Paragraphs

Paragraphs

A paragraph is a distinct section of writing covering one topic. A paragraph will usually contain more than one sentence.

A paragraph starts on a new line. Sometimes, the first line of a paragraph is indented or numbered.

Example of a Paragraph

The "perfect paragraph" will start with a topic-introducing sentence (shown underlined in the example below) or a sentence that provides a logical link to the previous paragraph. It will have "detail" sentences in the middle (shown as normal text in the example below), and it will end with a concluding sentence (shown in bold in the example below). It will only cover one topic from start to finish.

          Sharks are a group of fish characterized by a cartilaginous skeleton, five to seven gills and pectoral fines that are not fused to the head. Today's sharks are classified within the Selachimorpha clade, a sister group to the rays. However, the term "shark" has also been used for extinct members of the subclass Elasmobranchii outside the Selachimorpha, such as Cladoselache. Under this broader definition, the earliest known sharks date from more than 420 million years ago.

A paragraph could be part of a text that informs people, describes something, critiques something, compares things, persuades people, lists a process, makes an argument, offers a solution or narrates a story. And, the level of detail will vary from text to text.

All this diversity means that it's not always easy to determine what "one topic" means when dividing your text into paragraphs. For example, you could have a one-topic paragraph describing Venus (with the next paragraph describing Mars) or a one-topic paragraph describing the colours of a sunset (with the next paragraph describing its reflection in the sea).

If you're getting the sense that the word topic is a bit too grand for a measly paragraph, then think of a paragraph as a distinct section of writing that covers one aspect of your topic. That's the point. Sometimes, a paragraph will be an aspect of a topic, sometimes it will be a topic within an issue, sometimes it will an issue within an argument…a narrative, a process, a comparison, whatever. Whatever the scope of your paragraph, it should be neatly bounded as one…well, topic. If you prefer aspect instead of topic, go with that.

Why Should I Care about Paragraphs?

There are three noteworthy points related to paragraphs. One is a good tip, one is a style convention, and one is an observation.

(Point 1) In business writing, use paragraph titles.

A good tip for business writing is to give each of your paragraphs a title that summarizes the paragraph content. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it ensures your paragraph topic is neatly bounded, and, secondly, the title will assist busy executives with skim-reading.

The new building will cost £400K. The new building will be more expensive than the initial estimate. The new regulations have delayed the start of the building, and they stipulate deeper foundations. As a result, the cost will rise by 25% to £400K.

You could use a single-word title for your paragraph (e.g., Cost), but it wouldn't be as useful. Another useful tip is to concoct a paragraph title in your head (i.e., don't physically write it). This is a useful tip to ensure your paragraph covers one topic neatly.

(Point 2) Use several "opening" quotation marks if your quotation covers more than one paragraph.

When a quotation contains multiple paragraphs (or is a text with lots of new lines), a common convention is to use an opening quotation mark at the start of each paragraph (to remind your readers that they're still reading a quotation) but only one closing quotation mark at the end of the last paragraph. Look at this example:
In 1912, the publisher Arthur C. Fifield sent Gertrude Stein the following rejection letter shortly after receiving her manuscript for The Making of Americans:

"Dear Madam,

"I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.

"Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.

"Sincerely yours,

"A. C. Fifield"
Note how only the last "paragraph" (in this case, the name) gets a closing quotation mark.

(Point 3) Your online readers won't read lengthy texts, so use your discretion to keep your paragraphs short.

In print, an unbroken lengthy text looks dull and daunting. On a screen, an unbroken lengthy text looks doubly so. Therefore, dividing a long text into bite-sized topics is essential for keeping your readers engaged. If we're being strict, each of your paragraphs should neatly encapsulate one topic, but, as we've touched upon, the definition of "topic" is pretty slack, and this often gives you some wriggle room to play with your paragraph lengths.

Yes, there is a one-topic-one-paragraph ruling, but there's also a need to protect your readers from lengthy texts. Strike a balance or lose your readers.

This sounds like advice to play with the rules for writing a paragraph. Good. It is. If you're unconvinced that readers – particularly online readers – need lots of "whitespace", try Googling "the value of whitespace".

Key Points

  • Keep your paragraphs neatly bounded under one topic by using paragraph titles (even if those titles exist only in your head and not on paper).
  • Give each paragraph in a multi-paragraph quotation an opening quotation mark. Close the quotation with a closing quotation mark at the end of the final paragraph.
  • If you're writing web content, keep your paragraphs short (even if that means bending the one-topic-one-paragraph rule).
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