Good paragraphs are composed of sentences that cohere, flow well, and are relevant to the topic sentence. Topic sentences are miniature arguments and the skeleton of the argument.

An example of what goes wrong:

Paying your way through university is challenging. Unless you’ve received a scholarship, you will normally have to rely on student loans, even if you have a job. Part-time jobs pay little and are unrewarding. Most students end up working in retail or restaurant jobs, where the clientele can be rude and demanding. Many have to work evenings and weekends, which leaves little time to socialize with friends. No social life is depressing. Paying your way through university has also become difficult since tuition fees have risen dramatically over the past decade…..

What’s wrong with it? At around sentence four, “Most students…” the paragraph goes off topic. It goes really off topic by sentence six, “No social life is depressing.” And then it comes back on topic with sentence seven.

Remedy? Sentences four to six should be deleted or put in another paragraph that is about student social life.


How to structure a strong paragraph

Here are two paragraphs. Both begin with topic sentences, but in the first, the red paragraph, the subsequent sentences prove the topic sentence by enumeration. The topic sentence might sketch out the plan of “There are three fascinating things about fish.” The subsequent sentences will begin: First,….; Second,….; Third,..  In the second example, the green one, the topic sentence begins “one of the most fascinating behaviours of fish is…” Subsequent sentences could be: “Even more striking, perhaps, is that they….” then “By far the most unusual aspect is….” First, second and third are one way to order things. Here’s another:

We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

James Baldwin

Another method involves a repetition of syntax:

If children grow up understanding that we are animals, they will look at other species with a sense of fellowship and community. If they understand their ecological place–the biosphere–then when children see the great virgin forests of the Queen Charlotte Islands being clearcut, they will feel physical pain, because they will understand that those trues are an extension of ourselves.

David Suzuki

Circular Structure

Here is a circular structure, where the paragraph starts and ends in the same place:

People have a wonderful capacity to rationalize their past failures and present predicaments. Canadians have accepted several myths that make it easier to live with high levels of foreign investment, with compromised political independence, and with continuing reliance on resource exports. On the reassuring side there are familiar refrains: Canada is a young country, just beginning on the path to independence, and with continuing reliance on resource exports. On the reassuring side there are familiar refrains: Canada is a young country, just beginning on the path to independent industrial development; without the help of American capital and technology over the years, Canada would still be a backwater. Those of a more fatalistic bent point to the legends of Canada’s vast distances as barriers to development, or to US or British external control as having inhibited Canadian development. Unfortunately, far from exposing these myths to critical scrutiny, social scientists and historians have helped to create them. The late-bloomer theory, America’s role as friend or enemy, and the land-is-bigger-than-the-people theory are all comforting because they place the blame for Canada’s dependent existence elsewhere.

Gordon Laxer

A list

Sometimes you’re just trying to figure out how to order a list. Even that should be thought about carefully. Read the paragraph below, looking for what rules governed the way the writer composed the list:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson ….

Mark Puente qtd by Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in The Atlantic about the Baltimore protests April 2015

First, there is the topic sentence, which says that 100 people have won court judgments. The subsequent sentence–it’s a long one, suggesting a sense of ongoingness by the very form of its composition–is a carefully composed list. The structure of each element is: “an x-year old gender engaging in an activity so innocuous you can see yourself in them.” The guiding structure for how to order these elements is simple: by age. This serves the purpose of not only beginning with a strong image of the blatantly innocent boy-being-a-boy, but also ends on an even stronger image of the 87-year-old grandmother. This writer is proving a point through the use of structure as much as through the content.

Parallel Structure

Here is another important example of a parallel structure in a paragraph leading to writing that accumulates, emotionally and persuasively:

The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray’s death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested. There was no appeal for calm when Jerriel Lyles was assaulted. (“The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.”) There was no claim for nonviolence on behalf of Venus Green. (“Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up.”) There was no plea for peace on behalf of Starr Brown. (“They slammed me down on my face,” Brown added, her voice cracking. “The skin was gone on my face.”)

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

This last is a conclusion sentence. It doesn’t need to tell us that it is a conclusion, but we can tell, by tone alone.

The Back and Forth

In the readings from They Say, I Say, there is a lot of conversation about how to write in a way that replicates conversation. Here is a Reading from that text. Here is that method in practice, where quotes by Trump are positioned in contrast to what the writer thinks.

TS: Trump wants clean air and clean water — but (apparently) not through regulations. “A Trump administration will focus on real environmental challenges, not the phony ones,” Trump said. “We’ll solve for environmental problems, like the need for clean and safe drinking water.” Later he elaborated: “My priorities are simple: clean air and clean water.” But he gave no indication of how he’d actually do that. In the past, the EPA has been a major driver of cleaning up America’s air pollution. As the chart below shows, the six most common air pollutants in the US have all fallen 72 percent since 1970 — due, in large part, to rules imposed under the Clean Air Act. Trump made clear he’s not a fan of the EPA. So he’d push for clean air and water … how? CS: He didn’t say.


George Orwell editing 1984


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