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The Art of Paragraph Formation

We have a new contributor today. Meriah Crawford, a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University, she was asked to contribute something about paragraphs. The graphic selected is editor’s choice, but the concept is well illustrated: a topic, facts or detail, things to spice it up, and a conclusion – don’t be caught short!

By: Meriah Crawford

Paragraph breaks are one of the most basic tools that a writer uses, but many writers find them confusing. Common mistakes include massive paragraphs, paragraphs that don’t stay focused, or breaks that confuse the reader. If paragraphs are something you’ve had trouble with—or if your paragraphs are often longer than a half page (in nonfiction) or a quarter page (in fiction)—then read on!

Fiction

The basic rule of paragraphs in fiction is to change paragraphs whenever you’re changing focus, location, speaker, time, or really anything else important. Breaks help convey the switch to readers, making it clearer which character is speaking or reacting, and so forth.

It’s also important to break up longer paragraphs that contain description, backstory, narration, and so forth—both to avoid boring the reader, and to add white space. Readers like white space because it makes the material seem more readable. If you find yourself frequently writing long chunks of exposition or extended monologues, think about breaking it up into smaller chunks, editing those parts down, or spreading the material out throughout the work.

Here’s what it looks like when you’re making correct paragraphs in fiction:

“I hate cake,” said John.

I gaped at him. “That’s impossible. No one hates cake.”

There was a crash in the next room, and we both turned to see what was wrong. John’s cat, Calliope, had knocked the cake I’d brought him onto the floor.

“That’s why I don’t like cake,” he said, sighing.

I groaned. It had taken so long to bake it, and I’d never have that recipe again.

This might seem like a lot of paragraph breaks, but without them, it can become confusing. For example, I recently read this in a student story, in a single paragraph:

“No.” I stared at her. “I could walk away and wouldn’t care.” My eyes opened wider. I was about to say, “then why don’t you do it?” but had to bite my tongue.

The trouble is, it’s not clear that the first two pieces of dialogue are from another character. Because they all run together, I had to stop and think about what was going on to figure it out—and that’s a key sign of writing that needs some editing (with exceptions for some experimental, surreal, abstract, or other sorts of writing). The good news is, it’s a fairly easy problem to fix.

Nonfiction

For nonfiction, the above rules still apply. The main difference for some types of nonfiction is that you’re more likely to see longer passages of storytelling, reflection, explanation, and description. These passages can be very important (and thus more acceptable than in most fiction), but it’s also essential to make sure they stay focused, tight, and (still) fairly short.

Sometimes, shortening a paragraph is simply a matter of finding a good place to add in a paragraph break. Much as it would be nice to have clear, precise rules about where paragraphs should end, it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding a small pause or transition, and hitting Enter. A bigger issue is when you’re actually covering too much ground in a paragraph. In some cases, extraneous details need to be deleted, or important issues need to be broken out and expanded into their own paragraphs.

One of the best ways to figure out if that’s the case is to ask yourself if the material at the end of the paragraph is related to the first sentence or two of the paragraph. The first sentence (or sometimes the second, if the first is background or setup) should be the topic sentence. A strong topic sentence helps clue the reader in to what you’re going to talk about, which helps the reader follow along. For example, in Jesmyn Ward’s powerful memoir Men We Reaped, when she begins a paragraph by saying, “My mother’s paternal grandfather Adam Jr.’s family also bears stories like this,” we know the rest of the paragraph will focus on those stories.

Effective transitions between paragraphs will also help keep the reader on track, and are essential for the smooth flow from one paragraph and subject to the next that readers and editors expect from outstanding writing. This website (http://www.smart-words.org/linking-words/transition-words.html) offers a fairly extensive list of words and phrases to help you think about this aspect of your writing.

Paragraph formation refinement is usually addressed in the revision process—and, in fact, I don’t recommend trying to form perfect paragraphs while writing a first draft. If you are able to, great—but for many people, too much focus on form while drafting can be harmful and lead to slower, less creative work. The important thing is to write the work, and then go back and make it better.

Keep writing!

More on topic sentences: https://youtu.be/NLzKqujmdGk

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Meriah Headshot-sm

Meriah Lysistrata Crawford teaches research and writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is a private investigator, a writer, and an editor. Meriah co-edited the multi-genre anthology Trust & Treachery: Tales of Power and Intrigue. She has also published short stories in several genres, essays, a variety of scholarly work, and a poem about semicolons. Meriah has an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in literature and criticism. For more information, please visit her website at www.meriahcrawford.com, or see her on Facebook or Twitter @MeriahCrawford.




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