How To Make Your Paragraphs Flow

This is part three of a five-part series.

Thus far in our exploration of the phenomenon of “writing that flows,” we have been working at the sentence-to-sentence level of flow.  We have considered the importance of establishing continuity between sentences and presenting plenty of details.  Our overriding concern has been for what our readers will need rather than what we as writers want.

Today, we are going to consider paragraph-to-paragraph flow.  We’ll use the same perspective we used to create sentences that flow together – what does the reader need? – but we’ll be looking at the piece from a higher altitude.  The following tips will help you look at each paragraph from your reader’s perspective; they can dramatically increase your writing’s flow.


Topic sentences can work like mini thesis statements.  The first sentence in a paragraph is often called the topic sentence, and it’s the most important sentence in the paragraph.  Take a look at the following example:

Topic sentences work like mini thesis statements.  Just like a thesis statement tells the reader what a paper’s overall argument is, topic sentences tell the reader what material the paragraph will cover and what the paragraph’s main point is.  The middle of the paragraph provides details and evidence in support of the topic sentence, and the topic sentence determines which details belong in the paragraph.  After reading the topic sentence, the reader knows what to expect; therefore, the reader is well prepared to understand and accept the writer’s claim.

As you can see from this example paragraph, the topic sentence reveals the material that the paragraph will cover and the claim the paragraph will make.  The rest of the paragraph supports that claim, explaining the ways in which topic sentences work like thesis statements and the relationship between the topic sentence and the sentences within the paragraph.  Everything in the paragraph flows from the topic sentence.

Topic sentences can act like logical signposts.  Topic sentences can indicate the paragraph’s function in relation to the rest of the paper’s paragraphs.  A writer accomplishes this in the same way he or she ensures continuity in any other sentence: the old/new contract, specific conjunctions, and clear referents.  (See the first post in this series for details on these three methods.)

Remember when you’re doing this, however, that a topic sentence has more responsibility than a regular sentence does.  A topic sentence must help to illuminate the paper’s larger-scale organizational strategy.

Topic sentences receive the lion’s share of the attention when it comes to discussions of paragraph-to-paragraph flow.  However, the last sentence in the paragraph, which I call the wrap-up sentence, is almost as important.

Wrap-up sentences should remind the reader of the paragraph’s goal.  As you begin to write wrap-up sentences, you may simply echo the content of the topic sentence with a little variation.  However, as you get better at writing them, you’ll be able to use the wrap-up sentence to make clear the conclusions you want the reader to get from the paragraph.

The distinction between a wrap-up sentence that concludes the paragraph’s point and one that merely restates the topic sentence is a fine line, but it is an important one, nonetheless.  Consider the topic sentence like a proposition: you are proposing an idea to the reader.  The middle section of the paragraph explains the proposition in detail, offering evidence and support in favor of it.  But neither of these preceding sections has actually asserted the proposition’s validity explicitly.  That is the wrap-up sentence’s job.

I’ll reprint the example I used above: this time, take a look at how the wrap-up sentence relates to the topic sentence without directly echoing it.

Topic sentences work like mini thesis statements.  Just like a thesis statement tells the reader what a paper’s overall argument is, topic sentences tell the reader what material the paragraph will cover and what the paragraph’s main point is.  The middle of the paragraph provides details and evidence in support of the topic sentence, and the topic sentence determines which details belong in the paragraph.  After reading the topic sentence, the reader knows what to expect; therefore, the reader is well prepared to understand and accept the writer’s claim.

Wrap-up sentences should NOT begin to discuss the next paragraph’s content.  I think this happens, paradoxically, because a writer wants to make the paragraphs flow but doesn’t know how to approach it.  This is a flow killer, for sure.

I’ll explain why.  A paragraph is a discrete unit of meaning: that is why writers divide text into paragraphs in the first place.  By tacking a new topic onto the end of a paragraph, the writer is violating the purpose of using paragraphs in the first place.  The reader understands the convention of using paragraphs to organize the text; consequently, the writer is betraying the reader’s expectations by pasting a new point onto a paragraph’s end.

Sure, it may be easier for the writer to do it that way.  Tacking the new topic onto the preceding paragraph seems like a recipe for instant paragraph transition.  After all, it’s difficult to write solid topic sentences and wrap-up sentences.  They have to work harder than normal sentences, so they’re harder to construct.    But don’t be fooled:  topic sentences and wrap-up sentences are not just more difficult – they’re also more important than normal sentences.  Screwing them up damages your writing’s flow more than a choppy mid-paragraph sentence does.

There you have it – three things to do (and one to avoid) to make those paragraphs flow together elegantly and coherently.

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