Once I talked on the Language Lady Facebook page about how many times I had said “A paragraph is a unit of thought” in three days of teaching. (Too many to count!) And promised a post about designing paragraphs, paragraph breaks, and general paragraph help. Here you go!
Dividing paragraphs is one of the most challenging aspects of writing for young writers and adults alike (along with many other challenging aspects!). That is why when people who do not write a lot write a full page with no paragraph breaks. That is also why middle school writers start writing and have no idea when to indent–so they randomly pick a spot (“Hmmm….looks like I’ve written enough to change paragraphs now…”) and indent.
While paragraph division isn’t always simple to determine (I admit to looking at a lengthy paragraph and thinking those middle school thoughts myself at times!), there are some tips that can make the process easier.
1. Think of the “main idea.”
Remember all of those achievement tests that had you color in the little oval for a reading selection’s main idea? Well, turns out that is actually a skill you might need!
When you are writing (assuming you don’t have an amazing outline to write from–see next item!), ask yourself what the main idea of the paragraph you are writing is? Then keep writing until you start writing something that is not about that main idea!
I know that sounds simplistic, but it truly is the way to determine paragraph breaks–because, as I mentioned earlier–a paragraph is a unit of thought. When that thought changes, you should change paragraphs. Then you have a new “main idea” of the paragraph.
2. Write from an outline.
I know, outlines are for people who have more time than you have. However, if you want to write clear, concise paragraphs, you should learn to outline. (Stay tuned to Language Lady. I will teach you how to outline painlessly. Honest!)
In the fifty curriculum books that I have written over the past dozen years, every single writing project I have created has a student commit to the paragraph’s topic in an outline before anything else. I use dozens of outlining techniques in my books–Paragraph House for second graders, split paper technique for comparing/contrasting writing, formal outline for research papers, scene outlines for stories. But every type of outline I teach has one common characteristic: the Topic of Paragraph line.
When you create a paragraph-by-paragraph outline, you learn to write strong paragraphs without even realizing that you are learning to write strong paragraphs. Why? Simply because you are committing to what each paragraph will contain right off the bat. And you are forced to change paragraphs (start a new one) at the right time. Try it!
3. A paragraph generally contains three or more sentences.
I say generally because nowadays, especially on blog posts and inspirational writing, this rule of thumb is broken all the time. However, for those in school turning in reports and essays, it is still an important rule of thumb.
A paragraph might contain three or four sentences, or might contain eight or nine, but generally, a paragraph of fewer than three sentences is not truly a paragraph. And a paragraph of twelve sentences probably needs to be broken into two paragraphs (with the first paragraph being Part I of the topic and the second paragraph being Part II of the topic!).
This rule of thumb is a help to a new writer on the shorter end of the spectrum. A new writer needs to know that he can write three or four sentences for a paragraph, and it will still be a paragraph. (Let’s give those new writers every break we can!)
4. Teach very new writers to write the “paragraph is a unit of thought” way by having them write on a subject with clear paragraph topics.
I know some of you adults are tuning me out here, and I understand! Language Lady has a diverse audience of adults who want to know where to put commas in and how to speak and write eloquently in the work place to teachers and homeschooling parents and students! So I will try to give you a little of everything!
In this instance, though, if you are a parent or a teacher (or both), this little tip can really help your young writers. (I’m all about making learning easier for young ones!) In my younger books, I like to expand from one paragraph writings to multi-paragraph writings by taking a topic that is simple to divide: Three Best Pets, Four Great Presidents, Five Zoo Animals.
By making the paragraph breaks so obvious, a new writer can’t go wrong! He is not going to write about cats in his dog paragraph. In this way, it is really like writing three one-paragraph reports and “squeezing” them together. It starts new writers out in a fool-proof method–and gives them immediate success.
So whether you are a teacher instructing a little guy in his first two
-paragraph essay or a college student writing eighteen pages of a final
research paper, always keep in the forefront of your mind that a paragraph is
a unit of thought. (And don’t forget to outline!) Smile…)
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