8 Coherent Paragraphs

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good. William Faulkner (1897-1962)

You wouldn’t hand in a lot of sticks and boards bunched together and call it a table. It’s no better to hand in a detached bundle of statements starting nowhere in particular, training along and then fading out – and call it a theme.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958)

In the next few chapters, we’re going to focus quite a bit more on the writing process. Whatever the final form of your output, unless it’s visual art or improv, it will usually involve a written essay of some kind. Even an “extemporaneous” speech or lecture will benefit from preparation. Our assumption is that you have studied enough sources and made enough Source and Point Notes that you have sufficient material to produce an effective argument or narrative. The task now is to make that article or story as clear, easy to understand, and compelling as possible.

When you think about it, there’s no contradiction in the advice of the two American writers quoted above. You should respond with genuine feeling and without inhibition to sources and ideas that stimulate you. But feeling isn’t enough. When Gustave Flaubert asked, “Has a drinking song ever been written by a drunken man?” he meant a coherent song. Between “getting it down” and “handing it in”, good writers show respect for their readers by organizing their material into recognizable patterns. One obvious way to do this is to work on “drafts”; sometimes it is useful to let a little time pass between completing a draft and revising it. An important benefit of taking your time is that by distancing yourself from your ideas you may be able to react to them more like your audience. In the heat of the moment when you are writing, you know what you meant by a particular phrase or argument. After some time has passed, you can see better, what you actually said. This helps insure you have shaped what might have begun as nebulous feelings into clear thoughts.

This brings us to the well-known (but perhaps not well enough known) basic unit of composition, the paragraph. It might not be exaggeration to say the paragraph is really the basic unit of thought. It contains a point or a claim, supported by argument, evidence, elaboration, examples. The traditional and still useful rule that a paragraph must have unity, coherence, and emphasis only means that it must make sense, that the sentences should fit together smoothly, and that not all the sentences function in the same way.

When you appreciate that its purpose is to support your thesis by developing and connecting your ideas meaningfully, then paragraph structure should appeal to your common sense. As a point of emphasis, the topic sentence – whether you choose to put it at the beginning, middle, or end – allows you to control your writing and guide your audience by expressing the main idea of the paragraph. Unless you are writing a mystery novel, there will be relatively few instances in your output when you’ll want to surprise your reader.

Must every paragraph have a topic sentence? Not necessarily: if the main idea is obvious, then a topic sentence may be omitted. But even if it is only implied by your paragraph, you and your reader should have no trouble stating the main idea. Whether explicit or implicit, the topic sentence of each of your paragraphs should come out of your thesis statement and lead to your conclusion. Like the paragraph, the whole essay should have unity, coherence, and emphasis. Try this: next time you read an essay, underline only the topic sentences of each paragraph; then reread only what you’ve underlined. In many cases you’ll see that the underlined sentences make up a coherent paragraph all by themselves (this is an easy way to write an abstract, incidentally). That’s because most topic sentences are more specific than the thesis statement that generates them, but still more general than the supporting sentences in the paragraphs that illustrate them. They are the main points in the argument or story promised in the thesis statement; transitions between the writer’s promise to the audience and the keeping of that promise.

No matter how important your message might be, it must also be understandable. Structure it for your reader!

Examples: Opening Paragraphs

From a student essay discussing Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” he did so with an air of optimism. No longer could man be led about on the tight leash of religion; a man liberated could strive for the status of Overman. But what happens if a man refuses to let go of his “dead” God and remains too fearful to evolve into an Overman? Rejecting the concept of the Christian God means renouncing the scapegoat for the sins of man and accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. In The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa plays the god-like role of financial provider for his family. However, when his transformation renders him useless in this role, the rest of Samsa’s family undergoes a change of its own: Kafka uses the metamorphoses of both Gregor and his family to illustrate a modern crisis.

Some comments on the structure:  This introduction begins with two provocative introductory sentences, then a transition question and a response that presents the central idea of the essay. Next, the writer identifies the text and characters under discussion. Finally, the topic sentence of the paragraph, which, as the thesis statement, promises an interpretation. A paragraph such as this engages the reader’s interest right away and makes the reader look forward to the rest of the essay.

From a student essay on the question, “What Do Historians of Childhood Do?”

In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman argues that the concept of childhood is a recent invention of literate society, enabled by the invention of moveable-type printing. Postman says as a result of television, literate adulthood and preliterate childhood are both vanishing. While Postman’s indictment of TV-culture is provocative, he ignores race, class, ideology, and economic circumstance as factors in the experience of both children and adults. Worse, he ignores history, making sweeping generalizations such as the claim that the pre-modern Greeks had no concept of children. These claims are contradicted by the appearance of children in classical Greek literature and in the Christian Gospels, written in Greek, which admonish their readers to “be as children.” A more useful and much more interesting observation might be that the idea of childhood and the experience of young people has changed significantly since ancient times, and continues to change.

Some comments on the structure:  Like the previous example, this essay begins with a statement from a text (this time with a paraphrase rather than a quotation) and builds towards a thesis statement. In this case the build-up, where the student writer disagrees with one of the texts used in the class, is stronger than the thesis. The writer has not stated exactly what he will argue, aside from suggesting he finds at least some of the ideas of childhood advanced in the course materials unsatisfactory. Keeping the reader in suspense may add to the interest of the essay, but in a short paper it might also waste valuable time and leave the reader unsure whether the writer has really thought things through.

From an essay on Crime and Punishment:

“Freedom depends upon the real…It is as impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling” (Colin Wilson, The Outsider, p. 39). Even without God, modern man is still tempted to create unreal worlds. In Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov conceives the fantastic theory of the “overman.” After committing murder in an attempt to satisfy his theory, Raskolnikov falls into a delirious, death-like state; then, Lazarus-like, he is raised from the “dead.” His “resurrection” is not, as some critics suggest, a consequence of his love for Sonya and Sonya’s God. Rather, his salvation results from the freedom he gains when he chooses to live without illusions.

Comments: Once more, a stimulating opening. Between the first and last sentences, which frame the paragraph (the last one, as well as being the thesis sentence, is the specific application of the generalization in the first sentence), the writer makes her transition to the central idea and introduces the text and character she wishes to discuss. The reader is given enough information to know what to expect. It promises to be an interesting essay.

Each of these writers above chose to open with a quotation or reference that helped focus the reader’s attention and reveal the point of view from which a specific interpretation will be made. Movement from the general to the specific is very common in introductory thesis paragraphs, but it is not obligatory. You can begin with your thesis statement as the first sentence; start with a question; or use the entire opening paragraph to set the scene and provide background, then present your thesis in the second paragraph. The field is wide open to make choices and even create new options, so long as your sentences move to create a dominant impression on the reader.

Your first paragraph presents both your topic and your attitude, to an audience that is potentially sympathetic but doesn’t know you yet (even if they are familiar with you as a person or from other output, they don’t yet know the stance you are taking as author of this work). Create the impression right away that both the topic and you deserve serious attention. Your audience should feel like companions, not captives, on your journey of exploration. Take the lead; be clear; be interesting.


Examples: Middle Paragraphs

From a student essay comparing P’u Sung-ling’s (17th century) The Cricket Boy and Franz Kafka’s (20th century) The Metamorphosis, two stories that deal with a son’s relationship to his family. The writer’s thesis was that according to these authors, one must connect in meaningful ways with other human beings in order to achieve what Virginia Woolf calls “health,” “truth,” and “happiness.”

The most obvious similarity between Kiti and Gregor is that they both take the forms of insects; however, their and their families’ reactions to the changes account for the essential difference between the characters. Whereas Kiti thinks a cricket represents “all that [is] good and strong and beautiful in the world (Cricket Boy, p. 2), Gregor is repulsed by his insect body and “closes his eyes so as not to have to see his squirming legs” (Metamorphosis, p, 3). Their situations also affect their families differently.  Kiti’s experience serves as a catalyst that brings his family closer together: “For the first time, his father had become human, and he loved his father then” (CB, p. 2). Gregor’s transformation, on the other hand, succeeds in further alienating him from his family: his parents “could not bring themselves to come in to him” (M, p. 31). While Kiti and his parents develop a bond based on understanding and mutual respect, Gregor becomes not only emotionally estranged from his family, but also physically separated from them.

Some comments on the structure:  This writer is clearly on her way, with specific examples from the texts, to supporting her argument concerning the need for self-respect and communication. Notice that she uses transitions such as “however,” “whereas,” “also,” “on the other hand,” while,” and “not only…, but also…” to connect her thoughts and make her sentences cohere. Transitional words and phrases are the glue both within and between paragraphs: they help writers stick to the point, and also allow readers to stay on the path the writer intends.


Only connect!  E.M. Forster (1879-1970)

Writers use transitional words and expressions as markers to guide readers on their shared exploratory journey. Transitions can express relationships very explicitly, which is often exactly what is needed. However, experienced writers can also build more subtle bridges between ideas, hinting at relationships with implicit transitions. These relationships may change from vague initial impressions to a very concrete statement as the argument develops, allowing the reader to “discover” the writer’s conclusion as the essay builds to its final paragraph.

Types of explicit transitional expressions

  • Comparison: such as, like, similarly, likewise, in the same way, in comparison, correspondingly, analogous to
  • Contrast: but, however, in contrast, although, different from, opposing, another distinction, paradoxically
  •  Cause-effect: because, as a result, consequently, for this reason, produced, generated, yielded
  •  Sequence: initially, subsequently, at the onset, next, in turn, then, ultimately
  •  Emphasis: above all, of major interest, unequivocally, significantly, of great concern, notably
  •  Examples: for example, in this instance, specifically, such as, to illustrate, in particular
  •  Adding points: as well as, furthermore, also, moreover, in addition, again, besides

Sometimes we find we are overusing explicit connectors and our transitions are beginning to feel mechanical. How many times have we used “furthermore” or “however”?  How many “other hands” do we have? We can improve the flow of our writing either by changing up the transitional expressions, or by shifting toward more implicit transitions. One technique is, in the first sentence of the new paragraph, refer (either explicitly or implicitly) to material in the preceding paragraph. Some examples:

When Alcibiades does give his speech, we see that his example is Socrates himself.

While this interpretation still seems reasonable, I was surprised at the difficulty of uncovering useable data in the records of past societies.

This sometimes sickening detail that Dante uses to draw the reader emotionally into the Inferno also stimulates the reader to think about what he or she feels.

The Greek system is much more relaxed; obeisance and respect for the gods is not required, although in most cases it seems to make life easier.

Each of these implicit transition sentences builds on the previous paragraph and calls for support in the new paragraph. Even more subtle (that is, more difficult) would be to make the last sentence of the paragraph indicate the direction the next paragraph will take. If you try this, be careful you do not at the same time change the subject. You do not want to introduce a new idea at the end of a paragraph and destroy its unity. Since it suggests a change in direction, we see this device used most commonly with thesis sentences at the end of introductory paragraphs.

Other examples of the “hinges” writers use to make connections between ideas include pronouns referring back to nouns in the previous sentences or paragraphs and synonyms to avoid repetition and overuse of pronouns. A good rule is not to overuse any device. In general, your transitions should not draw attention to themselves and distract your reader; they should help your argument flow as smoothly and logically as possible.

Concluding Paragraphs

From another student essay on Crime and Punishment:

Raskolnikov finally finds a new life: Indeed he [is] not consciously reasoning at all; he [can] only feel.  Life [has] taken the place of logic and something quite different must be worked out in his mind. (Epi. II, p. 464) Thus he ends his suffering by abandoning intelligence and reasoning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that “above all the logic of the head is the feeling of the heart.” Ultimately, Raskolnikov transcends the “logic of the head” by discovering love and freedom.

Some comments on the structure: The paragraph works well as a conclusion because you can tell immediately that the writer has said all that she wants to say about the subject. She uses a quotation from another source, to “rub up against” Dostoevsky, expanding the dialogue between the text, the writer, and the reader by adding another voice. The answer to the “so what?” question is implied in the last sentence: love and freedom are values we all can share. Note that although this is a different conclusion from that of the earlier essay discussing Crime and Punishment, both interpretations are interesting and valid because both writers supported their arguments with careful readings of the text.

From a History essay analyzing the influence of Philippe Ariès’s book Centuries of Childhood on later historians:

In the end, Centuries of Childhood did not establish a conceptual framework for children’s history. Nor did the rival philosophies of history create a new paradigm for children’s history. Ariès identified a subject of study. He was a prospector who uncovered a rich vein of material. Subsequent miners should use whatever tools and techniques are best suited to getting the ore out of the ground. Historians should stop fighting over theories and get to work uncovering the lives of children and families. This will involve, as Jordanova suggested, self-awareness and sensitivity. But it should not be sidetracked by ideological debates. As Cunningham observed, the stakes for modern children and families are high. To make children’s history useful for the present, historians of children and families need to put aside their differences and get back to work.

Some comments on the structure:  As in the previous example, the writer includes the perspectives of other commentators. This is especially common in essays on secondary sources in history, because “historiography” is often imagined as an ongoing conversation about primary and important secondary texts. The “so what” statement is more explicit this time, relating the study of children in the past to improving the lives of children and families today. The importance of connecting with the needs of today is problematic (many historians would criticize this as “presentism”); so the writer includes a supporting perspective from a sympathetic commentator.

From a Literature essay in which the writer compares and contrasts the character she is examining with a character from another work:

Like Ophelia, Gretchen has moments of confusion and despair, but she decides to give in to her feelings and take responsibility for them. By having Gretchen freely stay behind to face her execution, Goethe casts aside any similarities that his character shares with Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Along with the empowering freedom of Gretchen’s striving comes the struggle to act rightly. But if no objective absolutes exist, according to Goethe’s God, on what basis can Gretchen make her decisions in order to be saved? She comes to the realization that the only absolutes exist within herself. Goethe’s God saves her, not for being a penitent Christian, but for staying true to these self-imposed absolutes.

Some comments on the structure:  Another strong conclusion. The writer’s interpretation could be contested, but she has argued it well and convincingly throughout the essay and concluded strongly. Incidentally, note also that by specifying “Goethe’s God” in her interpretation she avoids any distracting discussion of religion and keeps her writing focused on literary analysis. We don’t argue the nature of “God” in an essay about literature; only the nature of the “God” in the text.

These basic units of composition we call paragraphs are used to introduce, support, and conclude your thesis. Remarkably, their structure and function remains pretty much the same, whether we are writing a five-paragraph essay or a 350-page dissertation. If we use them skillfully, our reader or audience should understand our position and be able to follow the progress of our ideas. If we are “going somewhere” with our argument or narrative, our transitions will appear natural and smooth. Our output can have any number of paragraphs, so long as they connect with our thesis and with one another. Finally, since they unfold in time (whether they are consumed as text, audio, or video) paragraphs allow us to deal with ideas sequentially. Don’t try to juggle more than one point at a time. You’ll confuse both yourself and your readers. These common-sense guidelines promote the much-prized “unity, coherence, and emphasis” your audience will sense in good paragraphs. Good paragraphs yield good essays.


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