Paragraph Patterns

Jim LaBate
Nov 22, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

My youth was a difficult one. I am the only boy in our family, and I have five sisters: one older and four younger. I can vividly recall waking up on a summer day and coming downstairs to find practically all of them — and my mother — on the floor of the living room with large swatches of material and scissors. They were cutting the material and pinning it to white, odd-shaped sheets of lightweight paper. “Can I play too?” I asked, assuming that this activity had to be some kind of game or puzzle.

Every one of those females gave me an odd look, and once they explained what they were doing, I didn’t want to participate. Apparently, the odd shapes were designs for summer dresses that they were about to sew, and they were using these patterns to fit all the pieces together. Fortunately, even though I never did learn to sew, I acquired a valuable lesson from this experience: just as a seamstress can use a standard pattern to create an article of clothing, a writer can use a standard paragraph pattern to express his or her ideas.

According to the authors of The New McGraw-Hill Handbook (2007), most paragraphs fall into one of four basic patterns: chronological, spatial, general to specific, and specific to general (Maimon, et al., 69–71). Here’s an overview of each.

Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

The paragraph simply moves through a series of items in the order in which they occurred. For example, if you were describing a particular event, such as a lecture at school, you would begin with the official welcome and the introduction of the speaker, move to the main presentation, and conclude with the question-and-answer session that followed. If you were teaching someone to bake a particular dish, you would start with a list of ingredients, then explain how those ingredients are mixed together, and finish with the specific baking instructions. Finally, even if you are merely explaining your thoughts on a particular issue, you would probably walk your reader through the natural progression of those thoughts.

The paragraph is somewhat similar, but instead of providing a time sequence, the writer presents key details as a viewer might observe them. For instance, if you were describing the furniture in your living room, you might move from left to right or from right to left. If you were explaining the history of the faces on a totem pole, you would move from top to bottom or bottom to top. And if you were offering a tour of a circular building, you might move in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Whatever approach you choose, just make sure that it follows a logical pattern rather than jumping randomly from one point to another.

The pattern is probably the most commonly used pattern because it offers a strong topic sentence up front and follows with the particular details that support that main idea. For instance, if you feel your favorite football team is good enough to go to the Super Bowl, you would probably begin with a basic statement to that effect. Then, you would most likely back up that statement with sentences that include the names and accomplishments of the key players or with statistics that show the team’s overall superiority.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Finally, the approach would pretty much reverse that process. Fans of the New York Mets, for instance, might begin by announcing that two of their players recently won major awards. Next, they might announce that the Mets plan to re-sign all of their key veterans and also offer a free-agent contract to a front-line pitcher. Then, at the end of the paragraph, they might offer their main point that the Mets are the early favorite to win the next World Series.

Are any other paragraph patterns possible? Of course. Creative writers are always experimenting with new ways of expressing ideas or combining patterns for a special effect. But these four basic patterns will help you through most of your basic writing tasks until you feel confident enough to create a new pattern or special effect of your own.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +724K followers.

Jim LaBate

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Jim LaBate

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store