MET workshops

Approaches to effective paragraphing: the topic sentence revisited

John Bates, Tarragona, Spain

From the mid 19th century, paragraphing was often taught in schools — if at all — with particular reference to Alexander Bain’s six principles, set forth in English Composition and Rhetoric in 1866. Writers should begin paragraphs with a topic sentence, continue with supporting sentences and end with some sort of conclusion or transition. And, throughout, they should respect unity, coherence, and development. These principles laid the basis for classroom practice for many years, they were often regarded as being rules that had no exceptions and they spawned a series of aphorisms that put writers in an increasingly tighter straitjacket (for example, “Thou shalt not write a one-sentence paragraph”).

Bain’s model remained unchallenged until the 1960s when it was called into question for being too prescriptive. Among the criticisms levelled at it were that “real” writing rarely used topic sentences, that writers should focus more on reader expectations, and that students were often confused by the disjunction they perceived between the paragraphs they were asked to write in class and those that they read. Calls were made to revolutionize how paragraphing was taught.

Despite this vehement criticism, traditional paragraph theory is proving to be quite resistant to change, and it is still being reproduced in text books and taught in classrooms. Does it have some real value after all? This workshop intends to review the traditional tenets, examine their strengths and weaknesses in the light of recent criticism, and discuss alternative approaches. Some attention will also be paid to non-standard structures, transitions between paragraphs, and readers’ perception of discourse and how it can affect paragraphing.

Purpose: To raise awareness of those features of paragraphing that most contribute to effective communication.

Description and structure: This workshop will begin by reviewing the traditional approach to paragraphing and its fundamental principles (topic sentences, unity, coherence, etc) and then go on to evaluate some of the criticism levelled at this approach. This will be done through group discussion, exposition and practical examples. Attendees will also be asked to carry out some typical tasks designed to highlight particular features of the well-written paragraph.

Who should attend? Anyone involved in writing for professional or personal reasons, whether they be authors, translators, editors or teachers.

Outcomes: Participants will become aware of those features of the paragraph that best contribute to effective communication. They will be provided with criteria for producing effective, focused paragraphs that have optimum effect on the reader.

Pre-workshop information: You will probably get more out of the workshop if you are familiar with some of the fundamental terms and concepts of paragraphing theory. If you are not, try reading information on the following websites:
About the facilitator:

John Bates has been living in Tarragona for the last 25 years, ever since he graduated in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is now the head of the Language Service of the Rovira i Virgili University and responsible for organizing language courses and providing an editing and translation service in Catalan, Spanish and English for university staff.