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Lecture: Writing Strong Paragraphs, Development

Good paragraph development is a sign of a writer's investment in a topic. With the main idea established, the writer then explores the topic through one or more methods of development—reflection, explanation, exemplification, definition, etc. General statements, like "Volleyball is a great sport," "Cell phones should be turned off when kids are doing their homework," or "Mediterranean cuisine is healthy," become concrete, specific, and interesting in the well-developed paragraph. The reader learns why the writer believes in an idea.

What does a well-developed paragraph look like?

A well-developed paragraph is a complete paragraph. It has a controlling idea, occasional transitional expressions to connect the parts together, and supporting detail which typically makes up about 90% of the content. Sounds kind of like a thesis and essay right? In many ways, the paragraph is like a mini-essay — as with an essay, paragraphs are generally idea-driven, and so they need support if a reader is to go along with the author. The author must provide enough effective development to have a reader say "I'm with you," or even better, "Wow! I hadn't thought about that before, but that's true."

To see the difference good development makes, just take a look at these example paragraphs, one well-developed and the other not so well-developed:

paragraph example 1

At one time or another, everyone who has a car will inevitably use a parking lot. The features of most parking lots are not so different, yellow or white lines glowing on a background of blacktop. It isn’t like anyone would mistake a parking lot for anything else. Rows upon rows of boundaries for individual driving units lined up one after another. You would never look at a parking lot and think to yourself that maybe it is a park or a playground or an airstrip. A parking lot is a parking lot, a place where you drive your car in and drop it off for a stay while you go about your business, similar to the way a cowboy in the old west would tether his horse outside the saloon. 

paragraph example 2

Most visitors to San Francisco will list Chinatown as a must-see “tourist” destination. When visiting the area they will be inundated with shops. They’ll probably notice the area is crowded and dirty. The tourist will eat lunch or dinner in one of several Chinese Cuisine restaurants. And more than likely the vacation photos will include a picture of them standing at entrance to China Town, below the traditional Chinese arch.

The thoughtful detail in the first paragraph shows a much more engaged writer than the writer of the second paragraph. A seemingly empty topic, parking lots, is made interesting by details like "[a parking lot] is a place where you drive your car in and drop it off for a stay while you go about your business, similar to the way a cowboy in the old west would tether his horse outside the saloon." The author, a former student, Rich Motherwell, helps readers re-see a familiar space; he gets readers to realize that we have always needed parking, even before people had cars! The author of the second paragraph, on the other hand, stays at the surface of the topic, providing cliché generalizations about what the tourist will find to do in Chinatown, San Francisco. As a result, readers are only reminded of what they already know; they learn nothing new, receive no insight, and no sense of a writer's mind and voice behind the words.

A well-developed paragraph has a clear controlling idea, and detail that brings that idea to life. A well-developed paragraph also reflects the mind of the author who is engaged by the topic and who is concerned with communicating his or her own unique way of seeing to the reader.

How much development is enough?

Bill Nye lecturing to a crowdHow does a writer know when development is complete? A writer's decision about completeness will depend on the audience and on the controlling idea for the paragraph. In making decisions about development, a good writer asks, "How much does my audience know about this topic?" "Am I introducing new terms that will be unfamiliar to my audience? The audience will need to have unfamiliar terms defined and new concepts explained in enough detail so that the concepts become clear. And so, two paragraphs with identical arguments can have radically different development plans if the audiences are different: A paragraph discussing the ways massage therapy can help a person recover from muscle injuries will have one kind of development for patients, and another for massage therapy professionals.

In addition, the controlling idea determines how much development is needed and how long the paragraph is going to be. Some ideas are complex and will need extensive explanation and/or exemplification. Some paragraphs are composed of only a single sentence. An essay does not separate into uniform packages of evidence, but instead is composed of a variety of paragraphs at different levels of development. Consider the following series of two paragraphs, one fairly short, and one a bit longer, from an essay on television heroes from the early 1950s.

          I remember the day that my friends and I were invited to a neighbor's house to see one of the first color television sets on our block. A group of anxious kids surrounded a large console TV set in my friend's den. We watched in amazement as the NBC icon, the peacock, opened it's primary colored wings in what they had coined, "full living color." It marked the end of an era; the era of black and white programming.
          As children of the '50's, we watched a great deal of television. Every night at 7:00, if our parents weren't watching the news, we watched Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Monday nights we watched The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I Love Lucy. Wednesdays it was Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or Kraft Television Theater. Thursday nights we watched The Lone Ranger and You Bet Your Life (because my parents liked it). Fridays, my brother and I fought over Rin Tin Tin on ABC and My Friend Flicka on CBS, because they were on at the same time. Sundays were the best TV days; Lassie, Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan were on back-to-back. In our house, and in homes across the country, TV trays became neccesary furniture, and frozen TV dinners packed our freezer. Eating Jiffy Pop popcorn or a bowl of corn flakes in the living room in front of the TV set was a new treat for us kids. Television shows became anticipated events that would draw the family together: we would dim the lights and cuddle together on the couch for a few hours of escape.

The first paragraph narrates a moment in time; it sets up a "once" to help the reader experience the mood of an era: a feeling of awe that television viewers had in the face of television technology and culture. The second paragraph characterizes that culture in much greater detail. The writer provides extensive examples to show exactly what "a great deal of television" means. 

When trying to decide on length. Try and think like your reader. Ask yourself if a reader would benefit from hearing more about a particular point, or if there is already enough information to make the controlling idea seem valid and interesting. Examine every sentence to see if it might deserve further explanation or exemplification.

General to Specific & Abstract to Concrete Development

A useful way to think about developing paragraphs is to think about levels of detail. A paragraph should include sentences at varying levels — the topic sentence or controlling idea being the most general or abstract, and supporting sentences having more specific and/or concrete development. men on a ladderS. I. Hayakawa, in his influential book Language in Thought and Action, talks about a "ladder of abstraction" as a tool for thinking about good communication (in speech and in writing). As Hayakawa points out, we need both abstract and concrete language for communication. Without abstractions and generalizations, we would have a hard time sharing ideas: for example, each of us has our own image of "dog" in our minds, one person may think of her Chihuahua, Bandit; another of his family's German Shepherd, Brutus; another individual may associate all dogs with the vicious Dachsund that bit his ankle. And so, we need the word "dog" in order to communicate and to find common ground, even if the word causes the particularities of Bandit, Brutus, and the biting Dachsund to drop away. With the word "dog," we can talk about dogs as companions, dogs as pack animals, dogs as descendents of wolves, etc., and we can agree on what dogs are generally like. On the other hand, if we stay at a general level, without ever getting specific or concrete, we risk leaving our communications wide open for interpretation. For example, a politican might (quite intentionally) say "If elected, I will increase health care benefits for seniors." Health care benefits is a phrase at a fairly high level of abstraction: it can refer to anything from coverage of hospital expenses, to coverage of prescription drugs, to co-pay expenses. Who knows what the politician is really thinking of in terms of concrete actions? Perhaps the candidate intends to increase Medi-care coverage for prescription drugs, or make emergency care free to everyone over 65; in the abstract statement, what the candidate is thinking is anyone's guess. The politician relies on such abstract statements, and an unquestioning public, to win elections. In a written text, however, a reader will rarely accept a series of generalizations as text worth reading; a reader expects to get concrete information and a new perspective or new insight, and to hear a person's unique voice; and this voice comes out in the details rather than in the broad generalization.

Hayakawa ladder of abstractionIn an abstract statement, as Hayakawa points out, words should be "referable" to lower levels of abstraction. A good paragraph goes down the ladder of abstraction to provide these references. The figure to the left demonstrates how one might go down the ladder of abstraction and provide such references in a discussion of music.

Now, take a look at a paragraph that goes down through all of the levels of abstraction above:

As a teenager in the eighties, I was exposed to exciting new movements in rock music. 80's rock included real extremes. Big-hair metal bands like Van Halen and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts arrived on the scene, doing great numbers like "Jump," and "Bad Reputation." And edgy, headbanging punk music took off with bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash pruducing amazing off-the-radio tracks like "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Anarchy in the U.K." and "Lost in the Supermarket." "New Wave" also emerged as a kind of toned down, radio-acceptable, synthesized version of punk music. Some of it was great, a more humorous and satirical version of punk. Everyone knew the words to "Burning Down the House," and "Psycho Killer," by the Talking Heads, and B52's songs like "Planet Clare," and "Rock Lobster," were played at every party. Yet there was some pretty bad new-wave music as well (at least I see that now, in hindsight) by "Haircut" bands like Flock of Seagulls ("I ran") and the Thompson Twins ("Lies").

To write well-developed paragraphs, think in terms of levels of detail. Students sometimes have the mistaken idea that to develop a paragraph they just need to keep adding more ideas when what they really need is to take an existing idea to greater depth and exploration of a single idea.


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