Words and punctuation have the smallest portions of written meaning and sentences are the shortest complete units of meaning, but paragraphs are where ideas come to life in written communication. A strong paragraph structure organizes meaning for the reader, providing context, clarity, emphasis, relationships, and direction. Good paragraph structure and organization are fundamental to quality professional writing.
Different paragraphs perform different functions, notably introduction paragraphs, body paragraphs, and conclusion paragraphs. Paragraphs come in different lengths and can take different shapes, such as paragraphs that include a bullet list or numbered list.
This section will walk you through the process of creating quality paragraphs in your writing. Also see chapters on Using Outlines to Strengthen Writing, Achieving Conciseness, and Formatting the Report for more on creating quality paragraphs in your writing.
If a sentence communicates one clear idea (or sometimes two) for the reader, the purpose of a paragraph is to bring sentences into conversation. That conversation could achieve any of the following tasks:
- Showing how one idea caused another (cause and effect)
- Showing a sequence of events (first this, then that)
- Comparing differences between two or more ideas
- Showing similarities between two or more ideas
- Expanding on an idea
- Providing reasoning for an idea
- Providing evidence for an idea
- Introducing a broader discussion
- Concluding a broader discussion
There could be other examples of a function a paragraph could fulfill, but hopefully you get the idea.
Paragraphs begin with a topic sentence, clearly indicating what the paragraph is about or setting the stage for one of the above relationships to be made.
After that, you’ll find one or more sentences that continue the conversation.
Finally, you’ll have a sentence that shows the relationship or larger idea that’s being achieved.
Let’s take a look at the first paragraph in this chapter as an example:
Topic sentence: Words and punctuation have the smallest portions of written meaning and sentences are the shortest complete units of meaning, but paragraphs are where ideas come to life in written communication. Topic: writing paragraphs
Continue the conversation: A strong paragraph structure organizes meaning for the reader, providing context, clarity, emphasis, relationships, and direction. Conversation: benefit of paragraphs
Larger idea: Good paragraph structure and organization are fundamental to quality professional writing. Larger idea: importance of paragraphs in professional writing
That paragraph has three sentences that show a clear, logical elaboration of an idea we’re building on in this chapter. It functions as an introductory paragraph by letting you know what you’ll be reading about in this chapter.
There is quite a bit of debate about the length of paragraphs. In most professional documents, paragraphs are 3-5 sentences in length, but they can be longer if necessary and they can be shorter for emphasis. A one-sentence paragraph is showing the highest level of emphasis on the content because the writer is essentially suggesting that the content is so important that it needs to stand alone.
In academic documents and novels, paragraphs can stretch on almost endlessly. That’s not appropriate for a professional document. On blogs, paragraphs are often 1-3 sentences and rarely longer. That’s a style unique to blogs; it’s not common in most professional documents.
As a writer, you’ll need to make each unique paragraph work for the content it contains and the purpose it fulfills. That’s part of the skill of writing.
Bullet points and numbered lists
Bullet points and numbered lists are subject to many style parameters, but few hard rules. The only “rule” this book imparts is to be consistent. For example, when using bullet points, be consistent in these formatting options:
- Capitalization at the beginning of a line with a bullet point
- Use of punctuation (or no punctuation) at the end of the line of a bullet point
- The depth of indentation from the left margin to the beginning of each bullet point
- The depth of further indentation from the bullet point to the text to the right
- The hierarchy of bullet point formatting
- Usually filled round bullets for the first level
- Often hollow round bullets or smaller filled square bullets for the second level
- Sometimes a single period-sized dot for the third level
- The use of tab marks and ruler functions or space marks (but never use space marks for formatting bullet points)
With both bullet lists and numbered lists, include an independent clause before a bullet list to create correct grammar and logical context. You’ll see that both the lists above and below lead into the points with what could stand as its own sentence (independent clause). This gives clarity to the reader and avoids the appearance of “abandoned bullets.”
Numbered lists should be consistent in the same ways, but there are also the style of numbering, such as these options:
- Capitalized Roman numerals, as used in very large documents for major sections
- Standard Arabic numerals, such as in this list
- Capital letters
- Lowercase roman numerals
- Lowercase letters
- Smaller Arabic numerals
The above numbered list is the usual hierarchy ordering for tiered numbered lists (where there are major sections, regular sections, sub-sections, and lesser and lesser sections in a document.
Some numbered lists instead use decimal points for the hierarchy, having no decimal point before the Arabic numeral for a major section, but a decimal before the numbered point for a regular section, and sub-section, and so on. The fourth sub-section in the third regular section, of the second major section of a document would then be numbered as such:
2.3.4: Example of a numbered hierarchy using periods
Bullet lists are used when every point is relatively equal and there is no chronology, prioritization, or other ordering needed. Numbered lists are used when a sequence, priority, or other ordering is useful to the reader.
Keep in mind that bullet lists should be used sparingly. Professional reports will rarely have more than one bullet list per page and rarely more than six bullet points per list. There should never be a bullet list or a numbered list with only one point.
For further guidance, see this useful article.
Readers expect that consecutive paragraphs will be part of an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, however, there’s a need to shift from one area of discussion to another. This cannot be done without announcing that shift through the use of a transition word.
Most transition words show that the next paragraph is going to add to the conversation in a new way, shift the conversation into a new direction, or show a contrast from the previous paragraph.
Here are some examples of transition words/phrases:
|The new paragraph will add to the comments in the previous paragraph.|
|The new paragraph will show a contrast to the previous paragraph.|
|At the same time,
|The new paragraph is going to show that there is more than one side to the story.|
|The content of the previous paragraph is an exception to the norm or needs to be acknowledged, but set aside from the broader discussion of the issue.|
As a point of emphasis,
|The new paragraph shows reasoning or evidence that is higher priority than the previous.|
|The events in the new paragraph come after the events in the previous paragraph.|
|The actions of the previous paragraph caused the conclusions in the new paragraph.|
By beginning a paragraph with one of those words or phrases, you signal the shift in discussion for your reader. This is an important part of quality writing.
If two paragraphs are too far apart for a simple transition word, you probably need to create a new section. With a section heading (such as those you see above), you clearly communicate to the reader that a major topic shift is happening and what the new topic will be.
Professional documents begin with an introductory paragraph, which should usually perform the same function in any document. A strong introduction answers why the document was written, why it was sent to the reader, what its purpose is, what content is to follow, and why the reader should, indeed, keep reading. That sounds like a lot, but it may only be 2-3 sentences, depending on the nature of the document. In a longer report, you may need 3-5 introductory paragraphs, with each paragraph answering one of those questions.
Conclusions do not restate the introduction!
Conclusions do not repeat the earlier content in the document!
A good conclusion explains the significance of the document now that the reader has read it. The conclusion should also indicate what happens next with the document (such as more research, forwarding the report for budget considerations, or setting up a meeting), the next steps are for the reader to take (if any), the ongoing role of the author (if any), and what the reader should do with the document (such as follow up with the author with questions).
Don’t use a conclusion to repeat yourself; use a conclusion to add value for the reader and to look forward to the future.