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Paragraph Patterns

For our purposes in Composition, I’d like to elaborate on some issues related to paragraphing in academic writing, making a few things up as I go along for explanatory purposes and drawing from existing work on the question of ordering ideas.

Consider how one item or object follows from another. 1 is followed by 2 and so forth. “Why not” may follow from the question “why?”. We can think of this as an order of logic or a logical sequence.

But first some terms:

Lead sentence: the first sentence of a paragraph where an idea is being introduced, a concept is being explained or described, or an argument is being introduced in support of a position.

Tailing sentence: the sentence that closes a paragraph and may transition to the next.

Sub-lead: the sentence that starts a paragraph that transitions from and develops a concept or argument.

Consider as an example the first paragraph of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. The paragraph has 4 sentences. Orwell writes:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

The first sentence of the second paragraph is important. It goes: “Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.” The logic of the placement of this sentence follows from the logic of the ideas introduced in the first sentence of the first paragraph, forming what’s often called a bridge. We can take each of these sentences and lay them together:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way…” and  “Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes…”

These two “lead” sentences, one a lead, the other a sub-lead, create a relation. The second lead develops the first, thus the idea of a bridge. We’ve left out the other sentences just to show the “direct relationship” between the paragraphs.

It’s also true, however, that the tail sentence frames the first paragraph. Here’s how those sentences look when plugged together: Sentence 1: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” and Sentence 4: “Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” Orwell bridges and knots up the paragraph with a couple of change-ups: the “generally assumed that we cannot” of Sentence 1 and the “half-conscious belief” of Sentence 4.

The above bridging introduces Orwell’s subject and problem and sustains the coherence of his beginning analysis. It’s not just that the “language is in a bad way”; it’s also that people think we can’t do anything about it. In the second paragraph, Orwell introduces two new ideas that “follow” from the first paragraph: the political and economic consequences of the decline of language and that it’s not only one writer’s fault. The decline, if we think about coherence and unity as standards for paragraphs, is an anchoring idea, from which all the other ideas develop or proceed. Eventually, Orwell will get to and examine examples of the decline, because he just can’t generalize that and get away with it.

Now consider another example of a few paragraphs that I would describe as explanatory or descriptive. This example comes from an Aeon piece titled Let’s Make Football a College Major by David V Johnson. Here are the example paragraphs:

College football players spend more than 40 hours per week on football, including time on the practice field, in the weight room, with trainers, and in film study and team meetings. On average, college athletes spend more than 30 hours a week on their sport. The US National Collegiate Athletic Association has a rule limiting college athletes to 20 hours per week, but it is rife with loopholes and a target of lawsuits. (link in original)

Such ambitious schedules leave college athletes exhausted and with little energy for coursework. In many cases, the primary reason they are attending college in the first place is to play a sport. Many athletes evince a dedication exceeding all but the most committed students of the sciences or humanities.

These are the second and third paragraphs from the piece. The second paragraph does not declare an anchoring idea using a lead, but we do know that the second paragraph does follow the first in sequence and subject. We know that the second paragraph provides a list of time-oriented statistics, followed by the third paragraph that takes the time data and informs the reader why the statistics were important. There is an implied lead then: that college athletes spend a lot of time on their sport. The data is listed in the second paragraph and used by the third, making the information matter, and thus creating a kind of coherence, without requiring a lead.

As writers we need to examine a variety of different paragraph patterns to shape our own. There are a couple of rules I would consider as a framework for learning about paragraphs:

  1. Follow a coherent order of logic
  2. Use lead sentences to introduce ideas and sub ideas, like so:

There are a variety of types of rocks. Granite is an example of igneous rock. Sand stone is an example of sedimentary rock. These are just two examples of the variety of kinds of rocks.

A final example of kinds of rocks are metamorphic rock …

  1. Use common ideas and related language to bridge from the lead into the sentences that develop it. Do this with explicit intention, like so:

The modern diet of soft drinks, plastic food, and yummy desserts is harmful. It lacks essential nutrients like vitamin D, potassium, and …

In this case “It” provides the bridge.

  1. Bridge from paragraph to paragraph, too, developing the common threads of ideas, and, even better, knowing what they are or should be.
  2. Lastly, always report on or inform the audience why evidence presented in support of an argument or lead is relevant to the idea.

Study Notes for Writing Summaries

In Composition and other courses you probably learned to take a longer work and write about it in the form of a summary, a shorter version that accurately describes it to an audience.  A good summary is built on reasonable judgement of a work, accurate representation, and precision in paraphrase and quotation.