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How to Begin and End Paragraphs

Go beyond formulaic essay structures to write paragraphs that hook your readers.

By
Edwin L. Battistella, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #639
A picture of a woman writing in a library

We should pay more attention to paragraphs. I know that sounds obvious, but what I’m fretting about is the advice that beginning writers get to begin paragraphs with topic sentences and end with summary sentences.

Such a topic sandwich—filled in with subpoints, supporting sentences, and examples—lends itself to formulaic writing. This strategy of "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" can be useful for public speaking, where listeners don’t have a text to follow. But in written exposition, readers don’t need you to be quite such a tour guide. They can refer back to the previous text. They can read slowly when they need to, or skim or skip ahead when they get bored. And if you bore them, they will skip ahead.

Designing good paragraphs is not about taking people on a walk, but about treating them to an experience. So paragraphing is less about being a tour guide than it is about being the conductor of a symphony.

Good paragraphs treat people to an experience.

A paragraph can end in a sharp point, a pin-prick that wakes readers up and focuses their attention on what you’ve just written. Readers should think “Oh!” not “Yup.” (I tried to do that just before with the sentence “And if you bore them, they will skip ahead.”)

Sometimes good paragraphing is as simple as letting the start of one paragraph serve as the conclusion to the last, leaving readers hanging for half a beat. Raffi Khatchadourian does this in his essay “The Taste Makers,” writing about the flavor industry. Khatchadourian tells readers about the confidentiality agreements that makers of food flavorings sign. The paragraph ends with an example of a company honoring the agreement even years later. Asked about their flavor development for Snapple, the Brooklyn-based flavoring company Virginia Dare “refused to discuss the matter.” The next paragraph opens with the broader point: “Such secrecy helps shape the story of our food.” Had Khatchadourian ended his previous paragraph with that line, it would be a flat summary. At the beginning of the next paragraph, however, it sets the trajectory for the next part of the essay.

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