Principles for Paragraphs

Paragraph development rules.
Samples paragraphs
More samples of point-sentence locations.
Location of point sentence in science writing.

Paragraph development rules:

Fixed           Issue           |       Discussion

Variable                Point   |               (Point)

1. A cohesive paragraph has consistent topic strings.

Consistent topics constitute the core idea(s) that drive the paragraph.
Further they concentrate the readers attention on a particular point of view.

Topic strings focus your reader's attention on what a passage is
globally about.

2. A cohesive paragraph introduces new topic in a predictable
   location: at the end of the sentence(s) that introduce the paragraph.

These introductory sentence are called the issue.  The rest of the
paragraph is discussion aimed at making the paragraph's point.

3. A coherent paragraph will usually have a single sentence that
    clearly articulates its point.

This is the *point* sentence.  The most common problem that writers have
with points is that they fail to articulate them clearly, and so the reader
doesn't get the point of the paragraph, of a section, or of a whole document.
Or worse, the reader gets the wrong one.

By *point* we mean the specific sentence which the writer would send as a
telegram if asked "What's your point?"

The better question is not "What's your point," but "Where's your POINT?"

4. A coherent paragraph will typically locate that point sentence in one of
    two places: at the end of the issue or the end of the paragraph.

The issue may be as long as three sentences, the last of which must be
the point sentence.

Sample paragraphs. Find the POINT sentence in the following paragraphs.

Though most economists believe that business decisions are guided by a simple
law of maximum profits, in fact they result from a vector of influences acting
from many directions.  When an advertiser selects a particular layout, for
example, he depends not only on sales expectations or possible profit but
also on what the present fad is. He is concerned with what colleagues, and
competitors will think, beliefs about the actions of the FTC, concerns about
Catholics or the the American Legion, whether Chicanos or Italian-Americans
will be offended, how the "silent majority" will react.  He might even be
worried whether the wife or secretary of the decision maker will approve.

Our main concern was to empirically test the theory that forms the background
for this work.  To a great extent, we have succeeded in showing our theory is
valid.  Chapter Two reports a study which shows that the rate of perceiving
variations in length relates directly to the number of connectives in the base
structure of the test.  In Chapter Three, we report a study that found that
subjects perceive as variable units only what the theory claims is a unit.
Another series of crucial studies is the comparison and contrast experiments
reported in Chapter Four, which shows that we do not distinguish complex
concepts of different lengths as some current theories do.

The United States is at present the world's largest exporter of agricultural
products.  Its agricultural net balance of payments in recent years has
exceeded $10 billion a year.  As rising costs of imported petroleum and other
goods have increased the U.S. trade deficit, this agricultural surplus has
taken on great financial importance in both the domestic and international
markets.  First, agricultural exports maintain profitable market prices for 
the American farmer and and bolster the national economy by providing over
one million jobs.  The income from farm exports alone is used to purchase 
$9 billion worth of domestic farm machinery and equipment annually.  Exports 
of U.S. agricultural products also reduce price-depressing surpluses.  Without 
exports, the government would be subsidizing American farmers more than 
$10 billion a year over the current rate.  Finally, agricultural exports 
provide an entry to foreign markets that can be exploited by other industries.

We can say that two people use the same language--or dialects of that 
language--if they can understand each other's speech.  If they can't 
communicate, they are speaking separate languages.  But linguists define
languages politically and culturally, as well as by degree of comprehension.
Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutuallly intelligible, yet both are Chinese.
They are held together by an army and a navy and share a common system of
writing, as well a common cultural definition of what it means to be Chinese.
Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible, although they use different
alphabets, but, because of their separate armies, what once was Serbo-Croatian
is now considered by Serbs and Croats to be two separate languages.  Most
linguists think of black English, or African-American Vernancul English, as a 
dialect or variety of English.  It may exhibit some features derived from 
African languages, but is readily recognized and understandable as English.

As the experimental evidence has accumulated, it has begun to seem that if 
quarks are real particles at all, they must be permanently bound within
the nuclear particles.  Any theory of quark interactions ought to account for
this phenomena, which is called quark confinement.  It is easy to construct
pictorial models of particles such as the proton in which the constituent
quarks are confined.  For example, the quarks can be thought of as being
fastened to ends of an unbreakable string, they are then free to move about
the volume defined by the length of the string but cannot wander away from
each other.  It is a formidable task, however, to formulate a theory that can
account for the permanent binding of quarks and the structure of nuclear 
paricles without violating the constraints imposed by the theory of relativity,
quantum mechanics, and the principle of ordinary causality.

[Answers: sentence 1, 2, 3, 3 and 2.]

More examples of the location of point sentence.

Opening paragraph of a document.

Man's fascination with machinery that move under their own power and control
is at least as old as recorded history.  In Aristotle's Greece, plays of 
several acts are said to have been performed entirely by automatic puppets 
driven by weights hung on twisted cords. Much later European royalties were 
enthralled by lifelike automata that could write, draw and play musical 
instruments.  In recent year most of the magical aura surrounding mechanical 
automata has been dispelled. Today automatic machines and industrial robots 
are used in factories throughout the world to perform tasks that are too 
hazardous, too onerous, too boring, or simply too uneconomic for human 
beings to undertake.  [The rest of the document is on modern use of robots.]

Another example where the point is last.

Something has happened to the American male's need to display the signs
of stereotypical masculinity that once seemed necessary for the survival
on the frontier.  For a long time, American males were confident in
their manhood, sure of their sexual roles and images.  Indeed the rugged
frontiersmen never even thought about their masculinity;  they were
simply men surviving in a dangerous world and dressing the part.  Then in
the nineteenth century, our ideal male became the cowboy, then the world
adventurer, then the war hero.  They all were confident of themselves and
unselfconsciously dressed their part.  But in this century, something
happened: Hemingway's heroes, for example, seemed to feel that they had
to prove that it was still important to be a man among men, and our
image of them is one of a kind of Brooks Brothers ruggedness.  They
seemed less confident that masculinity had a real function.  Now one
can detects a new theme: as the male image as conqueror and survivor has
lost its value, men have felt free to dress in ways once thought feminine, 
to wear earrings, even to wear makeup.  These signs of a change in the 
American male's sexual image of himself suggests something deeper than 
changes in appearance: he is adapting to a world in which image of 
traditional masculinity is no longer necessary for survival.

Location of point sentence for academic and non-science community.

1. If the paragraph is a body paragraph, i.e., it does not introduce a section
    or whole document, the point sentence can be (a) at the end of the
    introductory issue, and/or (b) at the end of the paragraph.

2. But if the paragraph introduces a section or even a whole document, then
    you should put your POINT sentence at the end of the paragraph.

Location of point sentence for science/engineering community.

BUT, in nonacademic situations, most readers don't like that kind of
organization.  They want to see the point up front.  So unless you can
justify creating a point-last document (see below), don't do it.

Even if you put the point first, observe the following two principles.
At the end of the introductory issue of your document, you must

a. offer some promise of specific anticipatory point sentence(s) that
    clearly promise a main point still to come; and
b. include toward the end of that anticipatory point sentence the themes
    and topics that you will pursue.

    In other words, no matter where the point sentence is, you must always
    frame the space that the reader is about to enter

Why point-last document? (NOT!)

1. Timidity or Politeness.  If document delivers bad news, some think they
should first provide the history, evidence and reasoning.  Bad idea.

2. Discovery.  Some writers want the reader to work through an argument or
body of data to experience a sense of discovery.  In science this is wrong
headed.  If you are selling a conclusion, it is much better to put the
conclusion at the front so that the reader or listener will focus on the
argument to see what parts are necessary to reach the conclusion.

3. Failure to revise.  Often we just start writing having no idea where we are
going or what the point sentence is  until we discover it.  If we don't revise,
then the points -- if they are explicit at all -- are distributed randomly
through the document.  Plan ahead with a sentence outline and avoid this.

Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.
[Handouts Home Page]
General Summary
active vs. passive voice
To cite this page:
Principles for Paragraphs

Edited by: on