If writing is critical part of how we earn our keep, we must know how to write effective, professional and readable paragraphs, since paragraphs – and not sentences, sections or chapters – are the basic units of a text.

As Prof. Johan Combrink notes in Hoe om paragawe te skryf (1) (translations mine), the ideal of professional writing is 100 percent communication, the first time. Likewise, good paragraphing is the primary tool that allows us to achieve this. Weak paragraphing, Combrink notes, has the same effect of sunglasses on the early light of dawn: it dims the possibilities of comprehension.

At school, college or university, we were required to write “essays” by means of “paragraphs”. However, it is unlikely that we were taught the gist or the concept of a paragraph. We might therefore not know the working definitions of a paragraph or what a great paragraph’s properties (as opposed to those of a bad one) are.

Generally, like writing, paragraphing is not something that comes naturally. The better we structure our paragraphs, the better we are communicating.

Bad paragraphs and mechanical paragraphs lead to weak communication, because they make things difficult for readers.

There is no simple definition of a paragraph. A paragraph is a specific type of “unity of thought” (Combrink, 2). Paragraphs can differ vastly in length, even in the same text. Many authors paragraph mechanically, according to length – for instance, every five, 10 or 15 sentences.

Paragraphs decrease the boredom and difficulty of reading paragraphs that just run on. They motivate readers to read the text as a whole, rather than put it down, dump it in the trash or fling it across the room in a flurry of expletives.

There are other key reasons for paragraphing (Combrink, 3). First, it is easier to grasp the whole if it is divided into smaller units. Second, a new paragraph that is properly thought through tells readers that a new thought is being communicated.

In Combrink’s working definition (5), a paragraph is generally a group of two or more thoughts that relate to a central thought. This central thought is generally expressed in a theme or topic sentence, while its compatriots are support sentences.

A paragraph’s topic thought and supporting thoughts must relate closely; they bust bind. Binding is the result of a strong thought connection between a topic sentence and its support sentences; this is also referred to as cohesion, i.e. the ease with which the support sentences link to the topic sentence.

When a reader is not aware of a leap between topic sentence A and support sentence B, between support sentence B and support sentence C, and between support sentence C and support sentence D, he or she is likely to say that the paragraph “reads fluently” (Combrink, 26). As a technical term, fluency is a characteristic of great paragraphs; what gives paragraphs internal fluency is the construct characteristic binding (Combrink, 27).

Fluency is also applied when the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B link so closely that the reader is not aware of any gaps between these thoughts. This type of fluency is also dependent on how an author binds paragraphs to one another (Combrink, 26).

Fluency relates to both content and form. In order to bind, a paragraph’s content must fulfill at least four content demands: relevance, order, coverage and economy (Combrink, 27-29).

Before including any thought in a paragraph, first see if you answer yes to these three questions (Combrink, 29):

  • Is this thought relevant to the topic or theme?
  • Is it in the best possible place in the paragraph?
  • Is the way it is written the most economical for the type of writing I am doing?

If so, you have binding of content, which is not (yet) the same as fluency, for which you also need binding of form (Combrink, 29).