Manage what your readers think you mean with effective paragraphs

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TextBlob is Steven Loria’s Python library for processing textual data.

Paragraph construction affects whether — and how fast — readers get a writer’s intended meaning. But getting the visual units (white space surrounding lines of text) to match the semantic units (what linguists call “episodes” made up of sentences) in a message isn’t that easy. Research shows readers aren’t good at dividing a document back into the paragraphs originally produced by its writer. Pro workplace writers care about all of this because, once readers start organizing your content in ways you didn’t intend, you’re no longer in control of your message.

Paragraph unity is explained briefly in Chapter 7 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter which require you to break information into bite-sized chunks of semantically related content and craft effective topic sentences. Here are some additional resources to help you understand why paragraph construction matters and what you can do to use paragraphs effectively in your own documents:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video-tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

If you think you’re past worrying about anything as basic as paragraph construction, I encourage you to consider whether Michael Phelps thinks he’s beyond worrying about anything as basic as leg kicks. (Get a <4-minute explanation of my comment with 3 Lessons from Great Performers for Workplace Writers.)

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can make the resources more helpful to you.

Sample Document

Read this memo about health insurance plans, which I adapted based on a student’s response to an assignment in the 1999 textbook, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell.

  • Writer: one of the owners of a small company
  • Reader: the other owner
  • Bottom Line Message: a discussion of specific pros and cons for each of the two health insurance plans they are considering for their employees

Here’s a revised version of that memo, with more effective paragraph unity.

Video Tutorial

The health plans memo and other examples are included in this ~9-minute video about paragraph unity in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a few posts here at Pros Write that deal with effective organization using paragraphs in workplace documents. Just enter “paragraph” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, start with the following articles.

Bond, S. J., & Hayes, J. R. (1984). Cues people use to paragraph text. Research in the Teaching of English. 8, pp. 147-167.

Longacre. R. E. (1979). The paragraph as a grammatical unit. In T. Givon (Ed.). Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 12. Discourse and Syntax (pp. 115-134). New York:
Academic Press.

van Dijk, T.A. (1981). Episodes as units of discourse analysis. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing Discourse: Text and Talk (pp. 177-195). Georgetown: Georgetown University Press.

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