The use of paragraphs is a critical tool in any type of nonfiction writing. In sequencing your paragraphs, you are giving the reader a roadmap to the organization of your ideas.
Think of a paragraph as a unit of thought. Because a new paragraph generally signals a shift in focus, readers expect to see an opening sentence that lets them know what the new paragraph is going to be about. Will it introduce another facet of the subject or develop one already introduced, or introduce a new topic altogether?
You might recall from your first English composition class that a sentence that announces the main point of the paragraph is called a topic sentence. It’s generally a good idea to put that sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. The rest of the sentences in the paragraph should then support the main point expressed in the topic sentence. Good topic sentences keep readers oriented and help them read and comprehend quickly.
Make sure that a given paragraph includes only the ideas and information covered by the topic sentence. If a sentence doesn’t relate directly to that topic, omit it, move it to another or new paragraph, or rewrite the topic sentence to broaden its scope.
Lawyers have a habit of introducing a new topic at the end of a paragraph. Avoid doing that. Help the reader out by making that sentence the topic sentence of the next paragraph.
Here’s an example of the problem, courtesy of Bryan Garner’s The Winning Brief (2014):
The attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications between a client and the client’s lawyer. (Evid. Code § 954.) Generally, a communication to a third party … is not privileged. (Id., § 952.) However, Evidence Code section 952 (defining a “confidential communication between client and lawyer”) specifies three exceptions to the general rule. (See § 952.)
The first exception is where the third party is “present to further the interest of the client in consultation.” (Id.) The second exception applies when the third party is one “to whom disclosure is reasonably necessary to transmit the information.” (Id.) The third exception applies when a lawyer must disclose information to accomplish “the purpose for which the lawyer is consulted.” (Id.)
Note how the last sentence of the first paragraph shifts the focus to “exceptions,” and the second paragraph merely lists them.
The attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications between a client and the client’s lawyer. (Evid. Code § 954.) Generally, a communication to a third party…is not privileged. (See id., § 952.)
But the Evidence Code specifies three exceptions to the general rule, each establishing when a third-party communication is privileged. (See id.) The first exception applies when … . The second exception applies when … . The third exception applies when … .
Check the integrity of a paragraph by following the advice of Richard Marius, author of A Writer’s Companion (1985). See if the initial, topic sentence “mentions something that is taken up by the second sentence, and see if the third sentence mentions something that was present” in the topic sentence, or in the second.
Finally, read through your topic sentences to make sure the paragraphs (and the point each makes) proceed in a logical fashion. The opening sentences, as Garner says, should “guide the reader through your argument.”
About the author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF