In this article, you’ll learn the five rules of writing paragraphs that are necessary to create a work of nonfiction that connects with readers effectively.
Technically speaking, a paragraph is a unit of writing that’s 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.
But if you go below the surface mechanics, a paragraph is much subtler than that. At face value it might be a unit of writing, but at a deeper level it’s a unit of thought.
When you write a nonfiction paragraph, you’re creating a mind-to-mind connection between you and your reader. As you transfer your thoughts through your words, your writing becomes a bridge.
If your paragraphs are well-written, your thoughts will flow effortlessly between your mind and your audience’s mind. Reading then becomes enjoyable as you fill minds with ideas that enhance 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 those school textbooks that used to lull you into a sleep?
Nonfiction Paragraph Structure
Before we get into the rules, let’s briefly go over the main structure of a nonfiction paragraph:
1) Introduce the Topic Sentence
Your first sentence must introduce the topic or thought that you’ll be expanding on throughout your paragraph. Your goal is to use a single controlling idea per paragraph.
This idea has to be clearly articulated and be able to stand on its own. Strive to make it short and to the point and resist the temptation to meander.
2) Support the Topic Sentence
Next, you need to expand on your main idea by writing a number of sentences to support it. This section will make up the body of your paragraph.
Here you have options. You can use sequential transitions such as “,” etc., non-sequential transitions such as “In Fact,” “Therefore,” etc., or rely on more conversational language as you flow from sentence to sentence.
3) Draw a Conclusion
Once your supporting sentences are written, it’s time to draw your paragraph to its natural conclusion. It’s now time to sum up your main idea and to transition to the next paragraph. For this purpose, you could use a cliffhanger to entice readers to read on or a simple transitional sentence.
Nonfiction Paragraph Writing Rules
Without further ado, here are the five rules of nonfiction paragraph writing:
Rule #1) Use only one idea per paragraph
Successful nonfiction writing is founded on clarity. As an expert in your field, your writing needs to create an unobstructed pathway between your mind and the minds of your readers.
As a nonfiction author, your job is to convey your thoughts in as clear a way as possible, and that requires that your unit of thought – the paragraph – be centered on a single idea.
If you create a paragraph that contains multiple ideas, you’ll create confusion in the minds of your readers as you split their focus and attention between competing arguments.
Rule #2) Write at least 3 sentences of support
Once you’ve clearly stated your main thought or idea, then support it with three or more sentences to give yourself enough room to fully develop it.
What you don’t want to do is to shortchange your support with sentences that feel rushed or, at the other end of the spectrum, to write for the sake of writing and creating long-winded paragraphs that are hard to read.
Rule #3) Don’t introduce new ideas in the conclusion (and don’t introduce the next paragraph either)
When you’re concluding your paragraph, make sure not to introduce any new ideas at this stage, as this will break your flow and confuse your readers.
Also, resist the temptation to introduce the idea or thought that you’ll be covering in the next paragraph, otherwise the beginning of the following paragraph will feel redundant.
Rule #4) Write for your readers, not for yourself
When you’re writing nonfiction paragraphs, always think of your target audience as you write.
Ask yourself: are these words meant for my readers or are they meant for my colleagues? If your language is too academic or technical, chances are you’re writing for your peers (or worse yet: for yourself).
Remember that you’re writing nonfiction to create a mind-to-mind connection with your readers, so try to put yourself in their shoes whenever you sit down to write.
Rule #5) Use an economy of words
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 use an economy of words.
Only use those words that are essential to your message; if they aren’t essential then leave them out because they’ll break your connection with your readers.
Here’s a list of non-essential words you should stay away from:
- Most adverbs and adjectives.
- Long verbs that have a shorter equivalent that has the same meaning. For example, write “Find out” instead of “Ascertain,” write “Try” instead of “Attempt,” or write “Begin” instead of “Commence.”
- Elegant-sounding nouns that can be easily replaced with simpler-sounding ones. For example, write “Plane” instead of “Aircraft,” write “Part” instead of “Component,” or write “Warning” instead of “Caveat.”
If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about how to excel in the writing craft be sure to check out my free nonfiction writing 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 just 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.