“A subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new, usually indented, line.” – Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
“A paragraph is a group of sentences that work in concert to develop a unit of thought.” – Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka “A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.” – OWL at Purdue University
For the Greeks a paragraphing mark (¶ or §) indicated a new speaker in a dialogue. After the printing press came into use, paragraph breaks helped printers keep their places. Today, paragraphs give readers a visual and mental break. They also allow writers to emphasize and clarify meanings by organizing sentences into groups.
Paragraphing Rules § There are no hard and fast rules! Conventions vary with type of writing, audience, purpose, and style. Many rhetoric handbooks list guidelines for good paragraphs. While those are useful, they don’t necessarily apply to all types of writing in all disciplines.
Topic Sentences Paragraphs often contain one sentence—a topic sentence—that states, implicitly or explicitly, the main focus of the paragraph. Topic sentences are often—but not always—the first sentence.
Paragraph Development One way of analyzing expository paragraphs focuses on two types of development, or content: Coordinate Subordinate ¶
Coordinate Development In a coordinate paragraph each sentence except the topic sentence stays at the same general level of specificity. Coordinate paragraphs are “list-like.”
Coordinate Example There are many things students might do to sabotage their sessions in the Writing Center. They show up late. They forget their assignment sheets. They don’t have their papers printed out. They come to gripe about their instructors.
Subordinate Development In a paragraph with subordinate development, each sentence further develops the ideas of the sentences before it. A subordinate paragraph is like a descending staircase; each sentence is increasingly more specific.
Subordinate Paragraph Example Some students mistakenly believe the UWC is a remedial writing center. As a result, they see coming here as a sign of failure. That attitude can create an obstacle to learning. Before real learning can begin, the consultant will have to help such students see that asking for help isn’t a sign of failure. In order to convey that point, the consultant may need to emphasize what the students are doing well.
Paragraphs development can also come from following patterns: ¶ Narrative (chronological) Cause and Effective Comparison or Contrast Definition Description (spatial) Process (steps) Analysis (braking into parts) Least to most important/Most to least important
Paragraph Unity One way to keep writing focused is to be sure paragraphs are unified. Paragraph unity means that all the sentences are related to the same general topic or theme. ¶
Instead of this: Working in a writing center can be difficult. Writing consultants have only a few minutes to assess a student’s needs and begin offering help. And that help can’t be too directive because the student must ultimately be responsible for the work. Teaching English is hard, too. Writing consultants often have to overcome students’ misconceptions about what good writing is.
A unified paragraph would look like this: Working in a writing center can be difficult. Writing consultants have only a few minutes to assess a student’s needs and begin offering help. And that help can’t be too directive since the student must ultimately be responsible for the work. That means the consultant must walk a fine line between helping the writer and becoming the writer.
Paragraph Coherence In addition to unity, paragraphs should also have coherence, meaning each sentence should relate to the sentences preceedingit. Three ways to achieve coherence: Repeat key words Use pronouns Include transitions ¶
Paragraph without coherence The University Writing Center will work with students at any stage of the writing process. Come in if you’re having trouble with generating ideas. A student can get help with organizing thoughts in a paper. Consultants help with final editing and proofreading. For a major project or a resume a student may come in to see us several times.
Revised Coherent Paragraph The University Writing Center will work with students at any stage of the writing process. For instance, students can come in for help with generating ideas as they begin a paper. Or they can come to get help with organizing ideas once they have a first draft. They can also get help with editing or final proofreading when their paper is near completion. In fact, for their major projects or resumes, students sometimes come in two or three times during the creative process.
Paragraph Length There is no prescribed length for a good paragraph. Length should be determined according to the needs of the audience and the usual conventions for the document. A one-sentence paragraph can be used for a transition or for emphasis. ¶
From A New Life by Bernard Malamud, first published in 1961 and reprinted in 2004 (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy). Silence thickened as he talked, the attentiveness of the class surprising him, although it was a college class--that made the difference. He had expected, to tell the truth, some boredom--the teacher pushing the tide; but everyone's eyes were fastened on him. Heartened by this, his shame at having been late all but evaporated, Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn't matter. By some miracle of movement and change, standing before them as their English instructor by virtue of his appointment, Levin welcomed them from wherever they came: the Northwest states, California, and a few from beyond the Rockies, a thrilling representation to a man who had in all his life never been west of Jersey City. If they worked conscientiously in college, he said, they would come in time to a better understanding of who they were and what their lives might yield, education being revelation. At this they laughed, though he wasn't sure why. Still, if they could be so good-humored early in the morning it was all right with him. He noticed now that some of them turned in their seats to greet old friends; two shook hands as if to say this was the place to be. Levin grew eloquent. The men in the class--there were a few older students, veterans--listened with good-natured interest, and the girls gazed at the instructor with rosy-faced, shy affection. In his heart he thanked him, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented the America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West. So what if he spoke with flat a's and they with rocky r's? Or he was dark and nervously animated, they blond, tending to impassive? Or if he had come from a vast metropolis of many-countried immigrants, they from towns and small cities where anyone was much like everyone? In Levin's classroom they shared ideals of seeking knowledge, one and indivisible. "This is the life for me," he admitted, and they broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter. The bell rang and the class moved noisily into the hall, some nearly convulsed. As if inspired, Levin glanced down at his fly, and it was, as it must be, all the way open.
From "In Another Country" (1928) by Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (reprinted, Scribner, 1988).
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
From Ask the English Teacher(http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/english/2006/05/singlesentence_.html) As a former columnist for a tabloid paper, I have no problem with single-sentence paragraphs. However, like any stylistic device they can be overdone. [Note this is a two-sentence paragraph in the original!]