November 18, 2009

I’ve come to praise the paragraph, not to bury it. Such appreciation was not always my thing. The early instruction I received made construction of a paragraph seem so mechanical, so formulaic, so detached from my writerly instincts that I rebelled.

The paragraphs in my favorite books did not always have a topic sentence, three supporting examples and a sharp, logical conclusion. Some just seemed to start and then, after a while, stop. The length of paragraphs was not arbitrary nor the content incoherent. But what I saw — more often than not — were chunks of information. Thin newspaper columns contained small chunks; magazines bigger chunks; and books the biggest chunks of all.

Paragraphs come in all shapes and sizes, some as long as a sacred scroll, others short as a single word, their variety offering the reader many benefits. If a sentence expresses a complete thought, then a paragraph can:

  • Move the reader through the elements of an argument.
  • Advance the movement of a narrative.
  • Create the white space that relaxes the eyes and settles the mind.
  • Enhance the signature style or authentic voice of a writer.

Consider the opening of “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin:

” ‘George Orwell,’ I said slowly. ‘G-e-o-r-g-e O-r-w-e-l-l.’ But the old Burmese man just kept shaking his head.

“We were sitting in the baking-hot front room of his house in a sleepy port town in Lower Burma. The air was oppressive and muggy. I could hear mosquitoes whining impatiently around my head, and I was about to give up. The man was a well-known scholar in Burma, and I knew he was familiar with Orwell. But he was elderly; cataracts had turned his eyes an oystery blue, and his hands trembled as he readjusted his sarong. I wondered if he was losing his memory but, after several failed attempts, I made one final stab.

” ‘George Orwell,’ I repeated — ‘the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, ‘You mean the prophet!’ “

The author gives us three paragraphs (three chunks) of different lengths, each with its own purpose. She opens with one side of a dialogue and creates an instantaneous narrative complication: She is trying to solve a problem and has hit a wall. The second paragraph creates a setting in which the action will take place, and offers elements of character for the old Burmese scholar. Paragraph three resolves the complication and opens the door to an astonishing bit of understanding, not only that Orwell is recognized in Burma, but that he is revered. Which introduces another puzzle: Why?

The book will answer that question at length, telling the story of Orwell’s life as a young British officer in Burma, and how, he came to despise British imperialism as a champion of freedom and justice. Orwell continues to speak to the Burmese people, oppressed as they are by one of the world’s most tyrannical governments. The author uses a different kind of paragraph to explain that reality:

“During the three weeks I spent wandering through postcard-perfect scenes of bustling markets, glittering pagodas and faded British hill stations I found it hard to believe I was traveling through a country that has one of the worst records for human-rights abuse in the world. To me, this is the most staggering thing about Burma: that the oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million people can be completely hidden from view. A vast network of Military Intelligence spies and their informers ensures that no one can do or say anything that might threaten the regime. The Burmese media — books, magazines, movies and music — are controlled by a strict censorship board and government propaganda is churned out not only through newspapers and television, but also in schools and universities. These methods of reality-control are kept firmly in place by the invisible, though ever present, threat of torture and imprisonment.”

School teachers, students, writers and scholars everywhere, take note: You have just read a classic five-sentence paragraph. It actually has a topic sentence (sentence two) with a point: that the effects of tyranny in Burma are almost invisible. The first, third, and fourth sentences are packed with evidence that proves this point. A final sentence not only offers a brief summary of what has come before, but answers the question “how?” and leads us to the most dramatic phrase in the paragraph: “threat of torture and imprisonment.”

Suddenly, I began seeing great paragraphs everywhere, not just chunks of language, but big, bold, building blocks of meaning. This one comes from memoirist Vivian Gornick:

“Every word of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say. In An American Tragedy the situation is Dreiser’s America; the story is the pathological nature of hunger for the world. In Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son the situation is fundamentalist England in the time of Darwin; the story is the betrayal of intimacy necessary to the act of becoming oneself. In a poem called “In the Waiting Room” Elizabeth Bishop describes herself at the age of seven, during the First World War, sitting in a dentist’s office, turning the pages of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within. That’s the situation. The story is a child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s and that of the world.”

I appreciate the sparkling logic of that paragraph, which begins with a striking distinction between situation and story, and then illustrates that distinction with three different kinds of literary examples, a novel, a memoir and a poem. William Strunk could have used Gornick’s paragraph to demonstrate his advice that the paragraph is the “unit of composition,” which means that writers can use the paragraph as the standard building block of a report, essay, explanation or story.

My favorite book authors, such as Roald Dahl, not only write narrative books and narrative chapters, they write narrative paragraphs. Book paragraphs, with their wide columns, make this possible. But even for newspaper and magazine writers, the narrative paragraph can be an effective writing tool.

Here, for example, is a paragraph from Dahl’s second autobiography, titled Going Solo, which covers his time as a daring British air force pilot during World War II. It’s long, but please stick with it:

“I am writing this forty-five years afterwards, but I still retain an absolutely clear picture of Khalkis and how it looked from a few thousand feet up on a bright-blue early April morning. The little town with its sparkling white houses and red-tiled roofs stood on the edge of the waterway, and behind the town I could see the jagged grey-black mountains where I had chased the Ju 88s the day before. Inland, I could see a wide valley and there were green fields in the valley and among the fields there were splashes of the most brilliant yellow I had ever seen. The whole landscape looked as though it had been painted on to the surface of the earth by Vincent Van Gogh. On all sides and wherever I looked there was this dazzling panorama of beauty, and for a moment or two I was so overwhelmed by it all that I didn’t see the big Ju 88 screaming up at me from below until he was almost touching the underbelly of my plane. He was climbing right up at me with the tracer pouring like yellow fire out of his blunt Perspex nose and in that thousandth of a second I actually saw the German front-gunner crouching over his gun and gripping it with both hands as he squeezed the trigger. I saw his brown helmet and his pale face with no goggles over the eyes and he was wearing some sort of a black flying-suit. I yanked my stick back so hard the Hurricane shot vertically upwards like a rocket. The violent change of direction blacked me out completely, and when my sight returned my plane was at the top of a vertical climb and standing on its tail with almost no forward movement at all. My engine was spluttering and beginning to vibrate. I’ve been hit, I thought, I’ve been hit in the engine. I rammed the stick hard forward and prayed she would respond. By some miracle, the aircraft dropped its nose and the engine began to pick up and within a few seconds the marvelous machine was flying straight and level once again.”

And here is his next paragraph:

“But where was the German?”

I confess my delight at a 350-word paragraph followed by one of only five words. But it is the long paragraph that takes my breath away — almost to the point of reader blackout. In a single stretch, Dahl gives us everything we might hope for in a story: a compelling narrator, a gorgeous setting, a shocking complication right in the middle, a split second description of character, an action-packed climax and dazzling resolution. Even if it was necessary in the end to break up such a paragraph into smaller, digestible chunks, I might be tempted to write it first as a single paragraph so as to test and tighten its narrative unity.


  1. Study the paragraphs in your most recent work. Find your best one and consider why this one stands above the rest.
  2. Analyze the lengths of your paragraphs. Is there enough variety there to create a generous amount of white space on the page?
  3. When you notice a strong paragraph in your reading, copy it and save it in a file. Share your collection of model paragraphs with others and discuss the strategies that make them work.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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