Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Rhetoric Moment: Well developed writing

Beefing up your paragraphs

When you write an essay, you need to provide sufficient supporting details to prove the point that you are making. If you don’t have enough details, your reader may not be able to figure out exactly what you mean. The same holds true for many types of writing. If all you have is a collection of broad, general ideas, you may have a picture inside your mind of what you mean, but your reader may form a totally different picture inside of her head.

Short paragraphs have their place. Carefully placed following several long paragraphs, a short paragraph packs a punch, giving special emphasis to the idea it presents. It makes the reader take notice. But if every single paragraph in your essay (or whatever else you are writing) is only one or two sentences, chances are you haven’t filled in enough details. You need to bulk up those wimpy, short paragraphs.

Let’s start with this very short one-sentence paragraph from a hypothetical essay reviewing a restaurant:

The service was crappy.

Faced with a paragraph like this, I would start by asking the student, “What do you mean by this?”

“Well,” the student might say, “it was, you know, crappy.”

“No, I don’t know. Can you tell what you mean by ‘crappy’? What did the server do that was crappy?”

“He took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had an attitude.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you know, an attitude.”

“No, I don’t know. Was it a happy attitude, or a sad attitude, or angry? How could you tell what kind of attitude he had?”

“He acted superior. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It’s like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.”

Here’s a beefed-up version of the student’s paragraph that makes use of these details:

The service was crappy. Our server took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had a superior attitude. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It was like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.

Now we have a stronger, brawnier paragraph that gives the reader a clear idea of how crappy the service was and in exactly what way. If you have lots of wimpy paragraphs in your writing, see if you can ask yourself the same sorts of questions to bring out the details. Or if you have trouble thinking of questions, try to find someone else who can help you. It doesn’t have to be a teacher or tutor, either. It could be a friend, family member, or classmate – anybody who can spot where you have a vague, general term that could use more explanation.

Here’s another activity you can try for developing a beefy paragraph. Start with the sentence, “As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a(n) ____ day”; fill in the blank with an adjective of your choice. The day in question can be any day in your life – today, or some important milestone date – or something completely made-up. Now, write at least ten sentences supporting that statement. If you get on a roll and find yourself going beyond ten sentences, that’s great; keep going! But you must produce at least ten sentences describing how your day began.

These exercises may seem very hard at first. It’s going to take some work to beef up those scrawny paragraphs. But Arnold didn’t get those muscles overnight either. He had to do a lot of work. As you work on your paragraph-building, your writing will gradually bulk up its muscles, too.

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Anonymous Jerry said...

As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a hell of a day. I slapped at the snooze button and got it on the third try, but it was too late. I was awake. Lovely. The coarse linen sheet stuck to my sweaty skin; it was barely morning and the sun was making Earth her bitch.
I sat up and dealt with the rumblings in my gut as I groped for the water bottle on the nightstand. A few delicious gulps washed away the feeling that my mouth had been used as an ashtray the night before.


By my count, I got to three sentences that address your challenge. It's a good challenge.

Sat Sep 03, 11:04:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

I count five, or maybe six, if you decide the one-word fragment counts. I think it should; it's a single word, but it is skillfully placed.

I've had some spectacular successes with this exercise in my writing classes. One time, a student wrote the most awesomely good description of a really bad hangover. Another time, a student cranked out 700 words in less than 10 minutes. Unfortunately, November was nearly over at the time, but I made the student promise to try NaNo next year, and now I use this exercise in October.

Sun Sep 04, 12:54:00 AM MDT  
Blogger JP said...

I recently saw a documentary about the writer genius that was P. G. Wodehouse and two quotes caught my eye.

Firstly Plum (as he was known) was able to write up to 8,000 words a day!!

Secondly he said the bit he really enjoyed was the re-write. Seriously - he enjoyed the re-write. That impressed me - someone who cares about each word in each sentence.

And it showed in every delightful simile or metaphor and every easily flowing paragraph.

A true pro.

Sun Sep 04, 05:31:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Tillerman said...


I am definitely one of those folk who writes lots of short, wimpy paragraphs.

I will try and do better.

I will follow some of your advice.

Maybe I can become a better write?

Sun Sep 04, 08:48:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Tillerman said...

As soon as I woke up I knew it was going to be a decaffeinated day.

Sun Sep 04, 10:05:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Wow. I didn't even make this an official writing challenge, but I've already got two entries! So I'm now making it official. Let's see what everybody else can come up with.

Sun Sep 04, 04:29:00 PM MDT  
Anonymous said...

cool photo, I am a big fan of arnie, I loved your last paragraph, very true!

Sun Sep 11, 06:41:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous vitamin D supplements said...

good old arnie, this was a great post carol!

Sun Sep 25, 03:41:00 PM MDT  
Anonymous Myspace Designers said...

As if that is Arnie, I hardly even recognised him! lol.
I used to be the person I looked up to as a child, it's amazing I haven't turned out muscular like him. I don't know how but I personally don't like it which is strange considering I grew up with it being so common.

Wed Sep 28, 05:16:00 AM MDT  

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