A paragraph is a cohesive bundle of specific ideas that are all clearly related to one general idea. That is, one paragraph is about one thing.
Paragraphs are not particularly glamorous, but strong paragraphs are the backbones of strong essays and research papers. Conversely, as much as sentence-level errors, paragraph-level errors drag down the quality and clarity of writing. Take a critical look at your own paragraphs using the following tips on unity, coherence, order, and length to determine how best to improve your own work.
One thing: Unity & topic sentences
A paragraph has unity; that is, it makes one point about a single main idea. While the topic of a paragraph may be expressed in a word or phrase, the main idea must be expressed in a sentence. The sentence that states the main idea or central point is the topic sentence. The topic sentence is a sort of summary of the contents of a paragraph:
My family's property in Guatemala was an active place, full of life. We had a small vivid farm where we grew all sorts of fruit trees and flowers and raised animals. Wild animals were frequent visitors. As a family we were all active taking care of our responsibilities. My dad loved taking care of the animals, especially when they were young. He liked being close to them, helping and feeding them.
To identify the topic of the paragraph above, ask the question, "What is the paragraph about?" The answer: "her family's farm in Guatemala." Then, to identify the topic sentence (or to determine if one exists), ask, "What about the farm in Guatemala?" The answer: "The farm was active and full of life."
The underlined topic sentence above occurs as the first sentence of the paragraph. However, it might easily have been placed at the end:
In Guatemala we had a small vivid farm where we grew all sorts of fruit trees and flowers and raised animals. Wild animals were frequent visitors. As a family we were all active taking care of our responsibilities. My dad loved taking care of the animals, especially when they were young. He liked being close to them, helping and feeding them. My family's property was an active place, full of life.
Or, the author could have placed the topic sentence somewhere in the middle:
In Guatemala we had a small vivid farm where we grew all sorts of fruit trees and flowers and raised animals. My family's property was an active place, full of life. ...
In examples two and three above, the first sentence is not the topic sentence because it is not broad enough to "cover" (think of the topic sentence as an umbrella) all the sentences that follow–the visits of wild animals are not "covered" under the statement about growing fruits and flowers and raising animals. On the other hand, every sentence in this paragraph is "covered" under the statement that the farm was active and full of life, including wildlife.
Check to see if your own paragraphs have topic sentences; most paragraphs should. (Implied main ideas, or main ideas that are not found in any one sentence of a paragraph even though the paragraph does, in fact, have unity, are not for beginners.) The test is whether all or most of the other material in the paragraph supports the sentence intended to be the topic sentence. If your paragraph lacks a topic sentence, examine the details of your paragraph and construct a sentence to "cover" them.
Unity & major and minor supporting details
While you are examining your paragraphs, especially in an essay, you may discover sentences with details that do not belong, or sentences that are not grouped logically. You may only realize this when you find it difficult to construct a logical topic sentence broad enough to cover everything in that paragraph. When you find these out-of-place sentences, remove them. Never mind word count–more sentences will not help the paragraph if they are not clearly related to the topic sentence. (In longer papers, remove unrelated sentences but save them; you may find that this deleted material fits better somewhere else in your paper.) In any paragraph, every sentence that is not the topic sentence should be a sentence containing either major or minor supporting details.
Major support consists of the bigger ideas; minor support gives an example, illustration, or explanation. In the example above, the major supporting details about the topic, "my family's farm," are 1) it was an active place and 2) it was full of life. To round out this description and more fully support these two points, we can add additional minor supporting details, underlined below:
My family's property in Guatemala was an active place, full of life. Wild animals such as wildcats and coyotes were frequent visitors. We had a small vivid farm where we grew all sorts of fruit trees and flowers and raised animals. As a family we were all active taking care of our responsibilities. We enjoyed taking care of the pigs, ducks, birds, horses, and chickens. My dad built a coop especially for the chickens and ducks, which were the largest group of animals we had. When it was time to eat, they all came out at the same moment and spread all around the property. It was nice to see the animals scattered around singing their songs. My dad loved taking care of the animals, especially when they were young. He liked being close to them, helping and feeding them. I, however, preferred to pick fruits or water the plants.
Each added sentence provides support for and is related to the main idea as expressed in the topic sentence.
Making sense: Coherence & transitions
Remember that it is not the reader's job to make your writing make sense; it is your responsibility to make understanding effortless. Transitions are signals that help you do this. These words and phrases signal the exact relationship between one sentence and another, often in advance by their placement near the beginnings of sentences. The reader understands before he ever reaches the end of the sentence whether you intend to show, for example, contrast, illustration, additional points, or cause and effect. Transitions also clarify the purpose (inform? persuade? entertain? explain?) and order (space? time? importance?) of a paragraph.
In the preceding example, "such as" tells the reader that examples follow. In this case, the author gives two examples of the wild animals that visited the farm. "However" signals contrast to the preceding idea (her preference for working with the plants against her father's preference for taking care of animals).
The following examples are only a very small sample of the variety of transitions at your disposal:
These transitions signal that you are adding information or points:
These transitions signal space order:
These transitions signal that you are comparing like characteristics or points:
These transitions signal that you are giving a specific example of a preceding point:
These transitions signal contrast, or differences, in characteristics or points:
These transitions signal importance:
These transitions signal causes or effects:
These transitions signal time order:
Coherence & order
Since it is your responsibility as a writer to make your writing make sense, choose an appropriate way to order the information in your paragraphs. It is fairly intuitive, even for beginners, to use time, or chronological, order to explain how to do something (first, next, finally) or to narrate a story (meanwhile, at last). It is not always as intuitive to choose space order in description. When a writer uses space order, he constructs description as if a camera were moving smoothly through a scene. Space order can move left to right, bottom to top, near to far, or in any other orderly way, depending on the effect you wish to achieve. If your purpose is to persuade, explain, or argue a point, order of importance (more to less important or least to most important) is appropriate. For purposes of persuasion, it may be effective to order your points from least to most important, creating a climactic effect; however, for essay exams and most business writing, place your most important points first.
Coherence & keywords
Make it impossible (well, improbable, anyway) for a reader to misunderstand you or miss your point, by repeating important keywords or synonyms for those keywords:
The land was fruitful, rich, and productive. It had a tropical climate and a generous amount of rainfall. There was a lot of vegetation and everything was green and flowering. The rivers ran abundantly with water and the mountains were thick with trees. The mornings were immaculate, very sunny and clear, and the fields were richly cultivated and filled with wildflowers. The fecundity of the land produced a diverse fauna that included all sorts of small reptiles such as lizards and snakes, insects such as crickets and dragonflies, and wild animals such as monkeys, wildcats, and coyotes.
The example above abounds in synonyms for fruitful, rich, and productive: generous, flowering, abundant, thick, richly cultivated, fecund, diverse. Especially when you are writing about complicated processes, make it your responsibility to repeat the key words that increase the reader's sense of continuity.
Unity, coherence, order-and length
How long should a paragraph be? As Lewis Carroll said, "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop." That is, when you have fully developed your topic sentence and its attendant major details, you are done. Five sentences or twelve sentences or twenty-a paragraph should be as long as it needs to be. Instructors who assign a minimum paragraph length want you to accustom yourself to fully developing your subject; if you know yourself to be a beginning writer, you might assign yourself this minimum until you are more fluent.
Accept responsibility for crafting and sharpening meaning in your writing to achieve unity and coherence. By testing your writing for topic sentences and related supporting sentences, and by choosing an order and transitions appropriate to your subject, audience, and purpose, you should see noticeable improvement in all your papers.