The best guide on writing paragraphs that I have ever encountered is in Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities (Columbia University Press, 2014). And so, much of what I am going to present here is taken from that book.
Hayot begins his explanation of what makes a strong paragraph by proposing a system of “levels” for sentences. For him, there are 5 different “levels” that sentences can have. They are
5 – abstract, general; oriented toward a solution or a conclusion
4 – less general; oriented toward a problem; pulls ideas together
3 – conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example
2 – description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot
1 – concrete; evidentiary; raw, unmediated data or information (60)
With this system in mind, Hayot proposes that the most “effective structure” for a paragraph is a “Uneven U.” As Hayot himself notes, this is not the only way to write a successful paragraph but it is a “useful way to do so” (60).
So what is the Uneven U? Here’s Hayot:
A pattern of development. A classic U body paragraph will begin with a sentence that locates readers inside an existing argument and prepares them for the thematic, evidentiary, or argumentative developments that follow. The typical U paragraph open- ing often operates at level 4. This situates the reader inside the essay and makes a set of promises about the content to come….The 4 opens the paragraph; it makes thematic, argumentative, and structural promises.
A classic U paragraph will follow the level-4 sentence by moving toward a piece of evidence or an argument that is closer to the “ground.” The second and/or third sentences might contextualize the evidence historically or thematically (level 3); the next one(s) after that might tell the reader where the evidence appears by, for instance, describing where or when in a novel someone says something (level 2). Finally we arrive at level 1, direct evidence. (What this direct evidence will be depends on what you’re talking about: for a novel, it could be a citation or the description of a scene; for a film, a description of a shot sequence or montage; for historical material, it might be a first hand report of an event; for an argument, it would be the central ground for the larger claims of the paragraph; and so on). Most direct evidence will be followed by contextualization and interpretation of gradually increasing complexity (moving from level 1 up to level 2, then 3). The next-to-last sentence(s) of the paragraph will further contextualize the larger argument (level 4). The final sentence articulates the major claim or contribution of the para- graph to the essay as a whole (level 5). It summarizes but, like all good conclusions, it does more than that: it draws together the material of the paragraph in a way that establishes new knowledge, a new concept or a step forward in the argument. (61-62)
Here’s a good example from his book.
I don’t expect you to craft every single one of your paragraphs using this good but intricate formula. For now, I want you to concern yourself with at least two particular moves.
- I want the first sentence of your paragraphs to be strong, declarative claims. Level-4 or 5 type sentences.
- I want your following sentences to then present the evidence that supports those claims. This may be a level-2 or even level-1 type sentence.
If you wish to write more intricate paragraphs, be my guest. But the above is a solid one-two punch that can carry you plenty far.