Tips for Improving Paragraph Integrity

People often talk about personal integrity, but what about paragraph integrity?

An essential part of clear prose, paragraph integrity means each sentence within a paragraph follows from the one that came before. Oftentimes a piece of writing is unclear because it lacks paragraph integrity.

Happily, clear paragraphs follow certain rules that are easily discerned. In Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (1990), Joseph M. Williams writes that most paragraphs consist of an issue and discussion. “Regardless of how many sentences we use to introduce the body of a paragraph,” he writes, “we have to grasp a central principle: Whether readers are conscious of it or not, they try to divide units of organized discourse—paragraphs, sections, or wholes—into two sections.” These two sections are the short opening segment—the issue—and the discussion in which, Williams writes, “reader[s] look for […] new ideas against a background of repeated topics and themes.” Those who have taught composition may recall the PIE formula: Point, Illustration, Explanation. This is akin to William’s “Paragraph = Issue + Discussion” formula. Both offer useful guidelines for composing paragraphs. (Note, however, that this is true for expository writing; narrative writing is subject for another post.)

Sounds simple enough, right? Yet within this thicket of topics and themes even the most practiced writer can become snared. How can one check that a paragraph is sufficiently ordered? Approaches to ordering ideas within paragraphs abound, but in Stylists on Style (1969) Louis T. Milic offers offers especially helpful advice.

Milic states that for a paragraph to present a cohesive idea, each sentence in it must serve a purpose. She outlines the following eight purposes a sentence can serve:

() Initial: The first sentence of a paragraph

(+) Additive: A proposition that has no organic relation with its predecessor (and)

(-) Adversative: A proposition that changes the direction of the argument (but)

(o) Alternative: A proposition that may be substituted for the previous one (or)

(=) Explanatory: A restatement, definition, or expansion of the previous proposition (that is)

(x) Illustrative: An instance or illustration (for example)

(:) Illative: A conclusion (therefore)

(!) Causal: The cause for a preceding conclusion (for)

Figuring out what kind of work your sentences are doing within a paragraph is the first step toward writing clearer prose. I keep a copy of Milic’s guidelines taped to my computer monitor. I find it especially helpful when crafting assignment prompts.

This formula also proves helpful when explaining to learners why their prose is unclear. The next time a learner says, “I don’t understand why I received a poor grade on this writing assignment,” ask them to identify the purpose of each sentence within the unclear paragraph(s). If they are unable to do so, then that’s a clear sign of unclear prose that even the most disputatious writer can’t refute.

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