5 Professional Paragraph Writing Tips for First-Time Authors
The paragraph writing tips below will make the difference between a nonfiction book that’s a joy to read and one that’s unreadable.
If your book is the building and your chapters are the floors, your paragraphs are the bricks. With strong bricks your building will stand on its own, but if they’re weak your building will collapse under its own weight.
What makes one paragraph strong and another weak? Before we go into the details, such as overuse of adverbs, over-writing, multiple main ideas and so on, we first need to define what a paragraph is.
Academically speaking, a paragraph is a unit of writing that is composed of a beginning, where you introduce your main idea, a middle, where you expand on it, and an end, where you summarize it and transition to the next paragraph.
If you go below the surface mechanics, however, a paragraph is much subtler than that. At face value a paragraph is a unit of writing. But at a deeper level a paragraph is a unit of thought.
The reason you’re writing your nonfiction book is to communicate your thoughts to your reader in order to help them solve a problem. Yes, you’re making use of writing as your medium, but the essence of your writing is a thought.
When you write, you’re creating a mind-to-mind connection between you and your reader. As you transfer your thoughts through your words, your writing becomes the bridge. If your paragraphs are well written, your thoughts will flow effortlessly between your mind and your reader’s mind. Reading then becomes enjoyable as you fill their minds with ideas that will enhance their lives.
But if your paragraphs are poorly written, then they turn into thought “blockers” and you’ll fail to communicate effectively. This is when reading becomes drudgery – remember your school textbooks that used to put you to sleep?
In order to transfer your thoughts clearly, let me share the 5 essential paragraph writing tips that you’ll need to craft a compelling nonfiction book.
Tip #1: Write The Way Your Readers Think
We know that writing is a vehicle to transfer your thoughts to the minds of your readers. It makes sense, then, that to communicate effectively you have to write the same way your readers think.
How you do this will depend on your audience. Let me explain by using some examples.
The average reader is more likely to think “I have to start my essay” rather than “I have to initiate my essay,” so use “start” in your writing. Similarly, they’re more likely to think “I need to add protein to my diet” rather than “I need to incorporate protein into my diet” so use “add” in your writing.
Whenever you’re writing and you feel the temptation to use “elegant” words that’ll make your writing appear smarter, ask yourself this question: would my readers think this way?
Now, this is not to say that your writing should always err for the “simple” as its lowest common denominator. Perhaps your audience is made up of specialized people that naturally “think” using more complex words.
For instance, if you’re writing a book for professional traders, they’ll likely think using specialized terms that may not be comprehensible to the average reader. In this case, using simple words may result in loss of credibility.
Tip #2: Don’t Write for the Sake of Writing
Don’t write more than you need to express a single thought or main idea – in other words, don’t write to fill empty space. Once you’ve made your point, move on. Don’t restate your main paragraph’s idea multiple times in different ways.
Make sure that every sentence in your paragraph has a purpose. Avoid “word stuffing”, because it’ll make your readers run for the hills. The minute your paragraph starts to lose meaning for your readers your connection will be cut off. They’ll stop reading your book and move on to something else.
To avoid falling into this trap, make a concerted effort to stick to your paragraph’s main topic as you write.
Tip #3: Use a Single Idea Per Paragraph
Use a single controlling idea or topic per paragraph and always open your paragraphs by stating it. This idea has to be able to stand on its own and it needs to be short and to the point.
Next, expand on your idea by writing a number of sentences to support it. This will make up the body of your paragraph. There are many ways to structure the body: you could use sequential transition words like First, Second, etc., or non-sequential transition words like In Fact, Therefore, etc. Or you could simply use more conversational language to flow from sentence to sentence. Just make sure that as you progress in the body you’re not introducing any new ideas that’ll compete with the main one.
Finally, you need to conclude your paragraph by summing up your main idea and transitioning to the next paragraph. You could use devices like a cliffhanger to prompt readers to read on or just a simple transition, but don’t state a new idea you’ll be introducing in the following paragraph. If you do, the opening of your next paragraph will feel redundant.
Tip #4: Don’t Write Statements – Paint a Picture Instead
It’s much easier to retain concepts if we think of them in terms of a picture rather than a bunch of words, because our brains are wired to store and recall images and events. That’s why remembering people’s names is so hard but remembering the places or circumstances where we met them is not.
When you have to relate a new concept to your readers, don’t just make a statement – paint a picture instead. For example, use the power of story telling to show how a client put your concept to use and the results they got. Stories make reading more enjoyable.
People remember the plots of fiction books much more readily than naked facts and figures because fiction plots map closer to the way our brains work. Take advantage of this natural retention and retrieval mechanism for your nonfiction book and you’ll make it memorable.
Tip #5: Write for Your Reader not for Your Peers
When you’re writing your paragraph, always think of your reader as you write. Ask yourself: are these words meant for my reader or are they meant for my colleagues? If your language is too academic or too formulaic, then chances are you’re making your peers your audience.
Now, nonfiction books are by definition jam-packed with information, so for readers to be able to absorb it and retain it you have to make it available in small “digestible” chunks. When you’re writing your paragraphs, always break them down into short sentences.
Each sentence has to contain the minimum amount of words necessary to make a single point and no more. Only use words that are essential to your message; if they’re not essential, then leave them out because they’ll break the connection with your readers.
What Are Typical Non-Essential Words?
- Most adverbs and adjectives.
- Long verbs that have a shorter equivalent that means the same thing. For example, use “find out” instead of “ascertain,” use “try” instead of “attempt,” use “begin” instead of “commence.”
- “Elegant” nouns that can be easily replaced by simpler ones. For example, use “plane” instead of “aircraft,” use “part” instead of “component,” use “warning” instead of “caveat.”
Use the above five paragraph writing tips and your nonfiction book will connect much better with your readers!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.
Your articles are fantastic. I read them over and over, and often refer back to them.
I have a question if you could answer, I would appreciate. If a person was writing nonfiction trade (I am not), or humanities (or multidisciplinary) text for an undergraduate level (I am), wouldn’t the level of English, choice of words, nuances be elevated?
I’ve been in touch with Richard D., so he might be familiar with our book titled BEYOND RACE. It is meant to be undergraduate course reading, but could also be read on a level for teachers, professors, journalists. (It’s a reference book rather than a self-help type book.)
Thanks for the Richard’s continuation of interest for updates. I (my book)/we (the book above) are working hard to be ready for editing.
Hi Corey, thanks for your comment. In general, the level of English, word usage, etc., in a book (even one meant for an educated audience) should aim to be accessible. In the past, “intellectual” books (particularly text books) were infamous for being hard to read because they were written in an elevated style that used fancy words and very long, complex sentences. Today’s reader (even one with a PhD) would far rather be able to quickly grasp the meaning of the words and instead spend their time pondering the profound meaning behind the words. So certainly don’t be afraid to tackle big topics in your writing, but stylistically I’d recommend you lean toward common words and shorter sentences wherever possible.
Hi, I am not writing a business book, but I wanted to thank you for your generous sharing of techniques, most of which I think are excellent.
I also wanted to thank you for your comments on the book I plan to put together (short published articles on travel, humorous articles, features, short stories, poems) even though it is not in your genre.