Writing the Perfect Paragraph
Dr. Peter M. Skaer
Over the last twenty five years or so, as a university professor, certified US State Department Foreign Service Institute Language Proficiency Test Examiner and Babel Corporation teacher and consultant, I have read and critically evaluated thousands upon thousands of paragraphs written in English by Japanese writers—at all levels of ability—from high school students to professionally trained authors and translators. Based on this experience, I have identified the top seven problems for Japanese writing paragraphs in English. These problems include:
- Article (determiner) Errors
- Overuse of the Passive Voice (a carry-over from the verb-final word order of Japanese)
- Wrong Word Choice (slight nuance inequalities, not one-to-one translated equivalents)
- No target audience assumed
- No clear purpose for the paragraph
- Lack of Cohesion (statements are good, but aren’t well linked)
- Conclusions usually Omitted
Not all of these problems, however, are directly related to writing a good paragraph—Articles, Passive Voice and Wrong Word Choice are really more grammatical issues than anything else—and are important at any level of writing, from the sentence on up to a lengthy document. However, No Target Audience, No Clear Purpose, Lack of Cohesion and Omitted Conclusions--four of the top seven problems for Japanese writers--are directly related to the paragraph level of writing, and thus will be the main focus of my attention in this discussion.
Let us consider a simple example here. Suppose you were asked to write a short descriptive paragraph. Let’s choose a subject that we all easily recognize, so that we can all “see” a mental image of the same general thing. For this task, I suggest describing a laptop computer. Here is an example of a typical description by a Japanese writer.
The computer is about the same size as an A4 size piece of paper. It is sometimes called a notebook computer, and can open up. When it is open you can see a screen and a keyboard. There is an “on” button and a touch pad. The computer runs on a battery. You can recharge the battery by plugging in the supplied electrical cord. I use my laptop to check my email. The laptop is good because it can be carried easily.
Although I have exaggerated a bit on the problems in this example for purposes of illustration, the above paragraph represents a very common style of writing that I see all the time—by working professionals. All sentences discuss a common topic. Each sentence is clear and grammatical. However, each sentence is relatively equal to every other. There is no real suggestion as to what the specific subject is, nor what the basic range of focus, or purpose, of the paragraph is. There are almost no links or transitions which tie one sentence to the next, and there is no development of a theme. The example then, is structurally NOT a paragraph, but simply a collection of sentences that are loosely related to a common theme.
As an exercise in description, there are many missing details as well. For example, what is the color of the computer? Is it thick or thin? How is the keyboard laid out? Where is the touchpad, and how big is it? Where is the “on” button? These and other questions are of course unanswered.
Also, WHY is this paragraph being written? WHO would benefit from such a description? Is it for someone who knows nothing about computers? If so, then the language and details should be adjusted accordingly. Students in particular frequently neglect to imagine why something should be written, and who might likely want to read it—they simply approach the task with the mindset that “The teacher asked me to do it, so I will do it”—unfortunately, this kind of insulated thinking seems to carry on past the classroom, as I see many professionals essentially taking this same effortless route.
Finally, in the poor paragraph example above, note that there is no conclusion, no final summation or review of the important points of the paragraph. All of these deficiencies are not necessarily always found together, in some cases we see just one of these shortcomings, in other cases, two or more, but in total, they represent the basic problems that are often seen in the writing of English paragraphs by non-native speakers.
Are cultural differences the cause of these problems? One of my online students in Babel’s Professional School of Translation recently wrote in one of her exercises (after being asked to compare English to Japanese writing with regards to the usefulness of Plain English), that
Clearly many English paragraphs by Japanese writers do suffer from ambiguous introductions as well, and just as clearly, the main bodies often seem to be both unfocused and incohesive. In fact, I only take exception to the above statement in that that there is usually no useful conclusion of any kind—in the Japanese-written English paragraphs at least—making for a very poor overall paragraph.
“Japanese sentences tend to start ambiguously, sometimes even with unrelated topics intentionally, and the conclusion comes at the end. It has a certain beauty of Japanese culture, however, in the workplace where professionals need to communicate in a short time, it’s not the best way to convey the message.”
While there isn’t enough time or space here to cover all of these issues, and how to correct them, let us at least consider what exactly is a “perfect paragraph,” so, if nothing else, the reader will have a better sense of what the goal looks like, in terms of writing a better paragraph.
Traditionally, a paragraph is thought to have three main parts; (1) an introduction, (2) a main body, and (3) a conclusion. I am sure most writers have been told this many times—and yet—as simple as this formula appears, it seems to be an elusive target at best. One basic reason for this is that, in fact, the formula is not as simple as it first appears. While all three of these basic components are critical to the overall success of the paragraph, they are often misunderstood or simply ignored. Further, I suggest that there is a fourth equally important component; the links, or transitions, which tie the ideas together into one cohesive structure. Let’s look at each of these four components to the “Perfect Paragraph” in detail.
- Introductory Statement
- Main Body
We begin of course with the introductory statement. A good paragraph begins with a statement that tells the reader exactly what the paragraph will be about—it tells us not only what the main subject is, but also some sort of limiting focus. Many Japanese writers get the first part right (stating the main subject) but often omit the second part (narrowing the range, or focus, of the subject). For a paragraph describing a laptop computer, then, we could have something like this:
I just bought a new laptop computer today, an Omegoid 200. Have you ever seen one before?
Notice that in fact there are two sentences used for the introduction—there is no set “rule” that all introductions have to be just one sentence. In this case, they introduce the main topic (“a new laptop”), they provide some information that narrows the focus (reference to the actual model, the “Omegoid 200”) AND they offer an idea of what the paragraph will focus on (a visual description, as suggested by the question, “Have you ever one before?”). Too often, writers simply state the main subject, but ignore issues about focus and/or purpose.
Most writers have problems with the second component, the Main Body, in which the fourth component, Transitions, also play a significant role. As for the Main Body, for Japanese writers, this usually contains well written sentences that relate to the topic, but often there is little order, and even more often, very little cohesion. Rather, the main body generally looks like a collection of separate statements, sometimes a list of independent facts, but rarely are they woven together into an integrated cohesive structure. So, the first thing to do is to establish some kind of ORDER. There are many possible types of order, among them, order by importance (least-to-most), by familiarity (general-to-specific), by time (by past-to-present-to-future), by space (from left-to-right, top-to-bottom, etc.) and so forth. Generally, a good order to use is by familiarity, from general-to-specific, or, from known-to-unknown. Start with what your audience recognizes (what they know), and then work towards what is new, or unknown. This order often underlies some of the other orders as well.
In the case of the laptop description, we can combine familiarity with spatial order, as spatial order (where things are) is particularly helpful when dealing with visual imagery.
Note that for this main body, we started from the general, or in this case the whole, and then, opened it up, and discussed each part, one at a time. We started at the top, looking at the main objects in order—first the monitor screen, then the keyboard, then the touch pad, and so forth. We used a kind of big-to-small approach, or from a different perspective, a most important-to-least important approach. We ended with a reference to the camera lens, which is back up at the top, but, because it is both small, and relatively minor in terms of the overall composition of the computer, we discussed it last.
- The Omegoid 200 is gray, made of plastic and is about the size of an A4-sized piece of paper, but about one inch thick. It weighs just over two pounds, and is quite easy to rest comfortably in your lap. When you open the lap top up, you will see a 3x7 rectangular screen on the upper interior panel, and a full QWERTY keyboard on the lower interior panel. This keyboard occupies the upper half of the bottom panel. Below the keyboard, in the center, is a small touch pad, about 2x2 inches, and below the pad are two rectangular click buttons. The interior surface is the same gray color as the exterior, but the keyboard contains black keys with English letters in white. Above the keyboard, in the left upper corner, is the “on” button. This button stands out from the rest because it is red. Next to the “on” button, and above the keyboard, is a long section of a kind of perforated screen. This screen is the laptop’s speaker. Finally, if you look at the top panel, centered above the monitor screen, you will see a tiny round hole. This hole is the camera lens, which can be used to take both still and video images.
Also, note how each sentence is linked, from one to the next. In some cases, the previous subject is mentioned again, as a point of reference, before moving to the next item being described. In a visual description, location is important, so there were plenty of words used to tell where something was, and often these moved from one identifiable location to the next, or nearest spot—all indicated by words to help the reader make the transition from one location to the next.
Further, it is important to point out that some information is NOT necessary in certain paragraphs. For example, this paragraph is a VISUAL description, so most references to things you don’t see should not be included. For example, in the poor paragraph example above, the references to the fact that the laptop uses a battery, and can be recharged using the supplied electrical cord are not visual references, and are not necessary here—they detract from the purpose of the message.
At this point, after the completion of the main body, many writers simply quit. They described their subject—they are done. However, as noted above, every “Perfect Paragraph” has some kind of conclusion. Often, this is simply a final signal to the reader that says, “We are done, we covered this topic.” This kind of conclusion is suitable for the kind of paragraph we are writing here, about the laptop. It should remind the reader about the main topic, and the main points, often providing a mirror image of the introductory statement(s).
So, as you can see, the Omegoid 200 is a small but fully equipped laptop computer—small and light enough to take anywhere—I look forward to using it.
In other cases, when one paragraph is just one of many, such as in an essay or a report, then the concluding statement has a second purpose, that of providing a bridge to the next paragraph. That, however, is a topic for another time.
In order to save space, I will not write the “Perfect Paragraph” out in full here, but you can do this at home—compare the first “poor example” on the laptop to the version we have presented here (assemble the three parts, written above)—which version gives you a better mental image of what the Omegoid 200 looks like?
In conclusion, you too can write a “Perfect Paragraph” by first understanding that a paragraph is a specific, concrete organizational unit, or formula—it has structure that includes a beginning (the Introductory Statement), a middle (the Main Body) and an end (the Conclusion) and is held together by Links and Transitions. If you force yourself to use this organizational unit, or writing formula, for EVERY paragraph you ever write, gradually, over time, you too will master the art of writing a Perfect Paragraph in English each and every time you write.
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