Paragraphing

This page discusses ways to organize paragraphs, including deduction & focused induction, logical connections between sentences, paragraph division, and list-type paragraphs.

Organize paragraphs in a deductive or focused inductive pattern.

Deductively organized paragraphs begin with the claim or “big picture” statement for that paragraph. This deductive pattern is typically easier for readers to follow than an inductive (evidence to claim) pattern. The deductive pattern frames the data, details, and evidence that follow. If the paragraph is the first paragraph of a section, then the paragraph might be the claim or big picture statement for the whole section. For an example, see these slides. For another example of a deductive pattern, see Berger, ch. 14 (“Paragraphs”), p. 153, example 2.

An alternative to the deductive pattern is the focused inductive pattern. Focused inductive patterns begin with a statement that indicates where the paragraph is going, then moves from details to claim or “big picture” statement. Like the deductive pattern, a focused inductive pattern should indicate clearly how the paragraph contributes to the memo’s argument. For an example of a focused inductive pattern, see Berger, ch. 14, p. 152, example 1.

Berger ch. 14 (“Paragraphs”), pp. 152-154, is a good introduction to deductive v. inductive patterns–although he doesn’t use these terms.

Connect sentences logically.

Ways to show the paragraph’s logic are discussed in Berger 14.1, Gopen & Swan (1990), and Duke’s Scientific Writing Resources lesson 2. Berger discusses using “linking words,” while the other two texts discuss using sentence’s topic position to identify the subject or subjects of the paragraph. If you look at the examples, you’ll probably see that they’re all talking about the same process.

Divide paragraphs into “easily digestible” units.

See Berger 14.2. An “easily digestible” paragraph is typically around 150 or so words. Avoid over-correcting and producing a series of two-sentence paragraphs, which chop material up into units so digestible that readers may feel as though they haven’t eaten at all.

Organize lists into list-type paragraphs.

Technical writing tends to use list-type as well block paragraphs, because technical writing is full of lists. For examples of block and list-type paragraphs, see figures 1 and 2, which are adapted from Bhatia et al. (2012).

Compared to block paragraphs, list-type paragraphs offer skimmability, visual focus, and concision.  Compared to plain lists, list-type paragraphs offer context.

In figure 2, note the following four characteristics of an effective list-type paragraph:

  1. The list is introduced by a sentence that makes a claim. Some effective list-type paragraphs have several sentences before the list.
  2. The paragraph employs one of the logical patterns for list-type paragraphs, such as steps in a process, parts of a whole, cause/effect, or alternatives. Lists typically don’t work for more complex patterns.
  3. Sentences are grouped within the list to emphasize the logical pattern. Avoid using too many list items or two levels of lists, which can de-emphasize the logic.
  4. The paragraph specifies the number of items and lists by number to emphasize the logical pattern. Numbers usually work better than bullets.

The example in figure 2 also ends with a sentence that encloses the list and transits to the next paragraph.

Choosing between a list-type and block paragraph can be difficult. In practice, there is often no  right or wrong choice–it’s a judgment call, depending on what you want the paragraph to do. In the case of the paragraph I adapted for figures 1 and 2, the original writers decided to use a block paragraph. By using a block paragraph, the writers emphasized the process of communication between MTI and NASA.

However, you should avoid using list-type paragraphs exclusively, and avoid using lists that aren’t embedded in paragraphs. Too many lists can  prevent readers from following the logical pattern of the argument.


Content originally developed by Sharon Ahlers of Cornell’s Engineering Communication Program. Link here.  All rights reserved.

Skip to toolbar