

(c) Limit your central idea. Realizing that detail is necessary in your paragraph, you may still wonder how much detail is needed. Reconsider the rule of limitation given earlier: The more deeply you go into a subject, the more the paragraph must be narrowed down or limited the paragraph is, the more it must go into detail. Remember that when you stand back from a subject, you see it in less detail. but when you move in close to it, the detail you see in it can become so tine as to be almost microscopic.

Consider the following example of a paragraph that stands back somewhat from its subject, giving an overall view of it. Although it gives some specifics it does not go into very great or fine detail.


City College should have a new campus. A new campus is needed for three major reasons. First, the present campus is badly overcrowded and there is absolutely no space left for additional expansion. Second, the campus is an ugly improvisation of old high school buildings and flimsy, box-like portables that fail to create a collegiate atmosphere. Third, the equipment in such departments as science, art, and physical education is completely inadequate for the needs of college students. There are other strong arguments for a new campus, but these are three of the most outstanding.

In the next example, the paragraph moves in a little closer to its subject, making more detail possible and necessary.


City College is completely overcrowded. The lack of space is apparent in all parts of the campus. The classrooms are so jammed that students feel like sardines, and some of them have to sit on the floor. The library and study rooms are so packed that many students must study in the halls and stairways. The cafeteria so bulges with bodies that students often go hungry or lose their appetites. Every inch of the campus is so overcrowded that it looks more like a bargain basement than a place for higher learning.

In the next example, the paragraph moves in still closer to its subject than either of the preceding two examples. Because it narrows down or limits the subject further, it must discuss the subject in greater detail.


The cafeteria at crowded City College is one of the most overworked places on the campus. The service line is frequently so long that a student gives up the idea of eating altogether. If he is patient enough to wait for food, he is lucky if he can find a place to eat it before he wears it If he is particularly agile, he may work his way through the masses to a spot where he can eat it before it's cold. Once seated, however, he is likely to find the atmosphere so choked with other bodies, noise, and dead air, that he loses his appetite. He cannot easily slip away at that point, either. Wedging his way out of the cafeteria, he discovers, is as miserable a matter as working his way in.

You should keep in mind that the closer you move into or go into a subject, the more the paragraph should be narrowed down or limited and that, likewise, the more the paragraph is narrowed down or limited, the more it must go into detail.