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.
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
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
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,
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
First, let’s define the paragraph in abstract terms as one complete
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:
- One thought
- Visual structure (expository v. creative)
- Variety of sentences
Take a close look at your child’s writing. Have you taught him this
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
First of all, this sentence tells the reader what the paragraph is
Secondly, it defines the size, structure, and tone of the idea.
Lastly, the lead sentence helps the writer focus on one idea at a
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
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
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
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
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
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:
- What is the author’s purpose?
- Who is the author’s audience?
- 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
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
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.