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Writing the Perfect Paragraph

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #95, 2010.

Steps for leading even reluctant writers to write the perfect paragraph—the classical way.
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Diane Lockman

Each December, anticipation builds to a fever pitch in my home as we decorate the tree, purchase gifts, and prepare goodies for our neighbors. By the time Christmas morning arrives, my kids are usually so excited about opening their presents that they are ready to explode like tightly-wound springs!

For years, the focus has been on the gifts that my husband and I give the kids. Imagine my own surprise two years ago when my 14-year-old son, Connor, delivered an unexpected gift to my husband and me: his very first novel furiously scribbled in a spiral-bound notebook. He confessed that he had been writing it at night after going to bed.

More surprising and thrilling than receiving a gift from our son was this little tidbit: Connor has always been a reluctant writer. You could have knocked me over with a feather!

In that moment, I knew a deep, heartfelt satisfaction with classical homeschooling and silently thanked the Lord while tears of wonder and humility trickled down my cheeks.

As a preteen, Connor used to groan with dread every time I gave him a writing assignment. Somehow writing always fell to the bottom of his priority list; on Fridays when we reviewed what he had accomplished that week, I often found that the composition had barely been drafted. He certainly knew how to outline and organize an essay, add stylistic elements, and even develop a clincher title. For some reason, getting the words down on paper was such an effort. He would much rather tell me what was on his mind rather than write it down. Writing was such an unpleasant chore for him. Yet when I examined the handwritten pages of his first novel, the words seemed to flow from somewhere deep within his heart. He had a story to tell, and he couldn’t contain it.

What was the key that unlocked Connor’s “hidden author”?

Exposing Kids to the Written Word

Intensely compelling, this adventure novel with a hero and villain drew me in immediately. Abstract ideas of good and evil were key components of the story. The structure of the sentences was complex, and I was so proud of his quality adjectives and strong verbs! His plot line, though predictable, was fast-paced with surprises scattered in every chapter.

As I progressed through the pages, a nagging little thought began to creep into my mind. This novel sounded a whole lot like J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Brian Jacques, three of Connor’s favorite authors.

I was thunderstruck by this revelation. Something profound had happened over the years as Connor devoured book after book. He had begun to internalize the grammar as well as the literary elements inherent in the great literature that he was absorbing, and now he was imitating these men whom he admired.

Really, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. We all aspire to be like the people that we admire. Why should it be any different when writing?

About this same time, I read about a study initially commissioned by the U. S. Department of Education in the mid-1980s in which public, private, and homeschooled students were asked a battery of demographic questions before taking the writing achievement exam. Year after year, the D.O.E. study consistently draws the following conclusion: access to the written word improves writing scores. In fact, kids who have a variety of texts available in the home (books, magazines, newspapers) as well as access to the library score at least 13% higher on writing achievement tests.

Here’s the surprising twist that comes out of this study: writing doesn’t make better writers . . . reading does!

Examining the Written Word

So in some mysterious way, exposure to the written word is almost like catching a cold. Just like the little kid in the church nursery who catches a pesky cold from the other little kid with a sniffly, sneezy nose, your kids can “catch” the organization, English grammar, and literary elements necessary for either fiction or nonfiction writing.

But in my opinion, reading is not the only prescription for nurturing a budding writer. Not only do you consistently expose them to the written word, but you must examine the written word in methodic, repetitive detail.

My husband calls this a “close reading of the text,” and we use this method for analyzing the content of the text as well as for imitating the text. You could use workbooks or DVDs to teach writing, but using real books by accomplished authors has a more significant long-term impact, and like catching a cold, fundamental structure and style will be caught over time if you examine the text closely for how the author does what he does.

When you examine a text closely, you begin to see a clear formula beneath the words. Just as a child learns how to walk with baby steps, your journey in teaching writing should begin with the basic paragraph. Consistently teach and require the elements of the perfect paragraph, and soon they’ll be confidently writing their own novels.

What Is the “Perfect Paragraph”?

Before I tutor a student in writing, I ask for a sample of a past composition. Over the years, I consistently see the same thing: text that, upon first glance, looks like a paragraph in that it is indented and is about the “right” size, but what I’m really looking at are strings of unrelated words.

Imposters! Masquerading as units of thought, these samples are just units of words. It’s not that my writing students and their parents deliberately refuse my request; I’m come to realize that they genuinely don’t know the basic elements of the perfect paragraph. Instead of investing time in mastering the perfect paragraph, these kids have rushed ahead to write entire essays of free-flowing, random thought.

First, let’s define the paragraph in abstract terms as one complete thought.

Next let’s define the visual structure of the paragraph as “one or more sentences that contribute to that one thought.”

Visual structure can vary depending on whether the intent of the composition is expository (nonfiction) such as histories and biographies or creative (fiction) as in literary narratives.

Finally, the sentence itself has a structure and a style. I know that sounds so basic, but you wouldn’t believe how many writing samples I see that don’t even follow this fundamental formula:

  1. One thought
  2. Visual structure (expository v. creative)
  3. Variety of sentences

Take a close look at your child’s writing. Have you taught him this simple formula?

Now, you may be thinking, “Whoa, I need someone to show me how to execute a close reading of the text first.” Good! Let me illustrate this fundamental formula by dissecting three classic expository paragraphs from Thucydides (history), Washington Irving (biography), and Stephen Crane (journalism) and three classic creative paragraphs from Victor Hugo (historical fiction), George Macdonald (fantasy), and Emily Bronte (romance).

Dissecting the Expository Paragraph

In a close reading of the text, you can show your child how a nonfiction author uses the leading sentence to shape the direction of the idea.

First of all, this sentence tells the reader what the paragraph is about.

Secondly, it defines the size, structure, and tone of the idea.

Lastly, the lead sentence helps the writer focus on one idea at a time.

The supporting sentences should all point back to the main idea of the paragraph by adding evidentiary details, reasons, or examples to verify and substantiate the main idea. Transition words serve as connectors to help the reader jump from supporting idea to supporting idea.

Find the structure of the paragraph, too. Does the author compare? Does the author define or describe the idea? Does the author use chronological markers or steps to discuss his one idea? Does he build to a climax? Read the text closely, and look for clues about the author’s intent and how he chose to accomplish his goals.

Example from a history text

    “The same winter the Athenians, according to their ancient custom, solemnized a public funeral of the first slain in this war, in this manner. Having set up a tent, they put into it the bones of the dead three days before the funeral: and every one bringeth whatsoever he thinks good to his own. When the day comes of carrying them to their burial, certain cypress coffins are carried along in carts, for every tribe one, in which are the bones of the men of every tribe by themselves. There is likewise borne an empty hearse covered over, for such as appear not, nor were found amongst the rest when they were taken up. The funeral is accompanied by any that will , whether citizen or stranger; and the women of their kindred are also by at the burial, lamenting and mourning. Then they put them into a public monument, which standeth in the fairest suburbs of the city; in which place they have ever interred all that died in the wars, except those that were slain in the field of Marathon; who, because their virtue was thought extraordinary, were therefore buried thereright. And when the earth is thrown over them, some one thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity, chosen by the city, maketh an oration, wherein he giveth them such praises as are fit: which done, the company depart. And this is the form of that burial: and for the whole time of the war, whensoever there was occasion, they observed the same.” [The Second Book of the History of Thucydides, paragraph 34. From The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Moleworth, Bart.]

ANALYSIS As stated in the lead sentence, the custom and manner funeral for fallen Athenian soldiers is the main idea. Each of the remaining sentences supports the main idea with evidence: public display, offerings, procession, and the oration. In terms of structure, Thucydides uses a chronological order to explain his idea. Transition clues such as “three days before” and “after” carry the thought forward in time.

Example from a biography text

    “Lawrence Washington [George Washington’s older brother] had something of the old military spirit of the family, and circumstances soon called it into action. Spanish depredations on British commerce had recently provoked reprisals. Admiral Vernon, commander-in-chief in the West Indies, had accordingly captured Porto Bello, on the Isthmus of Darien. The Spaniards were preparing to revenge the blow; the French were fitting out ships to aid them. Troops were embarked in England for another campaign in the West Indies; a regiment of four battalions was to be raised in the colonies and sent to join them at Jamaica. There was a sudden outbreak of military ardor in the province; the sound of drum and fife was heard in the villages with the parade of recruiting parties. Lawrence Washington, now twenty-two years of age, caught the infection. He obtained a captain’s commission in the newly raised regiment, and embarked with it for the West Indies in 1740. He served in the joint expeditions of Admiral Vernon and General Wentworth, in the land forces commanded by the latter, and acquired the friendship and confidence of both of those officers. He was present at the siege of Carthagena, when it was bombarded by the fleet, and when the troops attempted to escalade the citadel. It was an ineffectual attack; the ships could not get near enough to throw their shells into the town, and the scaling ladders proved too short. That part of the attack, however, with which Lawrence was concerned, distinguished itself by its bravery. The troops sustained unflinching a destructive fire for several hours, and at length retired with honor, their small force having sustained a loss of about six hundred in killed and wounded.” [The Life of George Washington, Volume 1, Chapter 2; Washington Irving.]

ANALYSIS Again, the lead sentence announces the main thought of the paragraph: the martial spirit of George Washington’s older brother. Chronological passage of time is again employed to support the main idea of how his military ardor was first provoked and then demonstrated.

Example from journalism

    “As darkness came upon the waters, the Commodore was a broad, flaming path of blue and silver phosphorescence, and as her stout bow lunged at the great black waves she threw flashing, roaring cascades to either side. And all that was to be heard was the rhythmical and mighty pounding of the engines. Being an inexperienced filibuster [a gunrunner, in this case on an expedition to the Cuban rebels just before the Spanish American War of 1898], the writer had undergone considerable mental excitement since the starting of the ship, and in consequence he had not yet been to sleep and so I went to the first mate’s bunk to indulge myself in all the physical delights of holding one’s-self in bed. Every time the ship lurched I expected to be fired through a bulkhead, and it was neither amusing nor instructive to see in the dim light a certain accursed valise aiming itself at the top of my stomach with every lurch of the vessel.” [“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane]

ANALYSIS This paragraph is more casual than the previous two examples primarily because the author chose to narrate the idea in the first person (“I”). The ultimate doom of the ship is foreshadowed in the first sentence by words such as “flaming,” “lunged,” “flashing,” and “roaring.”

Dissecting the Creative Paragraph

Unlike expository paragraphs, creative (fiction) paragraphs often define the main idea without a lead sentence. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the sentences of a creative paragraph often have equal size and narrative weight. Sometimes creative paragraphs tell a story; often the sentences of a creative paragraph include dialogue.

Interestingly, the English word paragraph is a derivative of the Greek word paragraphos which, in Greek drama, indicated a change of speakers; therefore, when writing paragraphs of dialogue, a new paragraph is needed each time the speaker changes.

Like expository paragraphs, creative paragraphs comprise one thought, so start a new paragraph whenever a second main idea is introduced or when the point of view shifts.

Example from historical fiction

    “Born a Provencal, [the Bishop] easily familiarized himself with the dialect of the south. He said, ‘En be! moussu, ses sage?’ as in lower Languedoc; ‘Onte anaras passa?’ as in the Basses-Alpes; ‘Puerte un bouen moutu embe un bouen fromage grase,’ as in upper Dauphine. This pleased the people extremely, and contributed not a little to win him access to all spirits. He was perfectly at home in the thatched cottage and in the mountains. He understood how to say the grandest things in the most vulgar of idioms. As he spoke all tongues, he entered into all hearts.” [Les Misérables, Victor Hugo.]

ANALYSIS Like expository writing, this selection uses a lead sentence to set the stage for what is to come: the Bishop using his language skills to better relate to his flock in various parishes. A list of phrases in various dialects is provided to support the point.

Example from fantasy

    “A dense cloud came over the sun, and sank rapidly towards the earth. The cloud moved ‘all together,’ and yet the thousands of white flakes of which it was made up moved each for itself in ceaseless and rapid motion: those flakes were the wings of pigeons. Down swooped the birds upon the invaders; right in the face of man and horse they flew with swift-beating wings, blinding eyes and confounding brain. Horses reared and plunged and wheeled. All was at once in confusion. The men made frantic efforts to seize their tormentors, but not one could they touch; and they outdoubled them in numbers. Between every wild clutch came a peck of beak and a buffet of pinion in the face. . . . So mingled the feathered multitude in the grim game of war. It was a storm in which the wind was birds, and the sea men. And ever as each bird arrived at the rear of the enemy, it turned, ascended, and sped to the front to charge again.” [The Princess and Curdie, George Macdonald.]

ANALYSIS In order to assess this narrative paragraph, think of a jigsaw puzzle. All of the pieces or sentences equally contribute to the main idea: the birds swooping, horses rearing, the futile efforts of the men. The first sentence introduces the “cloud”; the following sentences explain what the “cloud” is; and all of the details communicate the thought that the birds are an unstoppable force of nature, as hard to fight as the wind or the waves.

Example from romance

    “What a noise for nothing!” I cried, though rather uneasy myself. “What a trifle scares you! It’s surely no great cause of alarm that Heathcliff should take a moonlight saunter on the moors, or even lie too sulky to speak to us in the hayloft. I’ll engage he’s lurking there. See if I don’t ferret him out!” [Nelly to Catherine from Wuthering Heights; Emily Bronte]

ANALYSIS Dialogue is the primary vehicle for communicating the main idea both before, within, and after this particular paragraph. Nelly responds to Catherine’s concern over Heathcliff’s absence with tense scolding. Vocabulary choice impacts the ominous mood: noise, uneasy, scares, alarm, sulky, lurking.

Dump those boring grammar and composition workbooks; use real authors! Select passages from literature, history, biographies, and nonfiction articles. Make a daily commitment to finding the elements. Make a photocopy, and have the child underline or highlight the required elements in one paragraph. Teach her how to spot the structure beneath the words. Look for the bones of the piece. Have him substitute words for the author and suggest new ways in which the author could have composed the thought. Work with one paragraph at a time until spotting the elements comes so naturally that you could stop in the middle of a favorite read-aloud book, and ask for identification of the elements.

Determining the Purpose of the Paragraph

Once the required elements are mastered, you can take any piece of good literature or quality nonfiction and dissect the text as a teaching tool. Before you ask your own child to write a paragraph, ask these three questions of the illustrative text:

  1. What is the author’s purpose?
  2. Who is the author’s audience?
  3. How did the author limit the idea?

As for purpose, the author has many choices. He could surprise, excite, humor, teach, inform, persuade, entertain, or demonstrate his idea.

Audiences can range from all ages like children to peers to adults, or the author could be writing to another expert. When your child starts writing her own paragraphs, she will write differently depending on the audience; for instance, an essay for a scholarship committee would be different from one written for an SAT-ACT test grader.

In terms of limiting the idea to one thought, show your child how the author restricts the focus with specific details or by classifying terms. Sometimes an author narrows through quantification or qualification of options; sometimes options are eliminated altogether. For instance, a narrow paragraph about livestock dogs might only talk about the driving dogs like collies and shelties and completely ignore other herders that guard livestock such as the Great Pyrenees breed.

Mastering the Classical Trivium

Kids who read excellent writing on a regular basis are more likely to become proficient writers; exposure to the written word eventually has an internalized accrual effect as humans aspire to rise to the level of their admired authors. Additionally, studies like the DOE report quantify the impact of exposure to text on improved writing achievement tests. Finally, kids who are systematically guided through a detailed examination of quality fiction and nonfiction have a distinct advantage over their peers who only use grammar and writing workbooks because, like investigators who search for clues as to solving a mystery, these kids go deep in search of the structure and style of good writing.

Make a commitment to read to your child every day, and examine the text closely. Before you know it, your teen will be writing the perfect paragraph as admiration and imitation shape his language, thought, and communication skills.

Who knows? He may even surprise you with an unexpected Christmas present!

Diane Lockman, author of Trivium Mastery, practiced nine years as a CPA before cheerfully coming home to be with Meredith and Connor until they were old enough for school. When Meredith was in first grade, Diane heard about homeschooling. She looked into it and a few weeks later, persuaded David to let her pull the kids out of school. Diane is the founder of The Classical Scholar (classicalscholar.com), a site for teaching other homeschool parents how to teach in the classical style. When she’s not reading, writing, managing the kids’ education, or teaching live classes, Diane enjoys sewing period costumes.

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