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Power of the “Word”

PARAGRAPHS

Now that we have looked at how individual sentences work, we can begin to look at the next unit of writing: the paragraph.

On the one hand, paragraphs are just collections of sentences. If you can pay attention to the language of particular sentences, you can watch those sentences work together to form a bigger thought. A well-written paragraph links its sentences together in a way that makes those links clear and obvious.

On the other hand, paragraphs are much more. In the famous book on writing The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White, they offer this advice to writers: “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.” In other words, papers, essay, often even stories, are built from paragraphs because paragraphs are fundamentally explorations of ideas.

Think of it this way. If you have to write a ten-page paper, how do you even start? It can be very intimidating if you just start writing and try to get to this page. Wouldn’t it be easier to try to write two five-page papers? Or ten one-page papers? Actually, this is what you’re doing all the time, because really, any length of paper is just a collection of paragraphs. The unit of all writing, as Strunk and White say, is the paragraph itself. We might even add that each paragraph is like a little paper itself.

Think about it this way: In every paper or essay, you’ve got three main tasks. You need to Introduce your idea, Describe it, and then offer a Concluding thought. We can see how this might work in a standard five-paragraph essay.

TASK

INTRODUCE

DESCRIBE

CONCLUDE

ESSAY LEVEL

Introductory paragraph

Body paragraphs

Concluding paragraph

In fact, this works for more than just five-paragraph essays. It can really work for any number of paragraphs. Even most non-fiction books are structured this way.

What you may not realize is that each particular paragraph will follow this same kind of organization. In other words, like the essay itself, each paragraph will have this same structure, even if the terms we use to describe the parts of the paragraph are a little different.

TASK

INTRODUCE

DESCRIBE

CONCLUDE

ESSAY LEVEL

Introductory paragraph

Concluding paragraph

PARAGRAPH LEVEL

Topic sentence

Body paragraphs

Details in support of the topic sentence

Concluding thought that ties back to the main point and transitions to the next.

Let’s take a simple paragraph as an example.

Last Friday, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers opened the scoring only a minute into the game. Although the Jets applied some pressure in the rest of the game, the Flyers were able to fend off the Jets’ attacks with some solid defense and outstanding goaltending. The victory seemed tenuous as the Jets applied their full attack at the end of the game, but the Flyers’ defense persisted and ensured the team a 2–1 victory. This game was as close as the one a few days later, but both demonstrated that the Flyers are finally turning things around and may be one of the league’s best teams by the new year.

This is the kind of write-up you might see in a newspaper or a sports magazine, and though you can see that this isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d write about in school, the paragraph follows much the same structure as a paragraph on a more academic or complex subject.

Topic sentence: The first sentence introduces the main idea of the paragraph. It tells us that the remainder of the paragraph will discuss the Flyers’ win in an earlier game.

Details: The next three sentences describe that particular game. They all support the idea presented in the topic sentence (that the Flyers won), and although there is some new information in these sentences, all the information is given in support of the topic sentence.

Concluding thought: The last sentence shows us both where we are within the paragraph and the essay. From this last sentence, we are prepared for the next paragraph (which will likely describe the game a few days later), and we are reminded of the essay’s big idea (that the Flyers are finally turning things around).

If we were to turn this paragraph into an entire paper, we could just expand each of these three parts. The introductory paragraph could state that the Flyers won and give some of the context for that win. The body paragraphs could describe the reasons that the Flyers won. The concluding paragraph could expand on the ideas given in the last sentence.

Now, this may seem like a writing lesson, so the question is, what does it have to do with reading? First of all, and perhaps obviously, writing and reading are always intertwined. The better you get at writing, the better you’ll be able to understand what you’re reading and the better you’ll be able to see how a piece of writing works. The same goes for reading. The more you read, the more comfortable you’ll feel in your own writing.

But beyond that, if we look at how a typical piece of writing is structured, it can help us tremendously with reading comprehension on standardized tests. Just as in the previous section where we used words and phrases to help us understand broader contexts, we can use the structure of a paragraph to help us sift out what’s important from what’s unimportant and read more efficiently.