Most people don’t know it, but printers invented the paragraph. Before the printing press (circa 1450), all books were handwritten. The scribes who drew the books embellished them with colorful hand-painted illuminations and wrote in different styles of calligraphy so the reader’s eye was drawn on from one line to the next and everyone was relatively happy with the reading arrangement. However, when Johannes Gutenburg invented movable type, and offset printing became possible, there were no longer any variations in the typeface and every letter in a word looked exactly the same each time it was printed. The absence of the scribes’ paintings and numerous unique calligraphic handwriting style made the text harder to read. Printed writing before the paragraph and other conventions were invented looked so:
With no change in font style (calligraphy letter style) nor scribes’ illuminations, text was just printed in blocks like the one above. Finally, printers began to decorate their pages with signs and symbols like #, &, and *, many of which are still in use. One symbol, the pilkrow, or what we know as the paragraph symbol, was often strewn throughout these passages to break up the solid blocks of type:
Since it was also possible for printers to indent the text, it eventually became the custom to indent where the paragraph sign was, and the modern day paragraph, that so vexes writers unto today, was born. Writers soon began using the paragraph spacing convention, so handy and already present in the text, to introduce new subjects.
Nowadays, we don’t always indent because we might be using block style, so we signal the paragraph’s end with a space between paragraphs which means the same thing as an indention does. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that American rhetoricians developed the idea of the topic sentence, and with that idea, the paragraph was fully realized as a formal writing unit. Next scholars developed the idea of the introductory, developmental, transitional, dialogue, concluding, and narrative paragraphs as these types of paragraphs also were developed into fully functional units of composition. Despite all of this parsing and renaming, paragraphs are defined simply as a group of sentences used to develop one main idea.
The introductory, transitional, developmental, and summary or conclusion paragraphs are the workhorses of the standard essay. Paragraphs may be developed by example, contrast, comparison, analogy, statistics, definition, and through analysis of structure, function, process, classification, and cause/effect. All well–written paragraphs, the only kind anyone wants really, must have unity, order, coherence, completeness, and appropriate style. Perfectly good paragraphs are both long and longer. The best guideline for getting the length right in your paragraphs is that each paragraph should contain exactly as many sentences and words as you needed to clearly express your ideas, and not one word longer or shorter.
To successfully write a well-developed paragraph, begin with a topic sentence. The topic sentence is like the road map of the paragraph because it names or implies the direction the paragraph will take and the information it will contain. Take as long as necessary to write a good topic sentence.
After your topic sentence is written, use this multi-use, generic paragraph template suitable for all paragraph writing. Note that the number of sentences and length of the paragraph are optional. Deeper subjects usually require more developing sentences, more supporting detail and evidence, and this results in longer paragraphs. Unless you are told otherwise, don’t worry about length. Fill your writing with necessary appropriately organized content. Complete the following paragraph writing exercise by replacing the sentences written in black ink with sentences of your own that follow the directions printed in green ink.
- Topic sentence naming or implying the subtopics in the paragraph’s content: I love my husband because he catches fish, cooks fish, and cleans the kitchen. 2.Transitional sentence that leads in to the first developing/supporting sentence or a sentence that simply states the first subtopic of catching fish: My husband catches fish at the nearby lake. 3. One or two sentences that further develop or support the topic sentence’s point/subtopic: The fish my husband catches are large and fresh. 4. Another one or two optional sentences that develop or support the subtopic with detail or evidence: My husband’s fish are crappie or bass most of the time with an occasional catfish. 5. An optional transitional sentence that leads the reader from one subtopic to the next: After catching the fish, my husband cleans them. 6. Transitional sentence that leads in to the second developing/supporting sentence or that simply states the second subtopic of cooking fish: My husband knows how to clean fresh fish because he is a great cook. 7. One or two sentences that further develop or support the topic sentence’s next point/subtopic: He has been cleaning and cooking food since the turn of the century. 8. Another one or two optional sentences that develop or support the subtopic with detail or evidence: My husband’s mother was a restaurant cook who taught him about cooking fish. 9. An optional transitional sentence that leads the reader from one subtopic to the next: In addition to cooking fish, my husband is also a diligent housekeeper in his spare time. 10. Transitional sentence that leads in to the third developing/supporting sentence or that simply states the third subtopic of cleaning the kitchen: After we eat the fresh fish he cleans and cooks for us, he also cleans the kitchen like he was Mr. Clean himself. 11. One or two sentences that further develop or support the topic sentence’s points/subtopics: He washes all the dishes. He sweeps the kitchen floor and buses the dining table after dinner. 12. Another one or two optional sentences that develop or support the subtopic with detail or evidence: He also carries the fish guts down to the holler and dumps them so our yard doesn’t stink or attract night creatures. 13. An optional transitional sentence that leads the reader into the concluding sentence: My husband has many practical housekeeping skills that he learned from his mother. 14. A beautiful concluding sentence that both reminds and summarizes the point of this paragraph, and in the case of essay writing, that prepares the reader for the next paragraph: I will always love my husband for many reasons, not the least of which are the care he gives me when he works around the house to make our lives better.
Please note that the paragraphing in novels and other pieces of writing demonstrates the range of paragraph length. Be mindful of how much you may learn just looking at books. When you are casting about for information on how to do any kind of writing, nothing has more answers than a book or an article written about a topic similar to your topic. You can use other people’s writing as a model to pattern our own work. There is nothing wrong with looking at other people’s examples to get ideas of your own. It is actually a time-honored practice. However, you may not copy anything into your own writing unless you give credit to the author, and that is another article entirely.
Here is an exercise more appropriate for beginning learners.
Paragraph writing prompts
- My grandma/grandpa
- My favorite activity
- The best day of my life was when. . . .
- The worst day of my life was when I. . . .
- I am sure glad I helped out when. . . .
- What I am proudest of is my. . . .
- For fun, I like to. . . .
As always, Beloved Readers, live long and prosper.
For a complete list of prompts, click here.
Books to buy to learn paragraph development: