Writing Commons: Joseph Moxley's "Paragraph"

Understand how to organize information in paragraphs so readers can scan your work and better follow your reasoning.

Unlike punctuation, which can be subjected to specific rules, no ironclad guidelines exist for shaping paragraphs. If you presented a text without paragraphs to a dozen writing instructors and asked them to break the document into logical sections, chances are that you would receive different opinions about the best places to break the paragraph. In part, where paragraphs should be placed is a stylistic choice. Some writers prefer longer paragraphs that compare and contrast several related ideas, whereas others opt for a more linear structure, delineating each subject on a one-point-per-paragraph basis. Newspaper articles or documents published on the Internet tend to have short paragraphs, even one-sentence paragraphs.

If your readers have suggested that you take a hard look at how you organize your ideas, or if you are unsure about when you should begin a paragraph or how you should organize final drafts, then you can benefit by reviewing paragraph structure. The following guidelines can give you some insights about alternative ways to shape paragraphs.

Note: When you are drafting, you need to trust your intuition about where to place paragraphs; you don't want to interrupt the flow of your thoughts as you write to check on whether you are placing them in logical order. Such self-criticism could interfere with creativity or the generation of ideas. Before you submit a document for a grade, however, you should examine the structure of your paragraphs.

Paragraph Transitions

Effective paragraph transitions signal to readers how two consecutive paragraphs relate to each other. The transition signals the relationship between the “new information” and the “old information.”

For example, the new paragraph might

  • elaborate on the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • introduce a related idea
  • continue a chronological narrative
  • describe a problem with the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe an exception to the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe a consequence or implication of the idea presented in the preceding paragraph

Let's consider a few examples (drawn from published books and articles*) of paragraph transitions that work. The examples below reproduce paragraph endings and openings. Pay attention to how each paragraph opening signals to readers how the paragraph relates to the one they have just finished reading. Observe the loss in clarity when transitional signals are removed. 

Example 1: 

Paragraph ending [ … ]Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency.
Paragraph Opening with transitional cues  Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing.
 [ … ]
Paragraph openingwithout transitional cues Taylor’s system is the ethic of present-day industrial manufacturing. [ … ]

The transitional sentence signals that the new paragraph will seek to demonstrate that the phenomenon described in the preceding paragraph (Taylorism) is ongoing: it is “still” with us and “remains” the dominant workplace ethic.Compare this sentence with the one directly beneath it (“paragraph opening without transitional cues”). With this version, readers are left on their own to infer the connection.

Example 2:

Paragraph ending

[ … ]“I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

Paragraph opening with transitional cues

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. [ … ] 

Paragraph opening without transitional cues

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. [ … ]

The transitional sentence signals that the new paragraph will provide another example of the phenomenon (changed mental habits) described in the preceding paragraph. In this example, the word “also” serves an important function. Notice that without this transitional cue the relationship between the two paragraphs becomes less clear.

Example 3:

Paragraph Ending

[ … ] The camera-as-narrator is the usual viewpoint in film. It can be used continuously, appearing to reflect reality, and making few mental demands on the viewer. The passive camera seems to be a trustworthy witness, and so the viewer relies upon its apparent omniscience.

Paragraph opening with transitional cues

But the illusion of objectivity is a rhetorical device exploited by the filmmaker. [ … ]

Paragraph opening without transitional cues

The illusion of objectivity is a rhetorical device exploited by the filmmaker.[ … ]

The transitional sentence signals that the new paragraph will challenge the assumption described in the preceding paragraph. The single transitional term “but” signals this relationship. Notice the drop-off in clarity when the transitional term is omitted.

Example 4:

Paragraph Ending

[ … ]If the story concerns social crisis or disorder, more frequently than not this response will come from sources of official authority: the police quell the rioting, labor and management leaders reach an agreement, the State Department approves or condemns the latest coup d’état in South America. The press in this way establishes a subtle relation between narrative order and the perception or representation of political order. 

Paragraph opening with transitional cues

Todd Gitlin makes a similar point in commenting on the “orderliness” of television news.[ … ]

Paragraph opening without transitional cues

Todd Gitlin comments onthe “orderliness” of television news.[ … ]

The transitional sentence signals that the new paragraph will further explore the idea expressed in the preceding paragraph. The phrase “makes a similar point” signals this relationship. Without this transitional phrase, the connection between the two paragraphs can still be inferred, but it is now much less clear.

As the above examples illustrate, effective paragraph transitions signal relationships between paragraphs. 

Below are some terms that are often helpful for signaling relationships among ideas.


before, next, earlier, later, during, after, meanwhile, while, until, then, first, second


also, similarly, likewise, in the same way, in the same manner 


however, but, in contrast, still, yet, nevertheless, even though, although


for example, for instance, in other words


and, also, moreover, additionally, furthermore, another, too


as a result, therefore, for this reason, thus, consequently


in conclusion, in summary, to sum up 

* The examples of transitional sentences are from:

  1. Parker, Ian. "Absolute Powerpoint." New Yorker. 28 May 2001: 76-87.
  2. Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic Monthly. Jul/Aug2008: 56-63.
  3. Harrington, John. The Rhetoric of Film. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
  4. Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Paragraphs Often Follow Deductive Organization

Your goals for the opening sentences of your paragraphs are similar to your goals for writing an introduction to a document. In the beginning of a paragraph, clarify the purpose. Most paragraphs in academic and technical discourse move deductively--that is, the first or second sentence presents the topic or theme of the paragraph and the subsequent sentences illustrate and explicate this theme. Notice, in particular, how Chris Goodrich cues readers to the purpose of his paragraph (and article) in the first sentence of his essay "Crossover Dreams":

Norman Cantor, New York University history professor and author, most recently, of Inventing the Middle Ages, created a stir this spring when he wrote a letter to the newsletter of the American Historical Association declaring that "no historian who can write English prose should publish more than two books with a university press--one for tenure, and one for full professor After that (or preferably long before) work only in the trade market." Cantor urged his fellow scholars to seek literary agents to represent any work with crossover potential. And he didn't stop there: As if to be sure of offending the entire academic community, Cantor added, "If you are already a full professor, your agent should be much more important to you than the department chair or the dean."

Paragraphs Use Inductive Structure for Dramatic Conclusions or Varied Style

While you generally want to move from the known to the new, from the thesis to its illustration or restriction, you sometimes want to violate this pattern. Educated readers in particular can be bored by texts that always present information in the same way.

For example, how Valerie Steele's anecdotal tone and dialogue in the opening sentences of her essay on fashion in academia prepare the reader for her thesis:

Once, when I was a graduate student at Yale, a history professor asked me about my dissertation. "I'm writing about fashion," I said.

That's interesting. Italian or German?"

It took me a couple of minutes, as thoughts of Armani flashed through my mind, but finally I realized what he meant. "Not fascism," I said. "Fashion. As in Paris."

"Oh." There was a long silence, and then, without another word, he turned and walked away.

Fashion still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence. Some of those to whom I spoke while preparing this article requested anonymity or even refused to address the subject. ("The F-Word." Lingua Franca April 1991: 17–18.)

Paragraphs Are Unified by a Single Purpose or Theme

Regardless of whether a paragraph is deductively or inductively structured, readers can generally follow the logic of a discussion better when a paragraph is unified by a single purpose. Paragraphs that lack a central idea and that wander from subject to subject are apt to confuse readers, making them wonder what they should pay attention to and why.

To ensure that each paragraph is unified by a single idea, Francis Christensen, in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric (NY: Harper & Row, 1967), has suggested that we number sentences according to their level of generality. According to Christensen, we would assign a 1 to the most general sentence and then a 2 to the second most general sentence, and so on. Christensen considers the following paragraph, which he excerpted from Jacob Bronowski's The Common Sense of Science, to be an example of a subordinate pattern because the sentences become increasingly more specific as the reader progresses through the paragraph:

  1. The process of learning is essential to our lives.
  2. All higher animals seek it deliberately.
  3. They are inquisitive and they experiment.
  4. An experiment is a sort of harmless trial run of some action which we shall have to make in the real world; and this, whether it is made in the laboratory by scientists or by fox-cubs outside their earth.
  5. The scientist experiments and the cub plays; both are learning to correct their errors of judgment in a setting in which errors are not fatal.
  6. Perhaps this is what gives them both their air of happiness and freedom in these activities.

Christensen is quick to point out that not all paragraphs have a subordinate structure. The following one, which he took from Bergen Evans's Comfortable Words, is an example of what Christensen considers a coordinate sequence:

  1. He [the native speaker] may, of course, speak a form of English that marks him as coming from a rural or an unread group.
  2. But if he doesn't mind being so marked, there's no reason why he should change.
  3. Samuel Johnson kept a Staffordshire burr in his speech all his life.
  4. In Burns' mouth the despised lowland Scots dialect served just as well as the "correct" English spoken by ten million of his southern contemporaries.
  5. Lincoln's vocabulary and his way of pronouncing certain words were sneered at by many better educated people at the time, but he seemed to be able to use the English language as effectively as his critics.

Paragraphs Must Logically Relate to the Previous Paragraph(s)

Readers also expect paragraphs to relate to each other as well as to the overall purpose of a text. Establishing transitional sentences for paragraphs can be one of the most difficult challenges you face as a writer because you need to guide the reader with a light hand. When you are too blatant about your transitions, your readers may feel patronized.

To highlight the connections between your ideas, you can provide transitional sentences at the end of each paragraph that look forward to the substance of the next paragraph. Or, you can place the transition at the beginning of a paragraph looking backward, as Valerie Steele does in the following example:

Can a style of dress hurt one's professional career? True to form most academics deny that it makes any difference whatsoever. But a few stories may indicate otherwise: When a gay male professor was denied tenure at an Ivy League university, some people felt that he was punished, in part, for his dress. It was "not that he wore multiple earrings" or anything like that, but he did wear "beautiful, expensive, colorful clothes that stood out" on campus. At the design department on one of the campuses of the University of California system, a job applicant appeared for her interview wearing a navy blue suit. The style was perfect for most departments, of course, but in this case she was told--to her face--that she "didn't fit in, she didn't look arty enough."

Another bit of evidence that suggests dress is of career significance for academics is the fact that some universities (such as Harvard) now offer graduate students counseling on how to outfit themselves for job interviews. The tone apparently is patronizing ("You will need to think about an interview suit and a white blouse"), but the advice is perceived as necessary.

The phrase "another bit of evidence" beginning the second paragraph refers back to the topic sentence that began the first paragraph, "Can a style of dress hurt one's professional career?"

When evaluating your transitions from paragraph to paragraph, question whether the transitions appear too obtrusive, thereby undercutting your credibility. At best, when transitions are unnecessary, readers perceive explicit transitional sentences to be wordy; at worst, they perceive such sentences as insulting. (After all, they imply that the readers are too inept to follow the discussion.)

Vary the length of paragraphs to reflect the complexity and importance of the ideas expressed in them. Different ideas, arguments, and chronologies warrant their own paragraph lengths, so the form of your text should emerge in response to your thoughts. To emphasize a transition in your argument or to highlight an important point, you may want to place critical information in a one- or two-sentence paragraph.

Paragraphs Are Influenced by the Media of Writing

As much as any of the above guidelines, you should consider the media and genre where your text will appear. For as much as paragraphs are shaped by the ideas being expressed, they are also influenced by the genre of the discourse.

For instance, newspapers and magazines produced for high-school educated readers tend to require much shorter paragraphs than those published in academic journals. When evaluating how you have structured your ideas, however, pay attention to whether you have varied the length of your paragraphs. Long chunks of text without paragraph breaks tend to make ideas seem complicated, perhaps even inaccessible to less educated audiences. In turn, short paragraphs can create a list-like style, which intrudes on clarity and persuasive appeal. Because long paragraphs tend to make a document more complicated than short paragraphs, you should question how patient and educated your readers are.

Paragraphs Flow When Information Is Logical

Paragraphs provide a visual representation of your ideas. When revising your work, evaluate the logic behind how you have organized the paragraphs.

Question whether your presentation would appear more logical and persuasive if you rearranged the sequence of the paragraphs. Next, question the structure of each paragraph to see if sentences need to be reordered. Determine whether you are organizing information deductively or according to chronology or according to some sense of what is most and least important. Ask yourself these five questions:

  1. How is each paragraph organized? Do I place my general statement or topic sentence near the beginning or the end of each paragraph? Do I need any transitional paragraphs or transitional sentences?
  2. As I move from one idea to another, will my reader understand how subsequent paragraphs relate to my main idea as well as to previous paragraphs? Should any paragraphs be shifted in their order in the text? Should a later paragraph be combined with the introductory paragraph?
  3. Should the existing paragraphs be cut into smaller segments or merged into longer ones? If I have a concluding paragraph, do I really need it?
  4. Will readers understand the logical connections between paragraphs? Do any sentences need to be added to clarify the logical relationship between ideas? Have I provided the necessary forecasting and summarizing sentences that readers will need to understand how the different ideas relate to each other?
  5. Have I been too blatant about transitions? Are all of the transitional sentences and paragraphs really necessary or can the reader follow my thoughts without them?

Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2015, 11:16 AM