10 Ways To Better Paragraphs
Want to write better, tighter and more coherent paragraphs? If you don’t, you really should. After all, getting better at this aspect will mean notable improvements in all the writing work you perform (and for a lot of us, that takes up plenty of your day-to-day tasks at work, regardless of the industry you’re in). Here are 10 ways to improve your skills in this area.
1. Narrow the topic.
Too often, people end up cluttering their paragraphs with more than one major idea. While it could work, it’s a strategy that’s more prone to causing confusion and misunderstanding. To avoid this, cut the topic of each paragraph to one aspect, hammering at one main point. That way, you’re able to control the scope. You can discuss other things that come to mind at a separate paragraph, using cohesion techniques to tie them together.
2. Lead with the main idea.
That is, start every paragraph with a topic sentence, so the reader knows exactly what the paragraph is about. Suspense is good when you’re writing fiction and intentionally leading the reader on. Otherwise, it’s an unnecessary distraction that keeps readers from understanding your paragraph better.
If you want readers to have an easier time reading and understanding a paragraph, don’t keep them guessing — instead, lay it all out from the onset. Aside from introducing the main idea, the topic sentence also encapsulates the content of the paragraph, giving you a clear goalpost when writing the rest of it.
3. Use a complete structure.
Aside from leading with a topic sentence, it helps to structure the paragraph in the most logical sequence possible. That is, your first main point will seek to explain the topic sentence; the second will offer up a reason for the first; and so on. For longer paragraphs, you may also want to add a concluding sentence to finalize everything neatly. Doing so makes it easier for readers to follow your train of thought, as it’s likely to be the natural pattern they’ll gravitate to as well.
There are also a lot more possible patterns to use for paragraph development, such as illustration, enumeration, comparison, contrast, and cause-and-effect. Each one can serve a different purpose, depending on what you’re trying to do in the paragraph.
4. Vary your sentences.
Mix it up with different sentence lengths, structures and types. Use short sentences to give ideas extra emphasis; use long ones to explain, define and illustrate ideas. Use simple sentences to express simple concepts, but rely on compound and complex structures to discuss more sophisticated ideas. Use questions and commands, along with standard declarative sentences, too.
Additionally, vary the way you start your sentences. A lot of the time, novice writers will rely on a single opening style. While those constructions should pass your grammar software without any problems, it leads to boring and repetitive writing.
5. Use strong verbs.
You can start by using active, rather than passive verbs, in your sentences. Once you get the hang of that, you can move on to choosing stronger verbs. What makes a verb strong? As a rule, strong verbs are specific and descriptive. That is, they convey the exact action with no room for misinterpretation.
Strong verbs make paragraphs better by being more vivid, allowing the reader to create a clear mental image of the action you’re conveying. Contrast this to more general verbs that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
6. Use specific nouns and modifiers.
Avoid using non-concrete nouns and modifiers when a more specific alternative is available. This includes general nouns (e.g. “animal” when you can use “tiger” or “lion”) and quantitative adjectives (e.g. many, very, somehow), neither of which clarify the exact meaning you want to convey. The more specific your word choices are, the better the reader can understand your point.
For instance, saying a person “was shaken up when she saw the large dog” isn’t nearly as descriptive as saying she “was shaken up when she saw the angry Doberman.” Both contain the same amount of words, yet one is able to communicate what happened more clearly — good paragraphs aim for the latter.
7. Use key words.
What key words and phrases apply strongly to the subject of the paragraph? Use those (along with their synonyms) throughout the entire paragraph, so the reader is constantly reminded of the topic you’re discussing. Doing so will help immensely, especially when it comes to fostering a cohesive and unified message.
8. Weed out unnecessary words.
When you draft, it’s not uncommon to write more words than what’s actually necessary to convey your point. That’s fine, as long as you take the time to edit the text for unnecessary clutter. Words that repeat an already conveyed idea, words that do nothing but increase sentence length and excessive use of modifiers all fall under this criteria. Cut them out and leave yourself with a leaner paragraph — they not only read better, they make it easier for readers to understand your ideas, too.
9. Use the tools at your disposal.
Put your grammar correction software, style checker, thesaurus and whatever other tools you have to work. While the 5 minutes or so you spend working with a software won’t turn mediocre words into great prose, they will help tighten up your sentences and paragraphs in ways you could have missed. It could, literally, make the difference between “serviceable text” and “pretty darn good writing.”
10. Be vigilant about revision.
We all hate having to go back over the draft to make revisions to the text (which is why publications hire editors to fix up writer submissions), but that’s really the “job” part of writing. You can only write a draft so well. It’s the thoroughness of your revision that actually defines the quality of material you end up putting out.
The reality is, you’re too close to the text while drafting that it’s easy to overlook errors. Faulty grammar, poor sentence constructions and incomplete ideas are all things you can easily let slide without the benefit of revising while in an objective frame of mind. Put in the work to edit your own work and your writing will end up so much better.