In Greek, para means "beside" and graphia is the verb "to write." Therefore, the word paragraph means "to write beside," and refers to a number of sentences linked by a common theme. This description is terribly abstract, however, especially since paragraphs are so concrete.
If a lot can be packed into a sentence, even more can be packed in a paragraph. Sentences, even elaborate ones, can only deal with so many topics at once, especially if they're going to be coherent. The beauty of paragraphs is that they contain many sentences all providing different angles and variations on a single theme.
Paragraphs are like symphonies. If you heard most of the instruments in a symphony playing their part all by themselves, it wouldn't make a lot of sense; together, the sounds cohere in a beautiful unity. Similarly, a sentence meant to be part of a paragraph is flat on its own, but in its proper context it resonates with meaning and poetry.
This analogy can be taken too far. Some sentences really do stand on their own, particularly great lines from poetry or first lines of novels, but these are exceptions to the rule. Writing is rooted in structure, and as a part of a bigger whole, a sentence must be read in context, not merely on its own merits. Great sentences typically become even greater in context, anyway.
For instance, most writers would agree that the first sentence of Moby-Dick, "Call me Ishmael," is one of the best in literature. It's a great sentence by itself, but when you read further and understand the significance of the name Ishmael and his role in the story, it becomes absolute genius. You need the paragraphs that follow to make sense of the one sentence.
Which highlights another essential aspect of crafting good paragraphs: just as no sentence stands alone, so no paragraph stands alone. If each paragraph in an essay simply introduced a brand new idea, the essay wouldn't make any sense. Each paragraph would simply be its own essay.
Meaning in essays, stories, or any other form of written communication appears in concentric circles. The overall idea or message is the meaning that holds everything together, but further out are the meanings of each section, each paragraph, and each sentence. If each paragraph isn't serving to illuminate the broader picture of the section or larger work, it isn't doing its job.
Some instructors will tell you to keep your paragraphs similar in length, but as long as they're coherent and readable it doesn't really matter if they're symmetrical or not. What matters is whether they're internally consistent, as well as externally able to hold together and support the larger work in which they appear.
There is a very real sense in which writing good paragraphs must become intuitive. Sure, grammar manuals will tell you that every paragraph needs a thesis statement, and while that is true, it's also true that thesis statements take various forms, and when you've become proficient at writing paragraphs you'll be able to fashion them however you want in order to communicate the ideas you want to communicate in the way you want to communicate them.
Without a firm grasp of paragraph-writing, a student's academic career willl prove exceedingly difficult. All learning revolves around communication, and a student is only successful if he can both understand what others have communicated, and can in turn present his own ideas. For this purpose, it is essential that one of the primary building blocks of written communication be understood and practiced confidently.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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