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Paragraph Construction and Unity

by The Editor Company   



Most beginners in literature have little or no idea of paragraph construction. They imagine that if a group of sentences deals with one subject, all the requirements have been fulfilled. They do not appreciate the fact that recognized authorities have set down certain rules governing the structure of a paragraph.

The general outline of the ideal paragraph is simple. The first sentence should introduce the subject, the following sentences enlarge upon it, and the final sentences sum up the statements. The writer will then have a perfect paragraph.

It is necessary, of course, that a paragraph should group itself about a central idea, which should be set forth at the outset. Each sentence must be undeniably related to the context. If care is taken in following these rules, the result will be a perfect composition, with a definite subject, a clear explanation of that subject, and a summary of the allied facts.

It is impossible to construct every paragraph in accordance with these set rules. The writer will find, however, that if he gives the subject some study, his sentences will naturally group themselves in this way. Without his knowing it, he will be following the rules for the construction of a paragraph.


A paragraph is a unit of discourse developing a single idea. It consists of a group or series of sentences closely related to one another and to the thought expressed by the whole group or series. Devoted, like the sentence, to the development of one topic, a good paragraph is also, like a good essay, a complete treatment in itself.

A paragraph may be studied as constituting with other paragraphs a complete essay, or, it may be regarded by itself as a separate and complete composition in miniature.

Paragraphs of the first class we will call related paragraphs, since they are closely related to each other and to the essay of which they are the constituent units. Successive related paragraphs, as portions of a larger whole, treat in turn the topics into which, according to the general plan of the production, the subject naturally divides itself. If the subject of the essay requires but a brief treatment, and the plan includes but two or three main headings, a single paragraph may suffice for each. Of a more extensive production, involving carefully planned divisions and subdivisions in the outline, each sub-topic may require a separate paragraph for its adequate treatment.

A large class of subjects, however, admit of complete treatment in single paragraphs. Such are simple in their nature; for example, incidents, brief descriptions of persons and of places, terse comments upon current events, and short discussions on isolated phases of political and social questions. A single paragraph, which in itself gives an adequate treatment of any subject or of a single phase of any subject, we will call an isolated paragraph.

As a unit of discourse, every paragraph, whether related or isolated, is subject to the general laws of unity, selection, proportion, sequence, and variety, which govern all good composition.

The most important of these is the law of unity, which requires that the sentences composing the paragraph be intimately connected with one another in thought and purpose. The fundamental idea of the paragraph is oneness of aim and end in all of its parts. Unity is violated therefore, when any sentence is admitted as a part, which does not clearly contribute its share of meaning toward the object for which the paragraph is written. Unity forbids digressions and irrelevant matter. The most common violation of unity is including matter in one paragraph which should either be taken out and made a separate paragraph by itself or be dropped altogether.

The law of selection requires that of all which might be said on the subject treated, only those points be chosen for mention in the sentences which will best subserve the purpose of the paragraph and will give force and distinction to its main idea. In narrative or descriptive paragraphs, a few well-chosen points will usually serve better than the mention of many minute and unimportant particulars. What to omit is here the important question for the writer. The effort to make the narrative or description complete even to the smallest details frequently renders the account obscure. There is less danger of this in paragraphs of an expository or argumentative character. In these, violations of this law more often arise from selecting remote and inapplicable figures of speech and farfetched and misleading contrasts.

The law of proportion requires, first, that enough be said to exhibit fully the purpose and idea of the paragraph. Paragraphs will, therefore, differ in length according to the importance and scope of the ideas they present. No arbitrary rules can be given as to the proper length of paragraphs. Observing the custom of some of our best writers, we may safely say that it is not well to extend a single paragraph beyond three hundred words. The advantage of at least one paragraph indention on almost every page of a printed book is felt by every reader. On the other hand, as Professor Earle says, "The terms paragraph can hardly be applied to anything short of three sentences," though skillful writers sometimes make a paragraph of two sentences, or even of one.

Thirdly, overamplification and too extensive illustration of a simple statement admitted by every one, are violations of the law of proportion.

The law of sequence, of method, requires that the sentences be presented in the order which will best bring out the thought. In narrative paragraphs the order of events in time is usually the best; in descriptions, the order of objects in space, or according to their prominence. In expository or argumentative paragraphs, climax, or that ordering of sentences which proceeds steadily from the least to the most forcible and important, will sometimes prove to be the best method. But usually, the thought of each paragraph as it develops will dictate the natural sequence of the sentences.

The law of variety requires that as much diversity as is consistent with the purpose of the paragraph be introduced. Variety will appear in length of sentences, in their structure, in phraseology, in the ordering of details, and in the method of building different paragraphs. Variety in the length of different paragraphs as well as in their structure, is also desirable.

The observance of these laws will be made less difficult for the writer, if, in selecting subjects for isolated paragraphs and in selecting subdivisions of the essay that will serve for paragraph-subjects, he is careful to see that the idea chosen is sufficiently narrowed in scope. An idea may be narrowed by imposing upon it successive conditions and limitations of time, place, point of view, etc.

To illustrate: General subject—"The Study of Latin?" Subject limited to a single point of view—"Uses of Latin study." Limited further, as to place—"Uses of Latin study to American students." Limited further, as to time—"Uses of Latin study to American students of the present time." Limited further, by selection, to available theme—"Uses of Latin study to American students of the present time in widening their English vocabulary."

Looking at the illustration just given, the student will see that the general subject, stated first, is too broad for treatment in a paragraph. It is, furthermore, suggestive of several lines of thought, any one of which would be enough for a paragraph or even for a whole essay. Moreover, it is indefinite, because it indicates no aim or purpose on the part of the writer. It acquires definiteness, however, as soon as the first limitation imposed upon it converts the general subject into a theme. With each subsequent limitation this theme grows in correctness, indicating each time a narrower scope, a closer scrutiny, and a more definite aim on the part of the writer.

The general subject is the broad statement of a general idea without limitation. The theme is the general subject narrowed in scope and made definite by limitation, so as to show the purpose of the writer. The full statement of the theme is often long and unattractive in form, and may often be restated in a briefer and more attractive form. It is then called a title. A briefer statement of the theme in the illustration of the above, to be used as a paragraph-title, might be, "One Reason for Studying Latin." The title should be suggestive of the theme, but should not overestimate the theme. Most themes may be used as titles without restatement.