PG Writing Group 07/05/12 Social Science South Rm 2204 Monday 12-1pm
The Bulwer-Lytton Literary Parody Contest awards a prize each year to the most deliberately terrible opening paragraphs to novels. It was named after Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton, who opened a novel in 1830 with the paragraph “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Clearly, even though Bulwer-Lytton was writing fiction, he could have benefited from advice about what constitutes a good paragraph. I always balk though when I read advice for research students that states with a sense of absolute authority what an academic paragraph should look like. The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all paragraph style. Many paragraphs don’t fit the classic recommended style but are nonetheless perfectly good paragraphs. My advice to students is to understand the principles but don’t think to hard about them as you are writing. Only apply them consciously when you are faced with a collection of sentences that you can’t seem to combine into a coherent paragraph. (My only exception to this advice is if students are writing paragraphs like those found in the Parody Contest, and then I think writing from first principles is probably warranted….).
My tips for revising a problematic paragraphs are too:
- Understand the value of a topic sentence. This sentence is usually the first sentence in a paragraph, is short, and indicates the topic the paragraph is focused on. The topic sentence forms a foundation for the reader that they can subsequently layer with detail from the subsequent sentences. Without this foundation, the reader is left to hold details in their head until they reach an understanding of what topic this information relates too.
- Ensure your paragraph links to the previous paragraph in some way and this link is made explicit to your reader. If you leave these links out, you are requiring the reader to work hard to make them for you, and they may not necessarily infer the correct link.
- Lead your reader through your paragraph with sentences that link together and are organised in some way. For example, order your paragraphs from general to specific, in temporal sequence, or in order of importance. Sentences are often linked because they have a specific term in common. So don’t change terms to avoid repetition – it can reduce the coherence of two linked sentences.
- When using transitions and connectives, make sure you use the right ones. These words act as signposts for readers, and incorrect use can obscure your meaning significantly by leading them down a different path of thought than the one you wanted to them travel along.
For more support for paragraph writing see:
- RMIT’s Study and Learning Centre Online Paragraph Tutorial
- PurdueUniversity’s On Paragraphs
- List of Connectives and Transition words
For more really funny bad starting paragraphs of novels see Innocent English
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