Years ago, while reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, I came across the paragraph in chapter 17 that begins, “It was mid-morning when the man dropped him at a corner beside a little country hotel.” This is a perfect paragraph, I realized, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced the power and artistry of what William Strunk Jr. calls “a convenient unit” that “serves all forms of literary work” (The Elements of Style, rule 13).
Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for perfect paragraphs. They are usually hiding around the corner, part of a series of ordinary paragraphs in a novel or essay, catching me by surprise with their concision, imagery, internal rhythm, completeness, and connection to the paragraphs before and after them.
A paragraph is the smallest unit of prose composition we have in English, and it serves both functional and creative uses. Your elementary teacher’s definition of a paragraph as something that expresses a complete thought was correct, as long as we keep in mind that the thought expressed can be of any level of complexity. A paragraph may be one sentence or many. The important thing is that we recognize the wholeness of the thought expressed and its relation to the thoughts (paragraphs) before and after.
In addition to their organizational function, paragraphs perform a visual function of breaking up or joining together blocks of text, guiding and relaxing readers’ eyes.
Practicing your paragraph-writing skills is an excellent way to improve your writing overall. To help you along, I will initiate the occasional paragraph challenge on Illuminations Editing's Facebook Page in which you are encouraged to write your own paragraph or share a well-written paragraph by someone else.
You can also play along right here, anytime you like. Here are some ways to do that:
- Comment on this post by writing a paragraph on any topic.
- Write a one-paragraph post on your blog and link to it in the comments below.
- Comment with an excellent paragraph by another writer. You can link to it or quote it. Avoid plagiarism. The quote must be enclosed in quotation marks and properly attributed or I will delete it.
Example of a properly quoted and attributed paragraph from a book:
“Dewey and Louie walked behind the big man and Huey stayed up front. The big man’s hands were cuffed behind his back. Dewey and Louie pushed him like tugboats guiding a barge, one good shove and he floated toward the double doors of the building. The lobby was so empty, so quiet, that their footsteps echoed.” Victor Lavalle, The Devil in Silver (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012), 3.