English Composition I
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Many writers have difficulty with the concepts of paragraphs. Most students at some time were taught that paragraphs have at least 5 sentences, and never more than 10 sentences. This is a nice crutch to teach a beginning writer, but unfortunately most writers are never taught anything to move them beyond this crutch. Any reading of successful, professional writers will show you that paragraphs can be any length that the writer deems necessary. One or two sentence paragraphs are not uncommon, nor are incredibly lengthy, over a page long paragraphs. The trick is to bear in mind what a paragraph really is:
A paragraph is a created division in a piece of writing that helps the writer and the reader keep control of the information being presented.
- The key words in this definition are "created" and "control."
- Created - there are no hard and fast paragraph rules. The writer puts paragraph breaks where they are needed, in the writer's opinion. There are specific circumstances when the majority of writers will create a new paragraph (they are dealt with below), but they are not mandated or required. Odd paragraphing will affect the way your reader understands your writing, but it is the writer's right.
- Control - the writer needs to use the paragraphs to tame the information in the essay. Early manuscripts didn't have paragraphs, and the entire book or essay was one long paragraph. Early readers had difficulty understanding where one idea or argument ended and another began, so they began to make subdivisions in the writing, what we call paragraphs. A writer needs to understand that every paragraph break needs a reason to exist: a new speaker, a new idea, a shift in location or time, or even just a point that needs to be emphasized.
Some basic guidelines about paragraphs (things to keep in mind):
- Indent paragraphs, or use an extra line between them, but don't do both
- A new speaker usually gets a new paragraph to help the reader see that there's been a shift in speakers.
- Any sort of shift in time or place is a good place for a new paragraph if it's necessary.
- Too many paragraphs are confusing. Separating ideas and sentences into too many paragraphs keeps us from seeing how they fit together.
- Too long of paragraphs are also distracting. Give the reader some breathing room every so often to make sure that they've followed your argument. In general, any paragraph over one page in length should be checked carefully. They can happen, but they are asking a lot of the reader.
- Try writing your paper in one long chunk and put the paragraphs in AFTER the fact, so that you see how the individual parts fit together.
- Remember that each paragraph should exist on its own as a complete idea, with its own topic, evidence, and conclusion.