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.
The chronological 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 spatial 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 general-to-specific 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.
Finally, the specific-to-general 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.
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