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clear communication: polish your paragraphs

(A similar topic is discussed in French in the article COMMUNICATION CLAIRE : RÉDIGEZ DES PARAGRAPHES CLAIRS ET EFFICACES.)

Making your documents easy to read takes more than simple vocabulary and sentences: you need to write clear and effective paragraphs too.

Purpose

Paragraphs help organize a text and give it structure. They are like mini-texts, expressing a complete idea in a few sentences.

Length

How do you read long paragraphs? Chances are, you pay attention for the first couple of lines and then scan over the rest. And what about a series of shorter paragraphs? Do you find them choppy, disjointed and difficult to follow? So, be good to your readers: you can save them time and energy by applying the simple ratio of one idea to one paragraph. This will help you avoid splitting up one idea into two paragraphs and developing more than one idea in a single paragraph.

Try to keep each paragraph to five or six sentences maximum. Use a topic sentence—the sentence that introduces the main idea of the paragraph. In the sentences that follow, develop that main idea further. You can also use these sentences to illustrate the idea with examples.

Structure

Topic sentence

State the topic of the paragraph in your topic sentence. This should give your reader an idea of what you are going to say about that topic in the rest of the paragraph. And don’t bury it: as a general rule, make your first sentence your topic sentence. For stylistic purposes, however, you may choose to have the topic sentence follow some introductory elements. Just be sure that you provide a clear and focused topic.

Body

This is where you give details, explanations and sometimes examples. But remember the ratio: everything must tie back to that one idea in your topic sentence. Cut out any element that does not relate directly to the topic at hand. Is it strong enough to merit its own paragraph? Does it fit better with another paragraph you’ve already written? If not, you can safely eliminate it.

There’s more to unifying your paragraph than managing the content, though. A well-executed paragraph maintains the same tone and perspective throughout. If you choose your words and images carefully, you can create one dominant feeling for the whole paragraph. Stick to the same person (first person: I, we; second person: you; third person: he, she, they, it) and the same physical point of view to prevent your reader from getting distracted or confused. Keeping the style of your paragraph unified will help keep the topic in focus.

Coherence

To get your message across, your paragraphs must flow logically from start to finish. That flow depends on putting your ideas in order and connecting them to each other. Here are a few different ways to organize your paragraphs:

  • Reason: reasons and examples are given to prove the statement made in the topic sentence.
  • Time: events are stated in the order in which they occur.
  • Space: items are described according to their physical presence and location.
  • Importance: ideas are presented from most to least or least to most important.

You can help your reader along even more by providing lexical cues to show the connections between ideas. This can be as simple as repeating a key word from one sentence to another. If repetition gets too heavy, though, you can use pronouns, such as this, that, those, I, we or you to refer to items already stated. You also have a wealth of connecting words at your disposal. Connectors can add or compare ideas; show time, order or spatial relation; or introduce examples and conclusions. Words and phrases like besides, on the other hand, similarly, as a result, meanwhile, frequently, next, for instance and indeed each connect ideas in a different way.

If you’ve been writing for very long at all, you probably use a lot of these concepts intuitively. But if you really make an effort to think out the content and organization of your paragraphs, you may find that your message becomes even clearer.