If some alien linguists came to earth to study how we communicate with each other, they would probably return to Alien World University and tell their scholarly alien brethren how we create and assign words to our thoughts, and then we share these words either by sound (by talking with each other) or by changing those sounds into a strange and silent written language (written words) that tries to recreate the way we humans talk with each other. Further study would show that we group our thoughts (and hence words) into blocks that we call sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes we group a series of related paragraphs together into an essay, or a speech, or a story. In short, they might say that we communicate using a trinity of expression: a sentence is a thought fully expressed; a paragraph is a thought fully explained; while an essay (or any longer writing piece) is a thought fully explored.
The perceptive alien would notice that we humans have no difficulty speaking in sentences and paragraphs, but we sometimes have a heck of a time trying to do the same when putting our words into writing because most of us humans do not really know (or even have to care) what is and what is not a paragraph. But we should care, because a well-spoken or well-written paragraph adds detail, clarity, and beauty to even the most common thought. It is important to remember that a paragraph is always born in a single thought, and that paragraph ends with the original thought more fully developed and explained. In a way, a paragraph is like caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. The original thought ends the same, yet different.
How long it takes for that caterpillar to become a butterfly is up to the writer. There is no minimum length for a paragraph. The maximum length is just before the writer drifts or shifts away from the original thought. Generally speaking, the more deep and complex the original thought, the longer a paragraph needs to be; however, if a writer is simply presenting the facts of a story (as in the news) the paragraphs are often remarkably brief--oftentimes just one or two sentences. Check out CNN or The BBC News and see how long their paragraphs are in today's news stories. Now check out the longer lengths of the paragraphs in a recent New Yorker article about the basketball player Yao Ming. In short, a paragraph simply needs to do what you (as a writer) need it to do.
All of this might fly in the face of those of you who have been told that a paragraph needs to be five sentences long, or have three supporting facts, or a topic sentence at the start, or it needs a quote. Really all a paragraph must do is explain, elucidate, expound, and/or explicate an idea, thought, experience, or fact. Once that is done, after ten words or ten hundred words, it is time to end the paragraph and move on to the next one.
One of the ironies of my life as a writer is that I have always felt that writing is an organic process that tries to recreate the voice that speaks within us; but, here I am as a writing teacher creating all these "rubrics" and "formulas" to help my students write more effectively. My hope is that the rubrics will help them any aspiring writer find and develop that inner voice that is completely and uniquely his or her own.
This formula for narrative paragraphs is based on the way we would naturally talk about something: we introduce what we want to talk about; we narrow it down to something specific and more focused; we offer proof that we have had the experience, feeling, or thought, and then we add some commentary or further explanation. Anything less than this, and we run the risk of sounding disjointed, confusing, and random. There are no laws for writers, nor are there really any rules aside from what teachers or employers impose, but there is an audience out there, and if confuse them, you lose them. At the very least, if you try this formula, you will write a focused and logically structured paragraph; moreover, with a little bit more effort, you can write paragraphs that ring with beauty, clarity, and resonance!
So, here is my formula for writing a good narrative paragraph. In narrative writing we write about our own lives and thoughts and feelings, and so we write in the first person (except where noted).
Week Four Writing Prompt: Upload the narrative paragraph rubric. Download Fitz’s Narrative Paragraph Rubric Using this paragraph rubric, write a paragraph about an experience you have had that has taught you a life lesson--a lesson that you feel will be valuable for other people to hear. When you are finished, post your paragraph on your blog, and we will all comment on your work.
FITZ'S NARRATIVE PARAGRAPH FORMULA
1. BROAD THEME: Write a short declarative statement that touches on a broad theme [the theme is simply the main thought you are writing about] that all of us can relate to in some way or other. This acts as a "hook" that will attract your reader's attention. Despite what you might wish, no one really cares about you when they read; a reader cares primarily about himself or herself. This broad theme is a theme that almost any person can relate to on some level, and hopefully it is intriguing enough to make your reader want to read on.
For example, if you want to write about the importance of family, here is an example of a broad theme:
It is only our immediate family that gives us unconditional love.
NOTE: Because you are trying to show the universal nature of your theme, do not use the I voice in your broad theme. I did not write: It is only my family that gives me unconditional love. Omitting the I will help your reader feel that your paragraph is for them as much as for you!
2. NARROW THEME: Narrow down your theme by writing a sentence that captures how your chosen theme is used in a specific way in an experience you have had, a feeling you have felt, or a thought you want to explore. Make sure this sentence is "clear, concise and memorable" because it is what you want your readers to remember "as" they read your paragraph. Don't make it a long sentence--unless you are writing to very sophisticated readers! This is the sentence that "steers" your reader in the direction you want your paragraph to go, and in that sense, it is what your paragraph is going to be about. Many writers call this the "topic sentence."
NOTE: The broad theme and the narrow theme can be combined into one sentence by connecting the two sentences with a semi-colon or a conjunction (so, yet, and, or, nor, for, but) or you can simply leave it as two sentences.
It is our family that we turn to when there is no place left to go.
3. ONE/TWO PUNCH: Follow your topic sentence with one or two more sentences that add detail or explanation to your broad theme and narrow theme. These sentences can (and maybe should) be longer sentences.
When we are alone in the world; when nothing is going our way, we know that the door of family will always open for us and welcome us back into the arms of those people who love us without reservations.
NOTE: For dramatic effect I used two clauses starting with the word "when." Using repeating words, phrases, and clauses in your writing is called parallelism or anaphora. For whatever reason, used wisely, it helps to add more power and passion to your writing.
4. SMOKING GUN: Since you are writing about a personal experience, chose a specific personal experience you have had that explicates, illustrates, and amplifies the theme of your paragraph. This experience is proof that you have been there and done that. It is like text support in a book review, or indisputable facts in an expository essay.
At no other time in my life was this more obvious than when I returned to my family home in Concord after a three-year's journey to the Himalayas to discover the essential truth about life. Broke, disheveled, and disenchanted, I stood on the doorstep and tentatively rapped on the door. No smile was wider than my moms; no arms were wider than my dads as they pulled me into their arms and into the living room I left so long ago.
5. HEAD & HEART: Show your reader your thoughts! Write as many more sentences as you "need" (but at least three more) to illustrate and elaborate upon whatever you introduced in your topic sentence.
It didn't matter that I left home without even telling them where I was going. It didn't matter that I had once criticized their lives as dull and meaningless, and it didn't matter that I never called and never wrote. It only mattered that I was home again.
NOTE: Here I used parallelism again, but this time I used the same repeating structure "It didn't matter..." three times. Writing in groups of three is called a tri-colon. It is another technique of writing that seems to work well because it captures our attention, it sounds good, and it creates a natural rhythm to our writing. (See, I just used it again:)
6. GET OUT or GO ON! This sentence either wants to close out your thoughts or, if you are writing a longer piece, transition to a potential new paragraph.
For me, it only matters that I will never turn my back on my family again because when times are tough, family is all that really matters.
Here is the complete paragraph. At 220 words, this is what I (and probably most English teachers) would call a "full" paragraph.
It is only our immediate family that gives us unconditional love. It is our family that we turn to when there is no place left to go. When we are alone in the world; when nothing is going our way, we know that the door of family will always open for us and welcome us back into the arms of those people who are love us without reservations. At no other time in my life was this more obvious than when I returned to my family home in Concord after a three-year's journey to the Himalayas to discover the essential truth about life. Broke, disheveled, and disenchanted, I stood on the doorstep and tentatively rapped on the door. No smile was wider than my moms; no arms were wider than my dads as they pulled me into their arms and into the living room I left so long ago. It didn't matter that I left home without even telling them where I was going. It didn't matter that I had once criticized their lives as dull and meaningless, and it didn't matter that I never called and never wrote. It only mattered that I was home again. For me, it only matters that I will never turn my back on my family again because family is all that really matters.
This paragraph might not win me a Pulitzer prize, but it does what it sets out to do, and that is the primary aim of all writing. As with everything you write, always go back and re-read what you have written. Find three areas or sentences that you can make better. Often you can find a better topic sentence somewhere else in the paragraph. You can almost always find a more clear and effective way to write a sentence than you wrote on your first try. If you have too many short sentences, try combining sentences using conjunctions (so, yet, and, or, nor, for, but) or semi colons; likewise, if you have sentences that feel too long and confusing, try shortening the sentence into two or three sentences.
The more you use this formula, the better you will get at writing paragraphs. Keep at it. Your efforts will be worth the time and effort you put into it!