Writing a Paragraph


            Today, we will discuss the purposes of paragraphs and ways to write them.  One college professor described the act of reading in this way.  Reading requires the reader to look at symbols on paper, combine those symbols into words that convey very specific ideas, associate groups of words into phrases and sentences, take those imaginary concepts in their mind to put together groups of related ideas, and finally use those ideas to relay a general idea from one person’s head to another.

            To say that in another way, to read, we have to combine symbols into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into the idea we want to relay to someone else.  We could add the idea of chapters and volumes of books, but you get the general idea.

            So, what is a paragraph and why do we use them?  How can we improve our use of paragraphs?  When should a paragraph be short or long?  Are there any special rules for writing paragraphs?  We plan to answer all those questions.


Paragraph: one or more sentences that develop or contain one idea.  Most paragraphs contain from three to seven sentences.


            As you can see by now, paragraphs are simply groups of ideas.  They vary greatly in length and as widely as the topics we talk about.  A paragraph may tell a story where we change the time, place, or action.  A paragraph can be descriptive.  A paragraph may explain an idea.  In addition, paragraphs are used to indicate a new person is talking, as we will discuss in detail below.


Topic sentence: most paragraphs that explain something have one topic and one topic sentence.


            You might have guessed that a topic sentence provides the topic for a paragraph.  Topic sentences often are the first sentence in a paragraph such as this paragraph.  The first sentence, this paragraph’s topic sentence tells you we are going to be talking about topic sentences.  Sometimes a topic sentence is found at the end of a paragraph, as a conclusion.  It can also be found in the middle of a paragraph.  I’ve chosen a real life example for you. 

            As you know, I don’t make this class and “easy English” class.  It is designed for serious non-native speakers of English who want to improve their English writing skills.  We started by making sure you knew the “little things,” the basic mechanics of English, and now we are moving on to basic writing skills that are taught in college as courses in “Composition.”  You will be getting an assignment to compose an essay using the things we learn here today.  In doing so, I’ve selected a typical paragraph from a published scientific research paper of mine for your analysis.  Lastly, I want to emphasize the concept of a topic sentence.  The first sentence of this paragraph was its topic sentence.  Can you find the topic sentence in the next paragraph?


            During Hyatt’s (1998) study of the genus Carex in Arkansas, A. A. Reznicek identified duplicate collections and suggested hints for identification of various species.  In 1993, Reznicek (pers. comm.) commented that “once learned” C. retroflexa and C. texensis could be told apart “at a glance.”  Armed with this information, we have attempted to learn the visual clues and habitat preferences of these species in order to facilitate their identification.  These observations, supported by various comments of Reznicek, provide the basis for the following descriptions.  Field experience is based on work in the southeastern United States, so may not accurately reflect conditions further north.  The two species do occur together in several setting, including along streams, as well as in disturbed habitats such as lawns, roadsides, parks, etc.


            That paragraph is a little tricky.  I have my own idea of which sentence is the topic sentence.  You may have a different idea.  We will discuss it in class in detail, so be familiar with the meaning of this paragraph.  Now, I have a second question for you.  Does this paragraph stick to a single topic?  If not, where would you break it into two paragraphs?  Be aware that I sometimes ask trick questions that are difficult to answer.  My goal is to make you think.


How to develop a paragraph


            So, now you know the basics: several sentences, one idea, topic sentence.  Before we jump into kinds of paragraphs, let’s discuss the big problem most people face when writing.  What should I write about?  In this case, I’m going to make your assignment simple.  We’re going to write about colors, but I will expect you to be creative.  I’ll provide you with an example.  Why do people have problems choosing a topic to write about?  Because they don’t practice writing.  That’s the purpose of this class.  To force you to practice, with feedback. 


            Most of us are comfortable talking, although not necessarily in public.  Writing is like talking in public in some ways.  If you are as uncomfortable talking in public as I was at the age of 18, then you would be crying, with tears streaming down your face, in front of a group.  That describes me, during my freshman year in college, taking my required class called “Speech.”  People approach writing in the same way.  “What do I write about?” is a very similar question to “How can I control my emotions so I can speak in public comfortably?”  Both are two thing many people do not do, and so do not know how to do.


            So, our topic is colors, and I’m going to pick my favorite color to develop a starting topic sentence, green.  Color is my essay topic.  Green is my first paragraph.  Let’s see what I can do with it.


            Would you like to know why green is my favorite color?  The story goes back to third grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Young, asked the class, “What is your favorite color?”  Immediately, I thought I didn’t know.  What was my favorite color?  I’d never picked on before.  I leaned toward red, a bright color that attracted me.  But as the teacher started asking students one by one, I realized “red” was clearly going to be the class favorite. 

            “Well,” I thought to myself, knowing I was still undecided, “What is really my favorite color?  I don’t want to say red just because everyone else is saying red.” 

            “Ok, we have 8 people with red, 5 for blue, . . . Lori, what’s your favorite color?” the teacher continued to work her way around the classroom asking one student at a time.  By this time, I was both leaning heavily toward red, but wanting to show some individuality.  As you can see here, even at the young age of 9, in the fall of 1960, I was not willing to run with the crowd.  My independence streak was about to show itself.  Too many people were voting for red, so I rejected it.  Red was too popular.

            “Green,” I said with commitment when my teacher asked me the question.  Trees are green.  Living things are green.  Green is a peaceful color unlike the bold and aggressive read.  I liked its calming effect.  If I had to pick a favorite color, it would be green.

            In fact, green is the color of my life.  I’m an ecologist, green.  I study sedges in the genus Carex, green.  I like to paint in calmer colors and avoid filling my life and my paintings with bold reds, oranges, and yellows.  I like green.  Green is who I am.

            The fact green is the color of money, at least in America, means little to me.  Money is not important to me.  Enjoying a calm green life is more of who I am.


            Some “paragraph,” huh?  But it makes two points.  First, I can write freely because I’ve practiced writing. Second, I used topic sentences.  How?  Let’s pick them out.  I did not write them intentionally.  But they are topic sentences, nevertheless.


            Would you like to know why green is my favorite color?

             “What is really my favorite color?

            My independence streak was about to show itself. 

            “Green,” I said with commitment

            In fact, green is the color of my life.

            Money is not important to me.


            My point here is that, even though I failed to write one paragraph about “green” (I wrote several), I still reached my goal, to teach you the purpose of a topic sentence.  When you start writing your paragraphs about colors, make your paragraph come alive by using specific examples and providing details.  How you do this exactly is up to you.  In our next class, you will be asked to write specific paragraphs in specific ways.  But for now, I want to give you a very specific assignment.




            Write a series of paragraphs on the topic of color.  For each paragraph, put the topic sentence in bold text but choose your topic sentence after you write your paragraph, or better yet, after you write your essay.  I want you to write about the following colors and what they mean to you: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and two other colors of your own choosing.  So, you can have eight paragraphs or more, but I want you to write about 500 words.  Remember, 395 is not about 500, nor is 2,000.  I’m basing this price of this course on editing 500 words, so don’t cheat yourself!  You are the only one who will lose by writing only 200 words, and if you do that, you may find yourself kicked out of the class!  I only want serious students here.


            You’ve seen my example.  I took “green” and added a story.  I want to make one more point.  Please notice this very carefully.  It is an important English lesson.  If you quote people, each new speaker gets a new paragraph.  That’s a basic rule of English.  When I was talking (or thinking and quoting my thoughts), I started a new paragraph after the teacher spoke.  If you read dialogue in a book, you may not have noticed this.  It is taught in American schools.


            For our next lesson, we will look in more detail at specific types of paragraphs.  But for now, I want you to get comfortable writing freely and easily, how most people speak.  Is this not difficult enough?  Don’t worry.  We are working toward having you write a detailed essay on a topic of your choosing but in your line of interest or work.