Use paragraphs to organize information

Generally, keep paragraphs short.

Use paragraphs to create blocks of thought in your reports. When you start a new thought, break for a new paragraph. If a fact is very important, place it in its own paragraph.

Shorter, factual e‑mails, letters, and memos will have more paragraphs of one to three lines. Try not to go beyond five lines and rarely go to seven lines. Longer, explanatory reports should have paragraphs of seven lines. When you reach seven lines of text, look to see whether you have changed ideas in the paragraph. If so, break there.

Don't be afraid of one-sentence paragraphs. They are very appropriate for reports. However, if you have a series of one-sentence paragraphs, the paragraphs won't help the reader organize your thoughts. Every new paragraph will seem disjointed.

Include a transition at the beginning of the paragraph when you can.

If you do not have a sentence opening the block at the beginning of the paragraph, try to use a transition. A transition tells the reader how this paragraph fits in with the previous:

  1. It is a new idea.
  2. It adds to the previous.
  3. It contrasts with the previous.
  4. It gives an example.
  5. It compares a new idea with the previous.
  6. It provides corroborating information.
  7. It summarizes or concludes.

The reader is then able to fit the new information with the previous. Without the transition, the reader would have to guess at the relationship or read all the text and figure out the relationship for himself or herself.

Some transition words and their meanings follow:

  1. I am going to add to the previous ideas or continue the explanation
    1. in addition
    2. also
    3. moreover
    4. then
    5. added to that
    6. too
    7. besides
    8. furthermore
  2. I am going to restate to make the ideas clearer.
    1. in other words
    2. another way to say it is
    3. that means
  3. I am going to use an example to make the ideas clearer.
    1. for example
    2. to illustrate
    3. for instance
    4. specifically
    5. namely
  4. I am going to compare one idea or concept with another.
    1. by comparison
    2. in the same way
    3. similarly
    4. likewise
    5. another similar
  5. I am going to show an opposing viewpoint or contrast the ideas.
    1. on the other hand
    2. yet
    3. however
    4. nevertheless
    5. nonetheless
    6. at the same time
    7. in contrast
    8. but
    9. conversely
    10. still
  6. I am going to concede or agree.
    1. it is true
    2. of course
    3. granted
    4. certainly
    5. to be sure
  7. I am going to summarize.
    1. in summary
    2. in short
    3. in brief
    4. hence
  8. I am going to conclude.
    1. the result
    2. as a result
    3. in conclusion
    4. therefore
    5. accordingly
  9. I am going to go on to another issue or point .
    1. still
    2. meanwhile
    3. another

Link sentences and link paragraphs.

Every sentence should contain an implicit or explicit link to the previous sentence. An implicit link means the second sentence flows naturally from the first. An explicit link means you provide a transition from the first to the second or a reference to the first in the second. Examples of the links follow.

Implicit link

The second sentence flows naturally from the first without an explicit link:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to make some changes.

Explicit link

An explicit link uses a transition or refers to the content of the first sentence. In this example, the second sentence contains a transition at the beginning:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. As a result, we need to make some changes.

Another way of linking the sentences follows. The second sentence contains a reference to the contents of the first:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to change the proposal to fit the client's requirements.

You must be sure that the sentences are linked implicitly, as a natural flow from one to the next, or that you include an explicit link. Always err on the side of having too explicit a link. Include an explicit link unless it seems out of place. "They'll get the idea" isn't good enough.

This sample has no implicit or explicit link:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. I would like to see clearer rationale and budget sections.

The reader is left wondering whether there is one issue or three issues. The one issue would be that the client's requirements were not followed in the rationale and budget sections. The second interpretation is that the client's concerns and writers desire for clearer sections are different. That would make three issues: (1) the proposal doesn't follow the format; (2) in addition, the writer wants a clearer rationale; and (3) the writer also wants a clearer budget section.

The writer needs explicit links to make the relationships clear. This revision assumes there is one issue, the client's requirements:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. To follow the client's requirements, we need to write clearer rationale and budget sections.

This revision assumes there are three issues:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn't follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to revise the proposal to follow the client's requirements and, in addition, write clearer rationale and budget sections.

Include only one idea in each paragraph or show the clear development from one idea to another.

Limit paragraphs to one idea. That one idea may be a development from the opening concept to the conclusion at the end. When you seem to be changing ideas, decide whether the second idea fits in the same paragraph with the first. If the reader needs to see the ideas as a close unit or you are developing the paragraph from the opening concept to a conclusion, you may keep them together. Otherwise, if a new idea is clearly different, break for a new paragraph to separate them.

As you look at your paragraphs, identify each with a name that states the topic in a few words. If you see more than one idea, decide whether you have two concepts that should be separated or whether you are building to a conclusion by starting with one concept and developing to the next.

Look at the key words in the first sentence and the key words in the last sentence. If they are different, you may have more than one idea in the paragraph.

Example

An example paragraph follows. State the concept of the paragraph in a few words.

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital's service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

This is the "economic gap" paragraph. The writer stays with that theme through the three sentences: the "healthcare crisis is intensifying" sentence, the "rising medical and insurance costs" sentence, and the "economic gap" sentence that is the conclusion. The three sentences fit in the "economic gap" subject.

Now look at this paragraph that follows the example above. State the concept of the paragraph in a few words again, as you did with the first example.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. Disparities in healthcare reported by the Maryland Department of Health in 2018 show that for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.

The first sentence seems to indicate that this is the "population diversity" paragraph. However, the second sentence doesn't fit that. It is a "higher rates of health issues" concept. The writer would have to decide whether they are two different concepts requiring two different paragraphs or whether she is building toward a conclusion. If the writer is building toward a conclusion, she must take the reader along. That requires a transition from the "population diversity" sentence to the "higher rates of health issues" concept.

This transition would take care of the problem:

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. This diversity in population results in more residents having health issues because, as a Maryland Department of Health study in 2018 showed, for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.

The transition in red shows how the "diversity" sentence fits with the "higher rates of health issues" sentence. Now the paragraph is unified.

Use the same technique to find out whether the paragraphs fit with each other. State the key concepts in a few words. Then see whether the author has made clear transitions from one concept to the next. You should see the key words appearing to make the transition.

These are the same two paragraphs together as they appeared in the original draft. You've already identified the ideas in the two paragraphs using a few words for each. Now we're going to use those words to decide how to bring the two paragraphs together so they develop the thought clearly.

As you read the two paragraphs, remind yourself of the words that describe the contents of the first and the two sets of words that describe the two concepts in the second. We'll use them to draw all the concepts together.

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital's service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. Disparities in healthcare reported by the Maryland Department of Health in 2018 show that for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.

The first paragraph is the "economic gap" paragraph. It is fine as it is. The second paragraph is the divided "diversity" and "health issues" paragraph that needs a clear transition to show the development. When we look at the concepts in a few words like this, it is clear that the first paragraph doesn't fit clearly with the second. To make them fit, the author needs to carry the key words from the first paragraph to the second and show how the "economic gap" fits with "diversity" and "health issues." This is one possible rewrite:

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital's service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. This diversity in population results in more residents experiencing the economic gap because the diverse groups have more health issues. A Maryland Department of Health study in 2018 showed that, for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.

Now the paragraphs are unified and fit together. The key words "economic gap" appear in the first paragraph and are repeated in the second. The second sentence of the second paragraph begins with "This diversity," linking the second sentence with the first. The final sentence of the second paragraph then fits naturally as a demonstration of the statements made in the second sentence.

Use this technique to make your paragraphs unified and to join the concepts in the paragraphs:

  1. State the central idea of the paragraph in a few words.
  2. Decide whether to break the paragraph to devote each paragraph to one central idea or to develop one central idea.
  3. Look for the key words at the beginning and end of the paragraph to help you see whether the paragraph is focused on one idea.
  4. Then look at the key words of the paragraphs to see whether the ideas are related to one another. You should see those key words appearing between paragraphs to help the reader follow the train of thought.
  5. Add transitions as necessary to make the train of thought clear.

Example

To see an example of a memo that is dense because it has no paragraphs and a revision that improves it, click on the "Example" button below. The information will appear in a new window. Close the new window when you're finished looking at the examples.

Example

 



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