Write While True Episode 32: Transcript

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I’m Lou Franco, and this is episode 32 of Write While True. The name of this podcast is a program that goes into an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game.

It’s like a game of catch, which is even more fun when you get better at it, but the only way to do that is to keep playing.

So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I’ve learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt.

The Paragraph

The past few episodes have been about the building blocks of writing, mostly words and sentences. But today, I want to talk about the paragraph.

I’m sticking to the two books that I’ve been drawing most of the inspiration for these episodes from. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and The Golden Book on Writing by David Lambuth.

As I mentioned, both of these books were written by English professors as the class notes for their English classes. They were later compiled into books by former students. Both books try to cover the basics of writing, and both books have a section on paragraphs.

I think one sentence from David Lambuth really sums up what I want to say about paragraphs. Here it is.

There is no absolute rule for paragraphing. Your own feeling must be your guide.

Paragraphing is about the individual style of the writer and doesn’t have as many rules as word usage or sentence construction. Paragraphs are there to help the reader. They give a natural place for pauses and a natural unit of cohesiveness and they guide the reader logically from topic to topic.

A Checklist for Paragraphs

What I’ve done for myself over the course of the last several months is I’ve had a checklist that I quickly run through on paragraphs while I’m editing. I’m going to share that checklist with you.

Number one: in a paragraph that’s at least a few sentences, the first sentence needs to set up the paragraph as being part of the bigger whole. Some people call this the topic sentence. I don’t think it needs to be that formalized, but the first sentence has two purposes. It has to transition from the last paragraph to make sure I understand how this paragraph fits into the whole and it needs to set up what this paragraph is going to be about.

In Elements of Style, Strunk wrote:

As a rule, begin each paragraph with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition.

And he also wrote

The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

So, really look at that first sentence and make sure it’s doing its job of making sure this paragraph fits in the entire piece.

The second thing to know about paragraphs is they really should be a complete unit. One thing I often did and I now have stopped doing is I had pronouns in the first few sentences of my paragraph that referred to things that were in previous paragraphs.

What these books have made me realize is that’s just confusing. There should be no pronouns in a paragraph that don’t refer to antecedents that are also in the same paragraph. If you’re referring to antecedents in a previous paragraph, then don’t use a pronoun there. So number two of my paragraph checklist is to check the pronouns.

On this subject Lambuth says:

Unless a paragraph is more or less self-contained it does not fulfill its mission in life.

The last thing is trying to stick the landing and make the last sentence of the paragraph as impactful as possible. In last week’s episode, we talked about the order of words in the sentence and how the most emphatic position in a sentence was the last few words. The most emphatic position of a paragraph is the last sentence. So that means the last few words of the last sentence of the paragraph carry a lot of weight. You can do a lot to improve your writing by just getting those words right.

So, to sum it up, make sure the first sentence plays its role as a transition into the new idea. Make sure the paragraph is complete. No pronouns refer to anything outside the paragraph itself. And finally, make sure the last few words of the last sentence are the most emphatic of the entire paragraph.

As an exercise this week, I want you to go back to the last long form piece you read where you really felt propelled through the entire thing and read it all the way through and found it satisfying. Go through again—this time slowly, considering each paragraph. Read the first sentence and consider how it works to position the paragraph in the piece and set it up. Then consider the last few words of the paragraph and notice how the author used them to make you want to keep reading.

Thank you for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re okay with infinite loops as long as they’re fun.