Unsolicited Advice: Writing Part IV… A Proper Paragraph

So, let’s see, we’ve covered sentences and passive vs. active voice… I’m doing things a little out of order. I’m going to try to build on the sentence, and take you all to the paragraph in this one.

I somehow feel that this is high school stuff, or maybe even elementary school stuff.  I’ve seen BigA write some quality 4th grade paragraphs that put the writing of undergraduate college students to shame. However, I recognize that she is extraordinary and that public education in this country might not be what it used to be (Sniff,… sob!), that my dad may have been only dad holding the red pen to a kid’s writing in high school, and that I was a prolific letter writer in the snail-mail era.

Good Education+Tough Critic+Lots of Practice = Ability to write killer reasonable paragraph.

The paragraph is a unit used to convey a unified thought, or in our case perhaps a description of a result or an interpretation of a result in the context of a particular prevailing theory. Paragraphs generally begin with an introductory sentence that states the main point that will be discussed in that paragraph.  This introductory statement is followed by several supporting sentences, and the paragraph is ended with a concluding sentence. The parts of a good paragraph should be unified but they should also ‘flow’ well from one to the next. In scientific writing, it’s helpful if the introducing and/or concluding sentences help link up the paragraphs to make a unified flow to whatever section of a paper or grant you are writing.  Try to stick to one, well-supported, effortlessly flowing thought per paragraph.

Establishing the flow within a paragraph and from one paragraph to the next, will lead the reader follow the direction of the argument you are making.  Within each paragraph, decide which supporting details you include that are directly relevant to your main point.  Remember that every detail that you have collected during a particular experiment may not be directly relevant to your larger point- resist the temptation to interrupt the flow with peripheral or unnecessary details. I borrowed this example of such wandering…

People who suffer from “winter blues” may be suffering from S.A.D.-seasonal affective disorder. The classic symptoms include depression, mild anxiety, fatigue, withdrawal from social situations, overeating, a craving for sweets and carbohydrates, oversleeping, and a lack of energy, enthusiasm, and concentration. The craving for sweets, of course, is likely to lead to weight gain, which can be another problem. The symptoms of S.A.D. peak in the winter months, when the days are shorter and provide less sunshine. Winter days are colder, too, especially in the northern climates, and a person has to wear extra clothing. People who suffer from the disorder should try to get as much exposure to light as possible, especially outside, though bright indoor lighting and a sunny vacation can help too.

Now if one of my students had written this paragraph, here is how I might use my red pen. …

People who suffer from “winter blues” may be suffering from S.A.D.-seasonal affective disorder. The classic S.A.D. symptoms include depression, mild anxiety, fatigue, withdrawal from social situations, overeating, a craving for sweets and carbohydrates, oversleeping, and a lack of energy, enthusiasm, and concentration. The craving for sweets, of course, is likely to lead to weight gain, which can be another problem. The symptoms of S.A.D. peak in the winter months, when the days are shorter and provide less sunshine. Winter days are colder, too, especially in the northern climates, and a person has to wear extra clothing. People who suffer from this disorder should try to get as much exposure to ambient light, or very bright indoor lighting, as possible.  especially outside, though bright indoor lighting and a sunny vacation can help too. (Note to student: Add concluding sentence linking to a following paragraph!!)

Here’s a little checklist for writing a good paragraph (that I borrowed from this site):

  • Does the paragraph cover one main idea?
  • Is this main idea clearly presented in the topic sentence, or at least very clear?
  • Does each sentence in the paragraph support the point made in the topic sentence?
  • Is the paragraph organized in a logical way?
  • Do the sentences flow smoothly from one to another?
  • Is the main idea sufficiently developed with examples, details, arguments, statistics and/or facts?

Finally, in grade school I learned that you have 1 introductory sentence, 3 supporting sentences and a concluding sentence in each paragraph. Although this rule seems sort of silly now, and I do not abide by it anymore, it does serve as a useful reminder that a paragraph in scientific writing should not be tooooooooo long. I’ve seen scientific writing where the co-author or collaborator in question wrote the entire document or an entire section in a single paragraph.  The temptation to write an uber-long paragraph occurs especially in certain kinds of page-limited, margin-defined documents submitted to the NIH, that we are all familiar with.  Obviously, this sort of thing makes my eyes hurt and gives me a cramp in my red-pen-holding hand- so don’t go there!

Any questions?

(p.s. I’d like to point out that the word paragraph is greek roots- ‘para’ for beside, and ‘graphos’ for write. One of the unexpected benefits of being married to a greek is that I know my greek root words when I see them!)

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7 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Writing Part IV… A Proper Paragraph

  1. Crafts? did someone says Crafts!? I love crafts!

    I hate having to edit paragraphs. My students fear the bloodshed and I hate running out of red pens and brain cells rearranging their spewed thoughts. I usually edit the first few paragraphs of a student’s crap, er, I mean, writing and then banish the paper from my sight out of sheer exhaustion.

    My students typically hate me and won’t look at me when I get the bloodshed back to them – I’ve been there myself with the look of death toward my advisor. But the students usually get over themselves and learn that writing is a process. Students need a tough critic to let them know their first DRAFT is utter fucking shit sometimes. Watching them ‘get it’ makes me happy.

  2. I still remember the “aha!” moment I had in 8th grade or thereabouts when our terrific English teacher pointed out that you can never go too wrong with writing structured like this, and nested. I.e. one sentence conveys one idea; one paragraph (opener, three points to support, closer) expands that idea; one essay (opening paragraph, three paragraphs to support, closing paragraph) expands that idea….

    It is of course overstructured, but once you have been trained carefully in that structure it is far easier to learn how to relax your standards than to tighten them. To this day, most of the comments I get on my formal writing are:
    (a) need better transitions from thought to thought [not part of 8th grade training!]
    (b) could be less formal, more flowing, and
    (c) otherwise excellent and clear.

    So, yeah, pretty happy with learning paragraph structure the strict way. It’s easy to add a few transition sentences later…not so easy to restructure!

    ps) my parents both have PhDs in classics. every time I ever asked a vocab question, got the latin/greek/german/other derivation. hated it then, grateful for it now.

  3. I didn’t fully understand the value of topic sentences in scientific writing until just last year. A person should be able to read only the very first sentence of every paragraph and still come away with perfect understanding of the entirety of the work. In fact, when grants are reviewed, or your papers are read, just reading the first sentence of every paragraph may not be very far from the truth. I find this to be a very useful writing tool as well. Just write all the topic sentences first. Tell your entire story in topic sentences. Then going back to flesh out the paragraphs later is easy.

  4. Whimple- Excellent advice- I’m sure grant reviewers don’t read every word- and erring toward the topic sentences is an interesting suggestion.

    Dr. J & Mrs. H.- I think it is better to start learning to write from the more structured approach. … and I quite agree that its easier to loosen up than to tighten up!

    JC- I’ve got some students that have taken scientific writing as undergraduates. Let’s just say a lot of red pen is being expended fixing the conventions that they learned in that class.

    C PP- Especially after a rye manhattan?

  5. I too, learned a structured way of writing, but it has been so long that sometimes I forget to look at my writing with a strict eye.

    I have been mucking with a paragraph that has just sucked for about a day, and today when I read this post, I thought – a-HA!!!! And now it finally is good. As always drdrA, you re-center my focus in most excellent and useful ways! Thank you!

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