Paragraphing is an important technique in journalistic writing, perhaps more important than in other forms of writing. The purpose of paragraphs is to break up an article into its logical divisions so that readers can easily grasp the structure and thought. If we did not divide articles into paragraphs, we would find fleshing out a story idea difficult and time-consuming. A lapse of attention causes distraction, even if only for a moment. The visible outline of steps and divisions in writing is necessary to flesh out the idea.
Before you can divide an article into paragraphs on this basis, you must divide its content logically into parts and steps. This usually presents an obstacle. Bad paragraphing usually results from arranging material lazily and loosely. A well-arranged article falls into paragraphs very naturally and requires no additional attention. You will quickly learn that you cannot ill-arrange content into paragraphs logically. Before attacking the paragraph problem, let’s briefly study how you can plan and arrange the
The Planning Phase
The first step in any writing is to create a preliminary plan or outline of the material, or else you will create an article lacking form and meaning. No journalistic writing misses this important step. The writer may not always place the outline on paper or in a computer, but he works it out in his mind.
Creating an outline is simple because it follows logical thinking. You do not have to follow a detailed formula. The problem is simply collecting the facts and details that compose the article. In arranging them, aim both to make their relations clear and to emphasize the most important points.
The first step is to separate the material into its main divisions—to make a list of the main subjects that you will discuss. Then, one by one, subdivide these main divisions into their sub-parts; on the outline this appears as a list of subheads under each of the main heads. You may need to divide these subdivisions into their own subdivisions. The finished outline is a list of divisions, subdivisions, and sub-subdivisions, etc., that help you see the relations clear. In some articles each item may only contain a word; in others each item may contain a sentence.
Sample Outline—The following is an outline of an article that analyzes how different students enroll into a state university. The lettering and numbering simply assist in making relations clear: [ click here to view sample ].
The above is an outline of an expository article. To show how you might arrange material for a news story, we can follow this type of layout: [ click here to view sample ].
Once you have constructed the outline, paragraphing takes care of itself. The outlining will divide the material into units, and each block becomes a paragraph. If the article is short and simple, each main division (A, B, C, D, above) may make a paragraph. Each subdivision (1, 2, 3, 4) will become a sentence. If the article is long and detailed, the numbered subdivisions may need paragraphing.
Such an arrangement is the basis of unity. Each paragraph, like each sentence, becomes a unit, or block, which contains a single phase of the subject. If you arrange your material thoughtfully, you can make these units almost equal in size and the paragraphs similar in lengths.
In journalistic writing this blocking out often aims to make each paragraph so self-sufficient that you can shift the paragraphs to bring certain subjects nearer the beginning and to alter the emphasis. Whether or not such is the purpose, no writing is good unless you can carefully block it out; the hit-or-miss, conglomerate arrangement that you may see in some news articles is a sign of carelessness.
Importance of Length
Paragraphs in journalistic writing are usually shorter than paragraphs in other kinds of writing. To prove this, one need only count the words in an ordinary literary paragraph and in a news paragraph. You will find that the literary paragraph averages more than 150 words and is often 250 words long. In news pieces the average length is about 75 words. There are two reasons for this:
(1) While the journalist writes he is continually thinking of the appearance of his writing in print and wishes to give it an interesting “look.” Short paragraphs “look” more interesting because they afford more breaks in the solid type matter.
(2) The journalist is usually writing for a publication whose columns are very narrow, and the narrowness stretches his short paragraphs to appear much longer than they really are.
You can create shorter paragraphs in news writing–not by haphazardly beginning a new paragraph more often– by using a systematic method that I used above. The only difference is that you select smaller units.
Adding Emphasis to Stir Interest
The “beginning” and “end” of a paragraph are its most emphatic parts. Moreover, in journalistic writing, editors consider the beginning more emphatic than the end. But what is the most important sentence or part in the paragraph? Fortunately this is easy to decide: every well-written paragraph always has one sentence, known as the topic-sentence, which sums up the content of the paragraph. This topic-sentence is the one that you emphasize. Literary writers and essayists gradually lead up to the topic sentence and place it at the end. Journalists usually place it at the beginning and devote the rest of the paragraph to explaining it, since it is always the journalist’s custom to begin with the most important information first and to give details later.