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Lecture: Writing strong paragraphs, Part 1, Unity

In this lesson, you will learn to create unified paragraphs having strong topic sentences and supporting details that clearly relate to and develop the topic sentence. You will also learn to revise your work to improve paragraph unity. You will practice your paragraph skills in the next discussion forum post.

What is a paragraph?

Many beginning writers are not exactly sure what a paragraph should look like — How long should a paragraph be? When should one paragraph end and the next one begin? What logic controls the clustering of sentences together in a paragraph?

Actually, there are pretty clear rules for paragraph structure that we will go over in this lesson.

river with stepping stonesThere are 3 basic features to strong paragraphs:

  1. Unity: In brief, a paragraph is the expression of a single point or idea with enough detail or explanation to make that point clear to a reader. It is time for a new paragraph when one point is fully developed, and a new point begins. All sentences in a paragraph must be focused on a central point or controlling idea which is typically stated in a topic sentence. Supporting sentences add information to help the reader see the validity of the controlling idea; by the end of each paragraph you want your readers to say to themselves, "Ah! I get it."
  2. Coherence (covered in a later lesson): Sentences in a paragraph should be related logically to develop the controlling idea, kind of like stepping stones in a river. Transitional expressions (for example, words and phrases like "but," "and," "in addition," and "even so"), and logical connections between ideas (explanation, comparison, etc., even without a special transitional expression) help the reader get from stone to stone, or sentence to sentence, and see ahead to where the author is leading them. Coherence is also important between paragraphs. Paragraph order should make sense so the reader can easily grasp your argument. Sometimes transitional expressions are needed at the beginning of a paragraph as well as between sentences. It is your job as a writer to guide the reader.
  3. Development (or Completeness): Enough specific supporting detail must be provided in the paragraph if you hope to convince your reader of the validity of what you are saying. Writers select the type of details that best illustrate the controlling idea. Don't be afraid to get in depth! The beauty of your ideas is in the detail you provide to illustrate and support those ideas.

How to write a unified paragraph

A good controlling idea, or thesis, in the essay itself is key to unified paragraphs. If you don't know what you want to say, you may end up wandering, and your reader will be lost. All too often developing writers start writing their essays without a clear sense of what point they want to make, and consequently, what the paragraphs are there for.

A good way to develop strong controlling ideas in your paragraphs is to think about the language of your thesis (don't start writing paragraphs until you have at least a temporary "working" thesis). Think about what your reader will expect once the thesis is declared. Let's try out this method with an example:

Given the following thesis statement (in bold), what questions might the reader have for the writer? What would the reader expect the writer to cover in the essay? 

Three times, Magellan asked for royal authorization for a voyage to the Indies to discover a water route to the fabled but little known Spice Islands. Three times, the king, who had disliked and mistrusted Magellan for more than twenty years, refused. . . . The humiliating rejection proved to be the making of Ferdinand Magellan. (Bergreen 23)

After reading this introduction, readers will likely have the following question: How did humiliation and rejection "make" Magellan?

The author of this essay, Laurence Bergreen, answers this question in several supporting paragraphs, each focusing on a single point of support: He explains in one paragraph that rejection gave Magellan direction (a kind of "Well, I will show you!" attitude). In the next paragraph, Bergreen says that Magellan then found a new sponsor, one who really believed in him.

Think of your own thesis as a contract with your reader, and the language of your thesis as language that shapes everything in the essay. When you are not sure what you want to argue in an essay, be ready to admit that you do not as yet know your own mind, and spend some more time brainstorming until you do have that sense of purpose, and language to work with in your essay.

Main ideas in paragraphs

Each paragraph should have its own main idea: The main idea is essentially the topic being discussed plus what you want to say or argue about that topic. A topic alone is not enough! You need to say something meaningful about that topic, something that needs to be explained and supported so that your reader is convinced that what you argue is valid. 

Topic Controlling Idea
college friends Many friendships formed in college will last a lifetime.
importance of friends People without close friends are more likely to die an early death.
types of friends There are three types of friends a person needs to have: old friends, maintenance friends, and growth friends.

Revising for unity: supporting sentences

Writers, once they decide on the controlling idea, have many choices for paragraph development, but these choices are not unlimited. Anything that does not support the controlling idea does not belong in the paragraph — save it for later, for placement in another paragraph, or another essay if need be, but don't put it in a paragraph that is going in a different direction!

Consider the following poorly unified paragraph:

Horror films are most popular with teens. When a new horror film comes out, the theater seats are filled with teens. Adults don't seem to be interested in two hours of edge-of-your-seat fear and anxiety, but teens sure are. I think the popularity of these films with teens is due to teenagers' desires to test their limits in the real world, to see how far they can go before they get scared and prefer the safety of home, and mom and dad. Horror films allow teens to test their limits in the safety of the movie theater, where they can put themselves in the position of the teenagers in the film without any real danger to themselves. Last week, I went to see the sci-fi/horror film Alien, and got so scared anticipating the alien's attack on the crew that I had to leave the theater. My friends didn't seem as scared, so I felt kind of stupid, but for me, that film was a bit more horrifying than I could take. Children obviously would be too scared at horror films; everything would seem too real, too possible, so that small children could end up with horrifying nightmares. Horror films, with a few exceptions, are just right for teens.

The paragraph starts out pretty well. The controlling idea appears in the first sentence, and the sentences that follow develop the controlling idea in greater detail until the sentence that begins "Last week, I went to see the sci-fi/horror film Alien. . . " This sentence begins a discussion of degrees of fear that teens feel at horror films, not why horror films are most popular with teens, which is the controlling idea of the paragraph. Given this controlling idea, the author is limited to a discussion of why horror films would be more interesting to teens than to others. To make the paragraph unified, the author would need to rewrite this sentence so that it more directly supports the main idea or remove the sentence altogether.

A good paragraph says one thing without wandering off topic. Take a look at the following revision of the above paragraph:

Horror films are most popular with teens. When a new horror film comes out, the theater seats are filled with teens. These films are far too scary for young children who have a tough time separating fiction and reality, and adults don't seem to be interested in two hours of edge-of-your-seat fear and anxiety, but teens sure are. I think The popularity of these films with teens is due to teenagers' desires to test their limits in the real world, to see how far they can go before they get scared and prefer the safety of home, and mom and dad. Horror films allow teens to test their limits in the safety of the movie theater, where they can put themselves in the position of the teenagers in the film without any real danger to themselves. Last week, I went to see the sci-fi/horror film Alien, and got so scared anticipating the alien's attack on the crew that I had to leave the theater. My friends didn't seem as scared, so I felt kind of stupid, but for me, that film was a bit more horrifying than I could take. Children obviously would be too scared at horror films; everything would seem too real, too possible, so that small children could end up with horrifying nightmares. Horror films, with a few exceptions, are just right for teens.

In the revised paragraph, the information that departs from the main idea is removed, and the sentence about why horror films are not popular with children is moved near the beginning of the paragraph next to the sentence about why horror films are not popular with adults. This move frees the writer to spend the rest of the paragraph emphasizing why horror films appeal to teens. Note also that the clause "I think" is removed. This phrase is not necessary to the paragraph since readers already knows that they are hearing the author's opinion. Phrases like "I think" and "In my opinion" actually detract from the authority of an argument because the shift attention away from the argument the author is making and onto the author's own thinking and writing process.

Unity in descriptive and narrative paragraphs

Creating unity in descriptive and narrative paragraphs can be difficult. In narrative paragraphs, or paragraphs in which a writer tells a story, it is easy to fall into the sequence trap, where the writer focuses on a "this, then this, then this" structure without any real point or purpose other than moving through events. In a literature analysis essay, for example, it is easy to slip into plot summary, recounting the "this, then this, then this" of the story being analyzed, instead of focusing on how aspects of the story support an interpretation. In descriptive paragraphs, the problem is similar: a writer may get caught up in describing aspects of something without having a sense of purpose. Take a look at examples of narrative and descriptive paragraphs that need work for unity:

a narrative paragraph that needs work for unity:

As I enter my aunt and uncle’s house, I go into a small living room with a fireplace which almost always is vacant. However, in the adjacent family room, I frequently notice my aunt and uncle seated on one of their tan leather couches watching the news or Comedy Central. I also regularly find my cousins playing computer games, watching MTV, or viewing movies in the family room. The family’s Jack Russell Terrier, Peanut, often is perched on the couch begging for food or running around. A kitchen and large formal dining room are adjacent to the family room. Every night the family eats dinner at the round wooden kitchen table where I usually notice a lingering scent of vanilla candles. Like the living room, the dining room rarely is used. A small hallway connects the dining room to a laundry room and one car garage where I occasionally notice my aunt loading laundry into the washer or dryer.

This paragraph lacks a controlling idea. The writer narrates his entry into his aunt and uncle's home, and describes what he observes there, but it is difficult to tell what we are to make of these observations. What should the reader pay attention to? What is important here? It is the writer's job to create clear direction.

a descriptive paragraph that needs work for unity (the controlling idea is underlined):

The City of Novato has done little to preserve or even commemorate the old Novato Train Station. The building lies behind a chain-link fence with no warning signs or notices to discourage vandals or warn off curious children from trouble. The historical significance of this sight is immense and needs to be preserved for future generations. With the recent failure of “Measure R,” the train station is far from being rebuilt. Maybe if passenger train service were to be implemented on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad track lines, the train station would be refurbished, and have a museum added.

In the table below, each supporting sentence is analyzed in detail for how it does (or does not) support the controlling idea of the paragraph.

Sentence Discussion
Unfortunately, the City of Novato has done little to preserve or even commemorate the old Novato Train Station. Given the controlling idea as stated in the topic sentence, the reader would expect the rest of the paragraph to be about what (little) the City of Novato has done to preserve the old Novato train station; a description of the state of disrepair of the train station would also be appropriate. 
The building lies behind a chain-link fence with no warning signs or notices to discourage vandals or warn off curious children from trouble. The first supporting sentence does support the main idea.  The author describes the neglected site, and so meets the reader's expectations. 
The historical significance of this sight is immense and needs to be preserved for future generations. With the recent failure of “Measure R,” the train station is far from being rebuilt. This second supporting sentence, however, doesn't quite meet the expectations created by the topic sentence.  The writer focuses on a rationale for why the City of Novato should preserve the site.  The topic sentence does not really lead the reader to expect this content.  Even though the idea here is closely related to the controlling idea of the paragraph this sentence does not belong in this paragraph. The writer may choose to write another paragraph about why the site should be preserved, or reshape the controlling idea here, but as is, the paragraph is not unified.
Maybe if passenger train service were to be implemented on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad track lines, the train station would be refurbished, and have a museum added. Speculating about what might bring about change is probably a worthwhile thing to do in this essay. However, in this paragraph, this idea does not fit; it is beyond the scope of the controlling idea.

Practice this process of analyzing each and every sentence to help you identify sentences that break the unity of your own paragraphs. This is what experienced writers do!

Now, take a look at a few strong, unified narrative and descriptive paragraphs written by students.

a unified narrative paragraph:

The home [my father] provided his family was not truly his. He had no time to be with his family, as Ward Cleaver did. Instead, my father found himself sleeping through the moments he was home. His home was a place he stored his stuff, a place he went when he wasn’t working. Eventually, the stress and strain of running two companies and trying to have a family caused him to sell the businesses and return to retail. The reduction in income caused the sale of my first home and initiated the cycle of unrest in my father.

a unified descriptive paragraph:

The train is like a small town on wheels. The cars are the city blocks; engines, lounge cars, sleeper cars, dining cars, and baggage cars. Everyone has an address, it is your seat or compartment number. The train has its own culture and rules. There is a hierarchy of staffing—just like a government. You learn behavior by experience—like don’t fool around with the ticket packet—let them do it. Fill out your meal card when you sit down in the dining car. Always tip. Figure out who you can ask for what. Find out what is free in your car (drinks, newspapers, pillows, towels, etc.) Wear shoes or lose a toe. And so forth.

 

Self-Quiz on Paragraph Unity (not graded)