WriteCast Episode 3: Creating a Successful Paragraph
© Walden University Writing Center 2013
What do derailed trains, chain link fences, and fruit salads have in common? Find out in WriteCast Episode 3: Creating a Successful Paragraph. In this episode, Nik and Brittany identify six types of paragraphs to avoid and summarize four essential components of an effective and cohesive paragraph.
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NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. Every other week, we’ll explore a different aspect of academic writing in a way that’s informative but also approachable, and, we have to admit it, a little quirky.
NIK: This week we’ll be talking about one of the most basic building blocks of writing: the paragraph.
BRITTANY: We’ll talk about six types of paragraphs to avoid, and the four main components of a successful paragraph.
NIK: So Brittany, I think in our time here at the Writing Center, we’ve seen the whole gamut, right, in terms of papers that are in very rough first-draft form, papers that are nearly polished, but I think even despite the fact that we’ve seen all this variety of stages, in all of those stages, we’ve noticed six kinds of paragraphs that are problematic.
BRITTANY: Right. The first kind, we’re calling the “chain link fence” paragraph. And basically this is a paragraph that links a lot of paraphrases or direct quotations together, but it’s missing the analysis in the writer’s own voice.
NIK: Yeah and we do call this a chain link fence paragraph because it visually resembles, you know, a chain of links, right? It’s paraphrase after paraphrase after paraphrase or there’s the quotation version which is quotation, quotation, quotation, quotation. These are paragraphs that don’t work precisely because of what Brittany said, is that your voice is absent.
BRITTANY: So, you might have a lot of evidence to back up an idea but there’s nothing in there from you. And while having outside evidence is really important in a paragraph, it’s also really important that you speak in your own scholarly voice in your paper. Otherwise your reader might as well just read those other sources that you’re quoting or paraphrasing. So that’s the first type.
Now, there’s also the opposite problem, right, Nik, in a paragraph—too little evidence?
NIK: Yeah, this is what we call the “tabloid” paragraph. I don’t know if it’s the Daily Star—
BRITTANY: The National Enquirer, that’s my favorite.
NIK: Yeah, the National Enquirer—this is what we call a tabloid paragraph because it’s all essentially gossip or hearsay. Now you might not think of it this way if you look at your paragraphs, but your readers might. So for example, let’s say you’re talking about multinational corporations and their tax evasion strategies. Now, you could link readers to your own story of, “well, whisper whisper, I heard from Betty, who sits across from me and drinks organic chai tea, that, you know, this organization definitely bases all of their overseas stuff in Ireland or Saskatchewan because it’s lower taxes, and what they’re doing is even than what Apple’s and...” You know, whatever. What you want to do as a writer is avoid that as much as possible, because the problem is that your readers are going to be like, “uh huh, so what? Where’s the evidence, dude? What are you trying to tell me and how can I trust you?” Often, Brittany, I think of a very grey area, is when a student is writing about their own workplace, right? What if they’re a nurse and they’re writing about a particular nursing kind of practice at their own hospital? That can be a tricky scenario.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think it’s important to note that in certain situations and in certain types of papers, your own experience does count as evidence. So, there are certain situations where it’s fine not to have a citation from an outside source, and that’s really gonna depend on your course, on your course assignment, on the type of paper that you’re writing, and you should be able to have a discussion with your instructor about whether or not you need to have an outside source, if it’s, you know a reflection paper or a paper that’s meant to be about your own experience. So, evidence can be your own experience if that’s the context in which you’re writing. But, the type of paragraph we’re talking about when we talk about the tabloid paragraph is typically in a piece of academic writing that’s meant to be backed up by outside sources and that stuff is just totally absent from the paragraph. So, what you’re saying might be true, but you have to show the reader that you know it’s true because you have credible sources to back it up.
NIK: And remember that as you’re evaluating evidence for credibility and trying to incorporate a lot of different scholarly or academic perspectives, you don’t want to do too much at once. So Brittany, we call this—what do we call this kind of paragraph?
BRITTANY: We call this the “bad fruit salad” paragraph. Now I’m sure our listeners—especially the ones from the Midwest—have encountered this kind of delicacy at maybe a church potluck or at your grandma’s Thanksgiving—
NIK: Now my grandma makes the best fruit salads. I’m sorry, I just have to say that on air.
BRITTANY: [laughing] Well we know that Nik’s grandma makes awesome fruit salads, but maybe you’ve had a fruit salad where somebody thought, oh, you know, apples and olives and raisins and marshmallow fluff would be delicious together—
NIK: Oh, yuck.
BRITTANY: And, you know, it’s revolting.
NIK: Oh, that’s disgusting. Please never do that if you are making a fruit salad. Please.
BRITTANY: Yes, this is the portion of the podcast where we tell you how not to make a fruit salad. But this is also how not to write a paragraph. And what we mean by this is that is not pulling a bunch of random information together in one paragraph. I think a lot of times we think about paragraphs as units of measurement in a paper. So, you maybe will just type and type and type and type and then say, oh yeah, oops, I need my paper to be broken up into smaller chunks, so you maybe kind of eyeball it and say, oh, this looks like a good place to break it up, this looks about the length of a paragraph, and then you maybe press return and tab it in and keep going. Rather than thinking about paragraphs as units of measurement, I think it’s more important to think about them as little containers of ideas. And you want to make sure that each paragraph, as its own container, only contains ideas that are relative to one another. I think this fruit salad paragraph is the one where, you know, you kind of just threw a bunch of stuff into the bowl without thinking about whether it goes together. And, you do want to make sure that within each paragraph, the ideas are really cohesive and that they match up with one another.
NIK: Yeah. Well, Brittany, you know, the other thing that kind of relates to me as a person in addition to, you know, fruit salad, is—I’m just going to confess here that for many years now I’ve wanted to be a rock drummer. I’ve wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. And this started in middle school when I, um, I had played the piano for several years, and then in middle school band, of course I wanted to do percussion but, you know, my specialty naturally ended up being the bells—you know, the marimba, the xylophone, that kind of thing. Oh my gosh, my teacher was so impressed with my mallet playing, and I was like, No! I just want to be on the drum set, you know? And so from then on I subscribed to drummer magazines, I obsessed over double-base pedals and high hats and cymbals—I was a wannabe, and so my, um, my talent—I had none, you know. My equipment—let’s just say you could almost break the kind of drums that my family was able to afford at that time. They weren’t very good. But the tangible things I had to show for my drumming skills fell short. And that’s what we call, in this context of writing, a “wannabe” paragraph. And basically what we mean is that it’s like two or three, or maybe even just one, sentence. And generally a paragraph should have at least three sentences, but even then, unless your sentences are pretty long, it’s gonna look a little short.
BRITTANY: Right, so the idea is just that the wannabe paragraph falls short usually by two or three sentences at least. And, you know, maybe you include a transition in those two or three sentences that helps you get from one paragraph to the next paragraph, but it’s better to just absorb that transition into the next paragraph than to give it its own little wannabe spot. So, we do see those a fair amount in student writing.
We also see the opposite of the wannabe paragraph, which we call the “whole paper” paragraph. Now, this is similar in some ways to the “bad fruit salad” paragraph where everything is thrown in together, except that it tends to have probably better organization than the “bad fruit salad” paragraph. It might actually be well organized and make better sense and flow a little bit better, but it’s just not broken down into those smaller pieces. Right, Nik? I think the idea is that there’s no resting spot in the whole paper paragraph.
NIK: Yeah, I tend to say, personally, anything longer than three-quarters of a page is pretty darn overwhelming for a reader. You know, I’m sure you can find evidence of some sort of paragraph that’s really long and that got published, but that’s just really not what you want to do and that person probably shouldn’t have done that. And the reason—which I hope you are gaining from our conversations in this podcast—is that your readers are gold. And you want them to feel as happy and relaxed and inspired as possible and in order to do that, you have to help them. You don’t need to hold their hand through your ideas, but you do need to hold their hand through your organization and your executive editorial decisions.
BRITTANY: Exactly right. So, Nik, do you want to tell us about our very last type of paragraph that you should avoid when you’re writing?
NIK: Yes, and this kind of paragraph is really something I, as a writer, tend to do—I’m guilty of—it’s called the “derailed train” paragraph. This paragraph does either one of two things. It either starts out really strong—you know, chugga chugga choo choo, I think I can I think I can—and then it just runs out of steam. Readers are with you every step of the way at the beginning and by the end, they’re just like… “What? What happened?” And then there’s the other kind of paragraph there’s, for whatever reason, a sentence that—there’s a very particular point—where you can identify and say, oh, that doesn’t belong. Maybe you’re talking about the health benefits of coffee, and then all of a sudden you start talking about the dangers of not looking when you cross the street. Now, that’s a silly example, but let me tell you, that does happen in some of the writing we see. And it’s easy to do. You’re probably neck in articles that you’ve read, with thoughts floating around, and sometimes it just happens. But check for that. Brittany, we’ve talked about second and third readers before—having us look at it, having a friend look at it—and they might be able to diagnose those problems better than you are as a writer.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think this type of paragraph tends to be a symptom of lots of revision. And of course we really recommend lots of revision, but sometimes when you’re going back and shifting ideas around, you know, if you sit down and write a paragraph from start to finish, you tend to have a better focus and have the same idea carried throughout the paragraph. But when you start moving things around because they don’t make sense in the spot where you put them, sometimes you can sort of lose that flow. So it is really important to go back and check for those derailed train paragraphs as well.
NIK: So just to review, we went over six kinds of paragraphs to avoid. The “chain link fence” paragraph.
BRITTANY: The “tabloid” paragraph.
NIK: The “bad fruit salad” paragraph.
BRITTANY: The “wannabe” paragraph.
NIK: The “whole paper” paragraph.
BRITTANY: And the “derailed train” paragraph.
NIK: So, folks, here is the exciting part. We just gave you six problems to avoid, and we have a one-size-fits-all, guaranteed, sure-fire solution—well, okay, maybe not all of those things—but it’s a pretty good solution, right, Brittany?
BRITTANY: It is. Yeah, it’s a very good starting place for any paragraph. And, you can tweak it once you have it based on our sort of superhero solution here that we’re gonna present to you.
NIK: For those of you who haven’t heard of the MEAL plan, which is what we’re going to talk about, this could have superhero implications. We should give credit where credit is due, so Brittany, who was it that came up with this MEAL plan thing originally?
BRITTANY: Right, this acronym, MEAL, the term MEAL plan to describe the four elements of a paragraph is not our own invention here at Walden. We actually borrowed it from Duke University, from their writing program there. So, we do want to give them credit for inventing a really, really nice tool for understanding how to organize a paragraph and kind of the four main elements of a successful paragraph.
NIK: So M stands for Main Idea. And this is usually expressed in a topic sentence, so that’s a one-shot sentence that basically—if your readers ignore everything else about that paragraph, and in fact if your readers ignore everything else about your paper, and they only read that first sentence in each paragraph, they should have a very good idea of what your paragraph is about and how it supports, how each paragraph supports your main argument, your thesis statement, which is what we talked about last episode. So remember, there are a few rules: It’s just one sentence, it’s also an assertion that directly supports your thesis statement. So if your thesis statement is that the Duke basketball team is the greatest in the world, and then, one of your paragraphs is about how your kitty is cute, that’s not going to work. Again, that’s a silly example, but we do see papers that have that kind of approach. And it’s probably just an accident, so be sure that your topic sentence supports your thesis, and make sure, lastly, that it is your own idea, in your own words. In other words, it shouldn’t need a citation. It shouldn’t be a paraphrase, where you put someone else’s ideas into your own [words], and it darn well shouldn’t be a quotation. What you want to do is show readers that you have a full understanding of your topic and that you are prepared to make a case for whatever stand you’re taking, whatever argument you’re making.
BRITTANY: And, the thing is, you do have space for that evidence later on. So, while you don’t want to include a citation or a paraphrase from an outside source in your main idea, or your topic sentence, you definitely do want to include it in the second element of the MEAL plan, which is the E section, which stands for evidence.
This is the place where you are going to back up what you’ve just said in your main idea. So your reader might ask, okay, you’ve just told me that Duke Basketball is the greatest team in the world—but how do you know? What’s your evidence? What do you have to back that up? And, as we mentioned earlier, this might be—very often should be—quotations or paraphrases from scholarly sources. And you want to show that what you’re talking about in your paper is grounded in something other than just your sort of whimsical ideas.
NIK: And the third component that usually follows the evidence portion of your paragraph is, I think, the most important, and that’s analysis. I like to think about analysis in the news. People don’t just watch the news to understand what is going on, where, why, etc. They’re also wanting to know what other people think about it. So, if the president of the United States gives a speech, right away, what’s after that speech? It’s the analysts, you know—the political analysts, the economists—people everywhere are weighing in: Okay, what did this speech mean? What was the president saying? Is this a wise policy that the president is outlining? Did the president outline a policy at all? It’s always good to ask yourself not only what are scholars saying, but, well, “What do I think?” Are they right? You don’t want to take what they’re saying at face value. I also just want to clarify that you don’t have to be like, evidence: ……. And then analysis, you know. It can be integrated. We just like to think of these as two separate components because you can’t have one without the other. It’s kind of like, uh, what was that TV show? You know, the, um… Married with Children. Right? It’s like, um, you have to have love and marriage, together, they go together like a…
BRITTANY: Horse and carriage?
NIK: Horse and carriage, right? So, uh, that’s the same with evidence and analysis. They go together hand in hand.
BRITTANY: Yes, exactly right. And I think it’s also important to note that your analysis section is really where you’re trying to make your ideas relevant back to your thesis statement again. So, it’s not just the main idea that needs to tie into your thesis statement. Every element of your paragraph needs to tie back to your thesis statement and support it—including the final element of the MEAL plan, which is what we call the lead-out. This term can be a little bit confusing because it does imply a sort of transition. And I do want to emphasize that the lead-out is not a transition in and of itself. What it is, is kind of a wrap-up sentence. And it may sort of spill into two sentences but typically it should be one. And it’s a place where you kind of bring your reader to rest at the end of your paragraph. They’ve listened to your main idea, they’ve understood your evidence, they’ve gone with you on your analysis, and now, they’re a little bit tired. They need a chance to understand what it is that they’re supposed to take away from this paragraph and to just briefly rest before they’re ready to move on to the next thing you’ll talk about in your subsequent paragraphs. So, we do notice that some other universities and writing centers talk about this final component as a link—they use the word “link” as the “L” of MEAL instead of “lead-out”—and while we don’t use that word here at Walden, it is a helpful word, I think, to think about this portion of the paragraph. It’s a place where you’re gonna make that final link back to the main idea of the paragraph and back to the thesis statement before moving on to the transition, which should typically happen at the beginning of the next paragraph.
NIK: So we’ve talked about these four components of the MEAL plan, which of course relates to food because we’re foodies here. So, we go with the main idea, and then, Brittany:
BRITTANY: Yep, we have the evidence,
NIK: Followed by the analysis,
BRITTANY: And then finally, the lead-out, or link.
BRITTANY: So the first resource I want to point students to is our Topic Sentences and Paragraph Development webinar. This is an archived webinar—
NIK: Oh, that’s a good one.
BRITTANY:—Yeah, it’s great. It’s under Grammar Webinars, and the best way to find webinars on our website is to first go to our website, which is writing center dot walden U dot E D U, and then just click on the big yellow button that says webinars right on the homepage there. So if you scroll down to Grammar Webinars, you’re going to see this one called Topic Sentences and Paragraph Development. And, if you click on that title you’ll find a little abstract, a description of what happens in the webinar, you can find the recording, and you can find the PowerPoint slides. Nik, do you want to talk just a little bit more about our other web resources on paragraphing?
NIK: Yeah, actually, we have many resources about paragraphing, particularly our Paragraphs page. Now, how do you find the paragraphs page? The best way is just to go to our homepage, as we mentioned—writing center dot walden U dot E D U—and on the top right you’ll see a search box. Just type in the word “paragraph” and the first result you’ll find is our Paragraphs page. In that page you’ll find a description of the MEAL plan, which we went over, and a lot of other information, including an example of what a MEAL plan paragraph looks like, for someone that might need a more visual-oriented approach.
BRITTANY: Well, thanks so much for listening, everybody. This brings us to the end of this episode, and we hope that you can join us in two weeks for our next episode, which you can find out about on our blog, our Facebook, and Twitter pages.
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NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.