Previous month:
November 2018
Next month:
January 2019

December 2018

7 ways to produce powerful paragraphs



This is a pilcrow. It's the symbol used to mark paragraph breaks in old books and other documents. According to this article, the word comes from the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which led to the Old French paragraph. Somehow, the word transformed into the Middle English pylcrafte and eventually became the “pilcrow.”

You can find pilcrows on Word and other wordprocessing programs, if you know where to look - or if you press the wrong button.  But these days, the pilcrow itself tends to be rather shy.

Paragraphs, on the other hand, need to be easy to see. They show your reader that you've organised your thoughts - or at least, they give the visual promise of organised thinking. Faced with a page lacking any paragraph breaks, we're likely to give up reading before we even start. Make sure your paragraphs have plenty of white space around them.

Of course, you have to fulfil the visual promise. You should organise your thoughts into paragraphs. And the basic way to do that is to allocate one thought to each paragraph.

All the seven techniques we'll look at in this post develop that idea.

(The example paragraphs all come from reports written by the Scrutiny Team of the Greater London Authority. All of them are available publicly and they are all at least ten years old.)


1. Begin your paragraph with a topic sentence.

Topic sentences are the most powerful editing technique I know. They achieve so much with so little. Pay attention to your topic sentences and your writing will improve fast.

A topic sentence expresses the point you want to make in the paragraph. Everything in the paragraph must support or expand what you say in your topic sentence. Think of it as a signpost, telling your reader what you want to say at this point.


London controls little of its own money for spending on public services. Of the £57 billion that came into London’s public services in 2004-5, just £2.5 billion (4.4% of the total) was raised locally.  Between them, the boroughs and the Mayor spend some £20 billion annually, but around two-thirds of the total spent in London on public services is spent outside the scope and influence of local control.  A virtual ‘secret state’ provides the bulk of London’s public services.


2. Check that topic sentences make sense in order, and that they summarize the sequence.

Topic sentences outline the most important points in your text; when read in sequence, they should summarise the whole piece. As well as helping to keep your reader on track, topic sentences help you improve your text by forcing you to clarify what you want to say - and in what order.


All public spaces require some form of management.  If a space is to fulfil its role and remain accessible and inclusive, a management body must coordinate a number of tasks.  It must find sources of financial investment for the space, maintain the space physically, regulate its use and mediate conflicts of interest.  In the past, land owned or controlled by local councils, like parks or streets, was understood to be public, unlike private sites which were usually considered private property and not accessible to the general public (unless there was an actual public right of way).

Increasingly there is a blurring of once clear-cut lines between public and private areas of the city. Some commentators believe that the growth of ‘private-public’ space produces over-controlled, sterile places which tend to look the same and fail to connect with the local environment and community. They also raise questions about democracy and accountability and the displacement of social problems into neighbouring districts.

The main focus of the investigation is therefore on management and recognising the needs of different stakeholders. On land that is privately owned all powers lie, in principle, in private hands. Through the planning system the local authority can create and maintain a level of influence on any ’public’ space proposed on that land when dealt with at the outset, or ensure that it is managed in an acceptable way.


3. Identify the function of the paragraph.

Nearly all paragraphs in business writing do one of two things. They either persuade or explain. (Occasionally you may want to describe something - to paint a picture in words - or narrate a story.)

We can organise arguments in two main ways.

A deductive argument takes two (usually two) statements called premises and derives a conclusion from them. When you use a deductive pattern, the concluding sentence will restate your topic sentence, perhaps with some added detail.


[Topic sentence] The overriding challenge in inner London will be to improve recycling rates in flats and on estates. [Why?] [Premise 1] Flats account for around half of London’s housing stock. Most of these can be found in inner London boroughs. [Premise 2] Recycling and composting in flats and estates is low, typically around 10 per cent. [Conclusion] Increasing recycling in these properties is imperative if London’s average recycling rate is to improve.


An inductive argument states its conclusion up front and offers a range of different reasons to support it.In this example, the writer has signalled the different supporting reasons for the argument with bullet points.


There is a strong case for the Mayor to intervene in his role as the head of a strategic, city-wide authority, to reduce childhood obesity. [Why?]

  • Childhood obesity is a significant problem for London, occurring in every borough, with little evidence that the problem is being alleviated. High costs are incurred as a result of this, with a detrimental impact on the city’s economic development.
  • The Mayor has control of some important policy levers – and associated funding – that could be used to address obesity. These include his powers in relation to Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service and potentially the Royal Parks, his planning powers and strategic responsibility for health inequality.  It is anticipated the Mayor will chair the proposed London Health Improvement Board, which will oversee public health policy.
  • Some key obesity-reduction interventions – or elements of them – may be more effectively delivered at a city-wide rather than borough level. For instance, social marketing aimed at improving health may have more impact if it is applied throughout London.
  • The Mayor and GLA are well placed to influence negotiations with major private companies and other organizations that operate across London.
  • The Greater London Authority is well placed to evaluate any obesity-reduction interventions introduced in different parts of the city, and share best practice among partner organisations including boroughs and NHS commissioners.

We can use six patterns of explanation. If you can identify which pattern you want to use, you'll be able to organize your material more efficiently and effectively.



Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 


Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Cause and effect

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 


The proposed timetable is as follows:

  • Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April
  • Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April
  • Scoping brief to Members on 12 April
  • Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April
  • Written evidence received by 26 May
  • Evidence analysed and briefing prepared for Members by 5 July
  • Evidentiary Hearing 13 July
  • Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting


Obesity is defined, for adults, as having a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 30kg/m2, and overweight is having a BMI over 25.  For children, BMI is used differently.  A child is considered to be obese if they are in the 95th centile (the highest 5%) of the BMI scale, and overweight if they are in the 85th centile (the highest 15%).

Comparison and contrast

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   Availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. Some local people may not be able to access playing fields for a variety of reasons.


4.    Put at the start of the topic sentence an element from the previous paragraph; place at the end of the topic sentence the new element or information that you will become the theme of the paragraph.



5. Within the paragraph, identify the subjects and verbs of all sentences (and other clauses).

The most effective subjects act like characters in a story. (Imagine trying to draw a cartoon character of the noun you have chosen as the subject of a sentence.) The best main verbs express what those characters are doing in the story of the sentence.

In this example, the subjects are printed in bold and the verbs in italics. Some subjects work better than others as characters. The sentences in green are the least effective.


For the purpose of this investigation, the Committee has defined people with reduced mobility as people of all ages who use wheelchairs, have other disabilities or walking-related difficulties or travel with young children using buggies and prams.  It can be difficult to determine the exact number of people with reduced mobility.  The Committee has made the best estimate possible, in conjunction with the GLA Intelligence Unit, on information available.  The GLA Intelligence Unit has applied TfL findings on the percentages of people with a travel-related disability from 5 years old upwards to current and future population estimates to produce the data in this report. This also reflects the numbers of 0-1 year olds to provide for the number of Londoners using buggies and prams.  Further details about the data can be found at Appendix 1 of this report.


6.    Remove all references to the fact that you are writing.

I call this kind of writing ‘scaffolding’. I've marked it here in green.


This chapter considers the key challenges the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome in the near future.  The two overarching challenges we have identified are the increases in demand the LAS has experienced over recent years, which are expected to continue, and the need to become more efficient.

Remove the scaffolding and the text suddenly comes alive. You are now saying what you want to say to the reader.

In our view, the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome two major challenges in the near future.  On the one hand, the service, like the rest of the NHS, needs to deliver substantial increases in efficiency in the coming years.  On the other hand, demand for the service has increased in recent years, and will undoubtedly continue to increase.


Here's another example. The writer took two steps to remove the scaffolding completely.

It is important to note here the inclusion of both physical activity and diet in the explanation of obesity. 

Both physical activity and diet need to be considered to explain obesity.

Both physical activity and diet contribute to obesity.


Exception: at the end of an introduction, give a guided tour of the chapters to follow.

The next chapter of this report provides an overview of the performance of the LAS, based on targets the service is required to meet.  Chapter 3 then discusses the strategic challenges facing the service as it tries to maintain and improve its performance: managing increasing demand and generating efficiencies.  The following chapters then explore the relationships between the LAS and other parts of the health and emergency services.  Chapter 4 focuses on how the LAS works with partners within the NHS, and Chapter 5 does the same for the organisations in the GLA Group; both chapters seek to identify what the Mayor can do to support the LAS in strengthening these relationships, in order to meet strategic challenges the service faces.


7. Exploit opportunities to construct patterns within paragraphs.

One way to do so is to construct sequences of sentences in parallel.


This belief in “working long” strongly affects the economy and individual businesses.  Why do we have a “jobless recovery”?  Because, in part, employers are using record levels of overtime instead of hiring new workers.  Why are many companies – both failing and profitable – slashing their work forces by thousands?  Because, in part, they believe the road to profit is to be lean and mean, to push their employees harder and longer.


People often ask me how long a paragraph should be. There's no simple answer. Obviously, you could make your paragraphs too short or too long, but the circumstances will always be different.

In principle, I'd say that most paragraphs should include at least three sentences. The topic sentence summarizes, and it will do so more effectively if it is summarizing two other points (it doesn't make a great deal of sense for one idea to summarize one other idea.). And a working maximum might be six or seven sentences.

Look also at the length of your sentences. As a very rough guide, sentence length should increase as the paragraph goes on. So your topic sentence will probably be the shortest and the final sentence might be your longest. You could vary this pattern by closing with a short, punchy sentence.

If you find that a paragraph is too long, try splitting it up. Check that the paragraphs still make sense in order. Try to vary the length of paragraphs.

If a paragraph is too short, it may be because the initial idea has not been developed sufficiently. If you think that you need to develop an idea further, identify the pattern of explanation you might be using and develop it.

  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences

I run The Grammar Roadshow, a workshop exploring issues of grammar, punctuation and style. You can find an outline here.