Sentences Paragraphs


Sentences and Paragraphs

Since you are beginning to write, you should consider the basic tools of the trade. The sentence is the hammer you use to drive your points home. Each blow must hit a nail. Each sentence must communicate a thought clearly from your mind to that of your reader. Disorganized jumbles of words and phrases cannot do this. Only when the words are arranged in a logical order with a subject and a verb is a complete thought expressed. The presence of both a subject and a verb is what defines a sentence. Be sure that every sentence has each. Be sure the subject and verb agree. Be sure the thought is clear. Sentences can be long or short, complex or simple, but each must contain a clear sense of an actor and some action. Start each sentence with an uppercase letter; end each sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. This stuff is basic. Get it right.

Sentences should be varied. Writing the entire paper in short, choppy sentences will make you sound like Mr. Rogers reading Dick and Jane . But long, elaborate sentences full of subordinate clauses and other complexities one after another will wear down your reader and produce an impenetrable thicket of words instead of clear, concise prose. There is no happy middle ground here. Mediocre is boring; even God spits the lukewarm out of his mouth. Go back and forth between both styles of the sentences.

The paragraph is the next unit of organization. It needs to be disciplined and unified as if it were a mini-essay all by itself. That is, each paragraph needs to be organized around its own topic and must begin with its own topic sentence, a sentence that in one way or another introduces the particular topic that distinguishes that paragraph. The remainder of each paragraph, the logic and evidence that back up the topic, must flow naturally from the topic sentence that heads it. One insight per paragraph is the rule. By "insight," I mean something you must take a risk to say, something a reasonable person would want explained, explored, or defended. You will know you are doing it right when you feel exposed and doing it wrong when you feel safe and dull when reading your paragraph.

If you find that three different ideas seem to be competing in your paragraph, you have two ways to correct the problem. The first is to divide the paragraph into three separate paragraphs, each elaborating on one of the three points. If you lack enough to say to support an entire paragraph for each of these three points, an alternative is to go back to the beginning of the paragraph and create a new umbrella topic sentence that says something like "Three basic arguments can be presented for the belief that Madonna is in fact the reincarnation of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ." Your three separate points are now subsets of the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. If you can't imagine a topic sentence that would cover everything in your paragraph, you'd better break up the paragraph. If an idea or piece of evidence does not belong with the rest of the paragraph, move it to where it does belong, create a new paragraph for it, or leave it out.

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