Lies Teachers Told You About Paragraph Structure
One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, wrote in an essay collection in which he asserts that teachers are, by definition, Liars to Children. Believe it or not, he did not mean it as a criticism. His example was the structure of an atom. Middle school teachers tell students the structure is something like this (only flatter and even more boring):
Photo by Norbert Kowalczyk on Unsplash
When the truth is that the electrons are much more interesting. Playwright Tom Stoppard took a stab at explaining why in his play Hapgood:
I could put an atom into your hand for every second since the world began and you would have to squint to see the dot of atoms in your palm. So now make a fist, and if your fist is as big as the nucleus of one atom then the atom is as big as St Paul's, and if it happens to be a hydrogen atom then it has a single electron flitting about like a moth in the empty cathedral, now by the dome, now by the altar... Every atom is a cathedral. I cannot stand the pictures of atoms they put in schoolbooks, like a little solar system: Bohr's atom. Forget it. You can't make a picture of what Bohr proposed, an electron does not go round like a planet, it is like a moth which was there a moment ago, it gains or loses a quantum of energy and it jumps, and at the moment of quantum jump it is like two moths, one to be here and one to stop being there; an electron is like twins, each one unique, a unique twin.”
Tom Stoppard, via Dr. Kerner in Hapgood
Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash
And that’s good, Douglas Adams argues. The “solar system” deaw of Bohr’s atom is a lie, but a helpful one. Kids need to learn the basic building block parts of atoms before they learn about electron clouds and other quirks and quarks of subatomic particles.
That's the argument for Lying to Children.
But, well, wouldn’t that speech actually be a lot cooler? If the idea is to get students excited about science, isn’t that image (or better yet, the image of themselves bouncing around the school gymnasium from the floor to the ceiling in an instant) more likely to inspire joy and curiosity? If the goal isn’t just to get them to memorize the names of the particles but realize that they might like science...
I thought about this scene and Douglas Adams’s words a lot when I was a middle school English teacher. Because I was already frustrated with the ways my students' previous teachers had taught them about writing…and I caught myself telling other temporary lies.
We English teachers tell a lot of lies to students to get them to stop making the most elementary writing mistakes. And then later, their new teachers pull their hair out by the roots trying to get them to STOP doing those old habits that they’ve learned as absolute rules rather than general rules of thumb.
Maybe we shouldn’t have lied to students in the first place.
In apology, I’d like to break down at least one lie frequently taught to young writers.
A Paragraph Should be 3-5 Sentences long.
Your earliest writing assignments were probably all one paragraph. In elementary school, that’s the length we all agreed to keep the longest writing assignments to -- about enough for one good paragraph.
But take it from someone who just spent a week grading over 100 college papers – if you’re still making THAT mistake -- turning in something that is only ONE paragraph, no matter how long -- by the time you hit your 20s, it is not only tiresome but feels insulting.
Paragraphs, after all, are meant to make your paper easier to read. Not bothering to do the work of breaking your thoughts into paragraphs isn’t just bad writing – it’s rude. That’s what making someone else’s life harder in order to make yours easier is, at the very least: rude.
So we told you, “An essay should have multiple paragraphs” and you immediately asked us how long each one had to be. And we told you 3-5 sentences, because we didn’t want you to revert back to single sentence “paragraphs” of even earlier elementary school.
The Heart of the Lie
We meant well, when we told you that. Or at least we meant well the first 50 times we told you that. If you kept asking the same question over and over again, we might have just told you a number to get you to stop. Sometimes that was the only way to get you to stop asking questions and do your work. (Asking for clarification on instructions is clearly a form of procrastination for some of you out there. You know who you are.)
Most good paragraphs ARE in the 3-5 sentences range. It’s a good median length. And it echoes the 5 Paragraph Essay structure (another Lie to Children, our bad ).
A sentence to introduce the topic of the paragraph,
1-3 sentences giving evidence to support it,
and 1 sentence to transition to the next point.
Seemed like a good enough formula to get you started, and then once you had the hang of it, you could play around with the structure and the length.
That was the theory.
What We Should Have Taught You
Paragraphs, like most tools of writing, were designed to make your prose easier to read. In comparison, verse poetry is broken first into lines and then into stanzas. Prose is similarly broken into sentences and then into paragraphs. Both a new stanza and a new paragraph indicate a shift in your thinking. A five paragraph essay structure is the written equivalent of telling someone that you have three reasons why you are turning down their offer to play drums in their garage band, and the paragraphs are each individual point. Point the first – you don’t play drums and that’s an expensive instrument to buy; point the second – your musical tastes and the band’s are incompatible and that would just make everyone stressed out; point the third – your friend’s band is terrible and it would be embarrassing to join them. In writing, the paragraph shifts help cue your audience that you are moving to the next point. And just like it’s clumsy to say “Point the first!” while holding up one finger while making that point, numbering your paragraphs with “Firstly,” “Secondly,” and “Finally” also is very clumsy. But the division is important, because it helps the reader follow your argument and distinguish the different points from one another.
That was a big old block of text, wasn’t it?
I moved from the purpose of paragraphs to a poetry comparison, to a spoken word argument about garage bands all in one paragraph. Conventional wisdom on paragraphs, as taught to you in middle school, would say that that’s perfectly fine! Sure, it’s more than 5 sentences, but it begins with a topic sentence:
"Paragraphs, like most tools of writing, were designed to make your prose easier to read."
And ends with a concluding sentence that can transition to my next argument:
“But the division is important, because it helps the reader follow your argument and distinguish the different points from one another.”
In between, I give multiple examples that are very much on the topic of the topic sentence. So they belong in one paragraph, right?
The point is making the text easier to read, and that means not lumping things that only relate by something as broad as overall topic together. Not letting one thought run into the next without tying things up neatly in between. Or at least taking a breath between the two thoughts.
Isn’t this easier to read?
“Paragraphs, like most tools of writing, were designed to make your prose easier to read. “In comparison, verse poetry is broken first into lines and then into stanzas. Prose is similarly broken into sentences and then into paragraphs. Both a new stanza and a new paragraph indicate a shift in your thinking. “A five paragraph essay structure is the written equivalent of telling someone that you have three reasons why you are turning down their offer to play drums in their garage band, and the paragraphs are each individual point. Point the first – you don’t play drums and that’s an expensive instrument to buy; point the second – your musical tastes and the band’s are incompatible and that would just make everyone stressed out; point the third – your friend’s band is terrible and it would be embarrassing to join them. In writing, the paragraph shifts help cue your audience that you are moving to the next point. And just like it’s clumsy to say “Point the first!” while holding up on finger while making that point, numbering your paragraphs with “Firstly,” “Secondly,” and “Finally” also is very clumsy.
"But the division is important, because it helps the reader follow your argument and distinguish the different points from one another."
Those are four good paragraphs. Yes, even the two that are only one sentence long. In formal writing, they might be a little dicier, but in most cases, a single sentence as a paragraph is an excellent tool. After all, don’t those two sentences really stand out?
The extra-short paragraph sends a message: this point is important.
So important it stands alone.
The other two paragraphs do fit tidily into the 3-5 sentence range, but they also illustrate something important about building strong paragraphs. The third paragraphs is only 1 sentence longer than the second paragraph, but obviously the third paragraph is much longer. It makes a more elaborate point, using long and winding sentences.
That’s not always bad, but imagine that that long paragraph was followed by a second just like it. Isn’t it a relief to see that what comes next is shorter? And followed by a one liner?
Variety is the spice of life but the absolute lifeblood of writing.
Short and sweet paragraphs get tiring after awhile too.
It may seem like it would take longer for them to get tedious.
I can imagine thinking that.
Especially if the topic genuinely is changing each time.
Imagine someone stringing lone sentence after lone sentence together.
A tenuous connection binding them ineffectually together.
As if just trying to get you to scroll longer or make a page length requirement.
And there’s a very important reason we didn’t want you to write like this in middle school.
We spent our days trying to convince you that you had to JUSTIFY your opinions, not just throw them out there.
It’s hard to explain and give evidence of an idea, all in one sentence.
We really really didn’t want to read a list.
We would have just assigned a list, if that’s what we wanted.
It would have been way easier to grade.
After fifty papers, with fifty more to go, that really matters.
The Effect on the Reader
Now that I’ve had my fun playing with the paragraphs above, allow me to make my plea to take paragraph structure one paragraph at a time. In middle school, yes, we gave you a hard and fast rule because we knew you didn’t want to hear, “Well it depends…”
That’s why we lie, you know, because of how you groan and tune us out when we get into, “Well it depends…”
If you wonder if you’re doing paragraphs wrong, then pull up the last formal paper you wrote and ask yourself some questions:
Do any paragraphs take up more than a full page?
Conversely, have you somehow fit more than 3 paragraphs on a page? Maybe once or twice that’s a good idea but…
Do you bring up multiple topics within a single paragraph? Say you’re writing a book report, do you fit your opinion of three different characters into one paragraph? There CAN be a reason to do this but…why?
If it’s a compare/contrast paper, did you have everything about one book shoved into one paragraph and everything about the other book shoved into a second?
If you went through and hit the return key after every time you switched to a new example on your paper, would it look better?
I just read over 100 college papers, and one of the most common comments I made was that two or three unrelated ideas shouldn’t have been shoved into one paragraph. It’s harder to read, and it undermines my trust that you know what you’re talking about.
After all, what point could you possibly be trying to make that goes from poetry to garage band disputes that fast? Are you certain you have one?
Originally published on Renegade Writing Center's blog on October 8, 2020.