Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun — that jingle could describe a cheeseburger order from nearly any fast food franchise or diner in America. Instead, in the 1970s, an advertising agency for McDonald’s® turned an ordinary list of ingredients into a specific definition, “Big Mac.”
What does a cheeseburger have to do with paragraphs in an essay? Paragraphs are the meat, cheese, pickles, and when layered together, act less like ingredients and more like parts of a whole. (Yep, I just compared essays to Big Macs.)
Have a Point
Every paragraph makes a point that helps readers understand the essay topic or it’s in the wrong essay. No matter how cleverly written or how emotionally moving, if a paragraph strays from the essay topic, it must be rewritten or removed. (Or, to stretch the analogy all the way to the breaking point, roast beef has a place in a sandwich but not on a Big Mac.)
Topic sentences are to paragraphs what keywords are to search engines. Good ones make what comes next seem logical. For school work and business, it’s a good idea to make the topic sentence start the paragraph and let the appropriate explanation follow. If the paragraph is telling a story or quoting an expert, it might be just as well to save the topic sentence for the end of the paragraph as a recap.
It may seem that a topic sentence will need to be explicitly factual. Not true. As long as the sentence sums up the point of the paragraph, the facts can come later.
Here’s an example:
When you clear your head, good things happen to the rest of you.¹
This topic sentence has enough information to communicate what will be said in the paragraph. What’s needed after this sentence are supporting details as proof that a “clear” head and “good things” happening are related.
Explain your point
The remaining sentences in a paragraph exist to expand and explain the topic sentence. Whatever best does that is what a writer should use: an example, a story, or a discussion. In this case, readers should expect something to be said about clearing one’s head (those words are in green font) and the correlating good things that happen (done in blue font) . Here’s the entire paragraph:
When you clear your head, good things happen to the rest of you. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine reported that HIV patients who wrote about their worries for 30 minutes a day four days in a row experienced a drop in their viral load and a rise in infection-fighting T cells. Another study, in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, found that breast cancer patients who talked about their feelings regarding cancer had to schedule fewer doctors’ visits for cancer-related problems.
That combination of “clear your head” and “good things happen” is repeated in the supporting sentences by using more specific information on what, exactly, is meant by each. “Clear your head” has two examples: “writing about…worries” and “talking about…feelings.” “Good things happen” also has two examples: “a drop in…viral load” and “schedule fewer doctors’ visits.” Because very specific language shows up in the examples (“30 minutes a day four days in a row” and “regarding cancer”), the writer has chosen a less factual approach as the topic sentence.
Let’s do another one, but this time, notice how the paragraph demonstrates “wanted to expand aggressively”:
As the newly minted big cheese, Malakasis wanted to expand aggressively. Belle Chevre was already in the top gourmet shops in the country—but nowhere else. “I wanted to make goat cheese more accessible and fun,” she says. “Something you’d find in an everyday supermarket, not buy once a year for a fancy wine and cheese party.” Experimenting in her kitchen, she concocted a new line of “breakfast cheese” in flavors like coffee, fig, and cinnamon and sugar, and pitched them to executives at big grocery chains. “Sometimes I think being the village idiot helps,” she says. “When someone says, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to call on the president of Costco or Kroger,’ I say, ‘Well, why not?'” Both stores now stock her cheese.²
This author uses obvious humor, “the…big cheese,” and subtle, too, “newly minted” is a nod to the upcoming discussion of flavors. Humor makes sense in the paragraph because the business owner uses it, too. She expresses an interest in making goat cheese “fun,” and admits that she had been “the village idiot.” Quoting the owner about her expansion ideas (rather than simply summing them up) allows the paragraph to personalize something as ordinary as cheese so that readers can connect to the resulting success.
Whether paragraphs will be an anecdote, a metaphor, a comparison, a definition, or a description, the topic sentence should forecast it for the reader.
Start a new point
Rather than have one paragraph going on and on across four pages, split the essay subject into many smaller points about the main idea. Start a new paragraph every time you make a distinct point about your topic. These individual points require new paragraphs because there is a new place, a new time, new or expanded information, or a contrast to discuss. Some points may have many layers. In that case, give each its own paragraph. This is true also for longer anecdotes or metaphors. They, too, may sometimes require several paragraphs to tell.
As you start each new paragraph, remember that it confuses a reader to bounce between past, present, and future, or between here, there, and yonder. Pick a direction for your readers, then arrange your points to suit that plan. Perhaps you want to progress from the personal to the global. You might write from the most common to the least understood. You could be recounting something chronologically. Whether you plan paragraphs with an outline or rearrange them after a freewrite, check that they create a logical sequence.
[If you are writing for digital publication, there is one more reason for starting a new paragraph: to maintain a balance between white space and digital text, but that is a discussion for another post.]
In the introduction and conclusion posts elsewhere on this blog, I’ve mentioned writing an essay’s beginning and ending along similar lines so there is a “frame” around the topic. It acts as an enclosure, of course, but a frame is also an object on its own, which is why it is carefully constructed.
Frames are designed to complement whatever is placed inside them. In an essay, “inside” means paragraphs, and they also get designed. Every paragraph focuses on one, and only one, aspect of the essay topic. Have a point. Explain the point. Start the next point.
¹ Gottesman, Nancy. “Feeling Good.” Oprah Magazine April 2011: 128-132. Print.
² “Comfort Zone, Tasia Malakasis.” Oprah Magazine April 2011: 120. Print.