Break it up, Break it Down: Paragraphing Strategies for College Essays

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Some of us fill a page with a wall of words, with no paragraph indentations, no transitions, and no clearly defined topic sentences. Some of us have the appropriate indentations, but within each paragraph our sentences are out of order. Francis Christensen [1] devised a brilliant trick for paragraphing, one you can use at (and not before) the revising stage:

First, let's imagine we are creating a couple of "outlines" for paragraphs about places in the world. [2] Fill in the blanks for the two paragraphs below, by pretending each word or phrase is a sentence, with the first word (1) the topic sentence:


.....(2) COUNTRY___USA______ (2) COUNTRY____________

........(3) CITY___San Francisco__ (3) CITY_____________

..........(4) STREET__Haight______ (4) STREET___________

.............(5) BUSINESS_Amoeba Music_ (5) BUSINESS______

For this paragraph, we can see how each entry (sentence) refers back to (1), but is also a more specific reference to the place directly before it. So the sequence is tight/orderly.

But what if we tried to put another (2) next in this sequence, after the (5)? Would bringing in another country in the city, on the street, and at the business there work logically for our reader? Or would it throw our reader?

It would throw our reader.

So we need to start a new paragraph, a new (1), an ALSO/BESIDES/IN ADDITION.... For, this paragraph is of the kind Christensen calls the SUBORDINATE PARAGRAPH, and it must have an order and sub order of 1, 2, 3, 4, .... It cannot have 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, and it cannot have a 1, 5, 2, 3, 4 order.

***** SUBORDINATE paragraphs are good for telling stories, showing a process (or how-to) order, or moving from general to specific descriptions. They are one of three types of paragraphs in the writing world.*****

This brings us, then, to the next type of paragraphing. Fill in each of the blanks below with a phrase:

(1) What is truth?

(2) Truth is_____________________________________.

(2) It is________________________________________.

(2) It is________________________________________.

For this kind of paragraph, called a COORDINATE PARAGRAPH, each sentence that follows the topic sentence--the (1)--cooperates with the others to define and redefine a term or terms. Once you complete your own statements defining truth, note how musical, poetic, or symmetrical (matching) the paragraph is because of the effective repetition.

***** COORDINATE paragraphs are good for--as you likely guessed--definitions, reinforcing meaning in a delivered point, and re-defining a topic.*****

This brings us to the last of the paragraphing types, called the MIXED PARAGRAPH. This includes all other logical and reinforcing paragraphs that contain a combination of the SUBORDINATE and the COORDINATE, while it still keeps order. That is, for example, it can be a 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, pattern, but should not have a new 1 thrown in or an oddly placed sentence like another 2 after the 3, 3, 3, part.

To clarify and to try the numbering on already written paragraphs (if, for example, you draft first and then check order second), let's look at the following. Try to decipher the numbering pattern in each:


___I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. ___I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered; and only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. ___I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. --from Dr. Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dec. 10, 1964 [3]

The above is a sample of a _____________________paragraph.


___There's nothing quite so risky as a parody movie. ___Some of them work out wonderfully, and examples like "Blazing Saddles" and "Airplane!" are two of the funniest movies ever made. ___On the other hand, sometimes you get examples like "High School High," the new film starring Jon Lovitz and Tia Carrere. ___It's supposed to be a spoof of the "Dangerous Minds" type of movie, where a teacher comes into an inner city high school and changes everything around. ___Lovitz plays a teacher named Richard Clark -- get it, Dick Clark? -- who quits his job at a posh private school and takes a position at the worst public high school in the district, Marion Berry High. ___He meets the beautiful administrative assistant, played by Carrere, and the hard-nosed principal, played by Louise Fletcher. ___Yes, former Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher. Can you say, "tragic waste of talent"? I knew you could.... --from Alex Lau's Movie Magazine International review, October, 1996

The above is a sample of a _____________________paragraph.


___Technically, Carlito's Way is a combination of the innovative and the banal. ___The camerawork is invigorating, if sometimes too exotic. ___DePalma makes good use of the steadicam during the chase sequences, and this heightens whatever tension is present. ___Jellybean Benitez, a former DJ and club manager, is the music supervisor, and his choice of about a dozen mid-seventies hits helps to establish the time-frame. ___Patrick Doyle's score, however, is horribly out-of-place.... --from James Berardinelli's Colossus review, 1993

The above is a sample of a _____________________paragraph.


___Describing Tupac.... ___Shit, he was real. ___I'ma be real for a minute, because I can't describe someone so real without being real myself: [Tupac] was everything and nothing. ___He was dreamful, hopeful, a leader, a rebel, a thug, a friend, a role model. ___Just everything he did was, as Tupac once said, "a calculated step to bring me closer to my death." ___He was the hip hop Jesus. --from Luis Camacho's journal entry, June 16, 2004

The above is a sample of a _____________________paragraph.

What kind of paragraph do you find A is? If you see it as a COORDINATE, you are absolutely right!

How about B? Yep, a (well-written) SUBORDINATE.

My students are divided on C, with general consensus seeing it as either a COORDINATE, with each sentence after the first reinforcing the writer's topic sentence or as a MIXED, with the final sentence (a 3)---or?possible a new 1?

And paragraph D? Looks like a rich MIX of details, doesn't it? And the writer of D hadn't yet done this paragraphing experiment!

End Notes

[1] Christensen, Francis. A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph. CCC 16 (October 1965).

[2] This part of the experiment is a modified version of that used in Graduate Composition Teaching courses taught by Deborah Swanson at SFSU.

[3] All paragraph samples taken from and/or modified for English 880, Skyline College, San Bruno, CA. Passage D is a selected piece written by a student who has granted his permission for my use of it here and elsewhere. RM.

N.H.-born prize-winning poet, creative nonfiction writer, memoirist, and award-winning Assoc. Prof. of English, Roxanne is also web content and freelance writer/founder of, a support site for academic, memoir, mental disability, and creative writers who need a nudge, a nod, or just ideas?of which Roxanne has 1,000s, so do stop in for a visit, as this sentence can't possibly get any longer??.

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