Return: Starting a New Paragraph

It’s one of the most basic aspects of writing, isn’t it? Where to start a new paragraph. I don’t mean all the stupid little ones we’re supposed to use in blogs because it’s assumed (though not by me) folks need information broken down into tiny bite-sized pieces due to the fact that they’re stressed and short of time and can’t be bothered to pay attention.

(I try. I do try. See?)

No, I mean for-real, meaty PARRRRAGRAPHS, with 1) a topic sentence, 2) examples, explanations, and supporting evidence, and 3) a concluding sentence that also transitions us to the next paragraph. You know: writing 101 stuff. I learned these things in school (a long time ago), and because I happened to be interested in it, I retained it, which is generally how learning works. (Since this is not a blog about algebra, you can assume my level of interest in math. Forgive me, Mr. Diehle.)

But we need to talk about this paragraph thing. Not everyone was particularly interested in the mechanics of writing back when the information was available free from our overworked, underpaid public schoolteachers. That’s OK. You probably didn’t accidentally on purpose “lose” your text like I did, either (so you could keep it for reference and use it to win grammar arguments later in life).

Of course you didn’t. You’re much cooler than me. :)

Now that you are interested in writing, though, let’s see if I can get you started. You’ll have to practice this in your own time. And whether you’re working on nonfiction or fiction, a blog post or a novel (think narrative; we’ll talk about paragraphing dialogue another time), learning how to organize your paragraphs internally (topic sentence, support, conclusion—that is, beginning, middle, end), will improve your writing.

The topic sentence is key. “Both the clearness and completeness of a paragraph can generally be enhanced by stating its main idea in … a topic sentence: a key sentence to which the other statements in the paragraph are related,” say Perrin, Smith, and Corder (Handbook of Current English, 3rd edition, Scott, Foresman and Co., 1968).

The purpose of a topic sentence is twofold: (1) to help the writer focus his ideas on one central thought to which every statement in the paragraph is directly related, and (2) to make it easier for the reader to see what the paragraph is about, by specifically stating its controlling idea.

(There’s more about these concepts of paragraph construction in this detailed article from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Don’t worry so much about paragraph length; instead focus on clarity. When the one idea you’ve broached is clear, move on to the next idea, and the next topic sentence. That’s where you begin the new paragraph.

And here’s the interesting part! The structure of a paragraph—beginning, middle, end—echoes how you should structure your essay or blog post (beginning, middle, end; each idea leading to the next until you’ve made your point).

Here’s an example of that. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about revealing (or not) that you’ve hired editorial help. Now look at it again; I’ve removed all but the first sentence of every paragraph.

Stacking the Deck in Your Favor
• A while back I was approached by a writer who was looking for editorial help with a novel he’d written.
• During this process, he asked me an interesting question: When I pitch my project, should I say it’s been through a developmental edit?
• Good question.
• I have seen two schools of thought on this issue.
• See the conundrum here?
• It’s a very competitive climate for authors right now.
• This competitive climate means you need to create the best possible product to have any shot at all at traditional publishing.
• There’s no question that many unsigned authors are engaging professional editors to help them polish their manuscripts so they can land an agent.
• It’s also no secret that agents work with their clients to improve the product before they shop it—
• Do you see where I’m headed with this line of thinking?
• But the question was about disclosure. Should you tell a prospective agent?
• Writers who’ve worked with me know I require the author to do his or her own rewrites.
• Bottom line. Everyone from the author to the agent to the publisher is interested in one thing: selling books.

All the information in the post is in this list. Paragraph breaks help you move your subject forward, point by point. (When Your Editor starts talking about structure, this is one of the things she means.) And each paragraph break tells the reader Pay attention here.

See what I mean? Now go have another look at the paragraphs in that piece you’re working on.

Tweet: Where to start a new paragraph: it’s one of the most basic aspects of writing.
Tweet: When Your Editor starts talking about structure, paragraphing is one of the things she means.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Roz Cawley says:

    Jamie – you say ‘it’s assumed (though not by me) folks need information broken down into tiny bite-sized pieces due to the fact that they’re stressed and short of time and can’t be bothered to pay attention’
    I think the reason that it is suggested that blog (and other read-on-screen) writers break down work into ‘bite sized’ paragraphs has actually been do do with screen readability. Until the advent of the Kindle, on-screen reading was notoriously hard on the eye – I myself will often skip past a post or even an email that is written as one long vomit of words onto screen with no breaks, and its why I break up my own writing into shorter paragraphs than I would otherwise do on paper.
    I guess the Kindle has changed this somewhat, but I am not an author who has had anything published via Kindle, so the habit sticks with me.
    Thank you for yet another packed with information post (and when are *you* going to publish all this advice as a book of your own??) xx

    • Jamie says:

      Good point! And I do understand. It’s just some sites make breaks after every sentence, which annoys the snot outta me. :)