Saturday, September 15, 2018
For the speedy reader, paragraphs become a country the eye flies over looking for landmarks, reference points, airports, restrooms . . .
—William H. Gass
Years ago, I listened to a lecture by Dr. Brooks Landon, a well-known writing professor at the University of Iowa. The lecture was mostly about sentences, but about halfway through, Dr. Landon started talking about something else: the paragraph.
Honestly, I hadn't given paragraphs much thought before then. I knew that they shouldn't be too long, nor too short. I knew that each sentence within one should loosely relate to a single idea. And I knew that you indent the first sentence. I thought that was all there was to know.
Those are great starting points, but as I learned that day, there’s a lot more to it. Paragraphs are powerful. And how you choose to craft them will profoundly change not only the readability of your writing—but its persuasiveness, too.
To see why, think about what paragraphs are. Bryan Garner says that “[g]ood writers think of the paragraph—not the sentence—as the basic unit of thought.” I agree. I like to think of them as the smallest units of persuasion.
It takes some real inertia to persuade someone about a point. A word isn't going to do it. Nor is a sentence, no matter how pithy. But string a few sentences together that build on each other just right, and you can convince someone of a small idea. Persuade your reader about enough small ideas—layering one after the other—and boom, your reader is sold.
To leverage the power of the paragraph, I have two buckets of tools for you. The first is a set of basics that will ensure your paragraphs are always doing their job. The second includes more advanced techniques to power up your paragraphs to another level.
Toolbox 1: Paragraph basics.
- Most importantly, know that the easier you make it for your reader to figure out a paragraph’s single main point, the easier it will be for them to remember it and be persuaded.
After all, your legal document probably has a lot of paragraphs (read: lots of small ideas for your reader to keep clear in their mind). How many ideas can they hold in their head at the same time? Not many. But how about if those ideas are blurry, convoluted, or mixed up with other ideas? Fewer, to say the least.
So make sure each of your paragraphs have a single, easy-to-see and easy-to-digest idea. The best way to do that is to get meticulous about the beginning sentence or two of your paragraphs.
Everyone knows that you should start paragraphs with a topic sentence: A sentence that introduces your reader to the general topic of the paragraph. But good legal writers take this a step further and open with a thesis sentence: A sentence that captures the persuasive point of your paragraph, often by previewing key facts, words, or phrases from the paragraph’s meat. This tact has the added advantage of persuasively priming your reader for the detailed pitch coming in the rest of the paragraph.
This thesis sentence allows you to spoon feed the persuasive point of your paragraph in a single, easy-to-digest package. Legal writers often struggle with the introductions to their rule paragraphs in particular—diving straight into the dense details before giving the reader the persuasive point that the paragraph is trying to drive home. Good thesis sentences will help.
Look at how this Justice gets to the heart of a paragraph with a first sentence—and offers a brief mention of how this point fits into the document. You don't even need to keep going to get the point:
To begin, however, we reject any analogy between the NLRA—which is about process—and Title VII—which is about substance. [insert sentences detailing NLRA’s process focus and Title VII’s substantive focus].
You could imagine a blander topic sentence:
To begin, however, we reject any analogy between the NLRA and Title VII.
Or even worse, a first sentence that dives into the details without any preview at all:
In Park v. Hoffman, the court explained that the “procedures are many” when navigating the NLRA ...
What about if your paragraph has more than one main idea? That’s a problem. I like to tell my students: if a point is not important enough to build a paragraph around it, it probably isn’t worth wasting a busy judge’s time with that point. We legal writers don’t have the luxury of drowning our readers with ideas. We must pick the ones that really matter and make darned sure that those ideas are easy to find and easy to remember. And filling a paragraph with multiple ideas just dilutes each of them.
So if a point is worth making, use a cohesive paragraph to prove it. If you can’t write a cohesive paragraph around a single, identifiable point written out in a thesis sentence—then snip the whole thing.
One final aside on thesis sentences: sometimes you need to use the first sentence of a paragraph to transition from a prior paragraph or section. That’s fine. The real thesis sentence can be the second one (or part of the first sentence and leading into the second). The point is just to have an obvious, clear preview planted at the beginning of each paragraph.
- Give some thought to the length of your paragraphs.
Some folks offer concrete guidelines for how long a paragraph should be. I've seen all sorts of recommendations, from 3-4 sentences to as many as it takes to explain a point. But based on the bulk of authority and my review of lots of great writers, I suggest the following yardsticks.
Break up a paragraph if it goes on for much longer than half a page. When you approach page-long paragraphs, readers may be scared off. And let's be real: if your paragraph is that long, it’s probably hiding at least a couple big ideas and needs to be broken up with separate thesis sentences anyways.
Bryan Garner suggests an average of 150 words—which is a nice aim. As he points out, during the 20th century paragraphs shrunk considerably across the board, and readers are now comfortable with that style. Not to mention that cognitive science supports smaller, easier-to-digest points (which would suggest that smaller paragraphs are better).
3. A couple of other basics to keep in mind.
Aside from capturing the persuasive point, your initial sentence will often need to transition from the prior paragraph and lay out the organization for your coming paragraph.
And be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. If you shift subjects too much within the same paragraph, or use different tenses, like mixing present and past, or shift between plurals and singulars—these will all make your readers stumble.
Toolbox 2: Some more advanced tools that can make paragraphs particularly persuasive.
- Use care when picking which sentences to mix together in a paragraph.
Paragraphs are powerful for persuasive writers because they allow you to mix together component words and sentences to create ideas that are greater than the sum of their ingredients. It’s like a recipe. Put the wrong thing in the paragraph and the dish will be off.
Take these few sentences. Watch what happens to the ideas when I change nothing else but which paragraph pot the sentences are plopped into:
The defendant knew what he was doing when he shot the officers that day. He picked up his gun from his friend’s house before he left for work. He even made sure he had extra bullets stashed in his waistband. The defendant then arrived at the grocery store, gun drawn. He shot the teller three times. When officers approached him, he shot them, too.
The defendant knew what he was doing when he shot the officers that day. He picked up his gun from his friend’s house before he left for work. He even made sure he had extra bullets stashed in his waistband.
The defendant then arrived at the grocery store, gun drawn. He shot the teller three times. When officers approached him, he shot them, too.
It’s subtle, but by taking those last three sentences out of the first paragraph, you suddenly evoke two very different scenes. First, the preparation, building the suspense about what’s coming. Then the actual act. Playing around with which sentences go where can achieve tons of different effects.
- Vary your sentence length and structure within each paragraph.
Vary your paragraph length. Paragraphs create a cadence to your writing, just like sentences do. Varying your paragraph length (mostly shorter, some extra short, some a bit longer) will make your writing engaging and easier to follow.
Try to vary the sentence structures, too. Sprinkling in a semi-colon or em-dash sentence can increase readability. Just don’t overdo it. If a paragraph is full of complex constructions, it’s going to become dense reading. Just use a dash of punctuation spice.
- Craft your paragraphs with a sense about the places of emphasis.
Most folks agree that the beginning and end of your paragraphs are the most important. That is why it’s so important to craft that first thesis sentence persuasively to prime your reader.
But it’s also why you should put the important stuff in the last sentence or two as well. That’s what your reader will remember. So drop that crucial fact or pithy phrase right at the end.
- The short sentence punch.
You don’t want to use this one in every paragraph. But occasionally, when you really want your reader to slow down and pay attention, include an extra short sentence (even a fragment) to make a point unmissable.
An example is Justice Roberts’s famous short-sentence punch:
Substituting one decisionmaker for another may yield a different result, but not in any sense a more “correct” one. So too here.
- Burying bad stuff in the middle: primacy and recency.
The places-of-emphasis concept also suggests something else: that bad information should be pushed towards the paragraph’s middle. So when your paragraph is touching on some bad facts or bad law, move those points to the center sentences, if possible. That way your reader begins and ends with your more favorable ideas.
- Make sure that each of your paragraph’s sentences are tightly connected to each other.
Starting with the thesis sentence, each sentence should seamlessly connect to the next. Catherine Cameron and Lance Long’s book, The Science Behind the Art of Legal Writing, reviews the research showing that readers find it much easier to follow paragraphs if each sentence follows the next sequentially.
Walking through all the sorts of transitions you can use is too much for this article. But remember that for your readers, the links between each sentence are much more obvious to you than they are to them. Use transition phrases, echoed words or phrases, or pointing words (like “this plan” or “that test”) to make the links from sentence to sentence extra obvious.
- Finally, the occasional one-sentence paragraph is perfectly fine.
Bryan Garner, John Trimble, and others all say so. One-sentence paragraphs should probably be viewed as a finite resource: a tool to emphasize a point or two in a document, but not a technique to use frequently in the same document.
But they can pack a punch when used right.
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.