Paragraph Focus: Patterns

Writing always expresses something unique about the writer—an understanding, a worldview, an opinion, and so on. This is one reason that writing teachers often encourage students to consider such elements as voice and style when writing, working toward writing that makes an impact on readers and evokes a sense of authority (author-ity, get it?) or a sense of the person behind the words.

Let’s be honest, though: There are occasions when a writer just wants to get the job done, when following a pattern for clear communication is fine even if the result isn’t especially eloquent or reflective of the writer’s unique way with words. Short-answer exams are a good example of such an occasion. Traditional academic essays, depending on what the essay assignment requires, can be another.

The patterns below offer a way of writing focused paragraphs that are both easy to write and easy for a reader to follow. These patterns emerge from decades-old work by the scholars Francis and Bonniejean Christensen and have been modified and adapted by writing professors ever since. I’ve put my own spin on this work, reducing the Christensen approach to three basic patterns, which I call (1) the ladder pattern, (2) the staircase pattern, and (3) the hybrid pattern. Each pattern follows the structural principle of main point + support.

The Ladder Pattern

Topic sentence:

  • In this case, the first sentence in the paragraph
  • The most general sentence in the paragraph
  • Previews what the paragraph will be about

Supporting sentence 1:

  • Offers an example or point in support of the topic sentence

Supporting sentence 2:

  • Offers another example or point in support of the topic sentence, an example at the same level of specificity as the previous sentence

Supporting sentence 3:

  • Offers another example or point in support of the topic sentence, an example at the same level of specificity as the previous sentence

Other supporting sentences follow this pattern, offering examples or points at the same level of specificity as the other supporting sentences

            Note that the supporting sentences can be presented in any order; that is, they do not depend on each other (are not subordinate to one another) to make sense.

Here’s an example of the ladder pattern:

Golfers may not like facing these facts, but the sport presents a wide target for non-golfers’ ridicule. The stereotypical image of golf clubs as elitist bastions where only the wealthy belong—an image reinforced in pop culture—has its basis in historical fact. Even if non-golfers participate in their own preferred diversions and pastimes, it’s hard to imagine a game with a sillier objective: hitting a little ball into a cup. Unlike basketball, which can be played in a gymnasium, or even baseball, which requires considerable acreage for a proper park, golf courses can sprawl over what would otherwise be entire forests or farm fields—a major exploitation of land and water resources.

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The Staircase Pattern

Topic sentence:

  • In this case, the first sentence in the paragraph
  • The most general sentence in the paragraph
  • Previews what the paragraph will be about

Supporting sentence 1:

  • Offers an example or point in support of the topic sentence

Supporting sentence 2:

  • Offers another example or point that elaborates on the previous sentence—Supporting Sentence 1—by offering more specific detail

Supporting sentence 3:

  • Offers another example or point that elaborates on the previous sentence—Supporting Sentence 2—by offering more specific detail

Other supporting sentences follow this pattern, offering examples or points the move, sentence by sentence, to more specific points as the sentence immediately preceding it

Here’s an example of the staircase pattern with four sentences descending to levels of greater and greater specificity from the topic sentence:

       Every Burlington mayor for the past few decades has been expected to articulate a policy on homelessness. Mayor Miro Weinberger is merely the latest. His recent proposal to house people in shipping containers, however, is unlike any other proposal to have come out of City Hall. The proposal, as odd—and inhumane—as it sounds, at least has the advantage of being funded through a grant, not tax receipts.

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The Hybrid Pattern

Topic sentence:

  • In this case, the first sentence in the paragraph
  • The most general sentence in the paragraph
  • Previews what the paragraph will be about

Supporting sentence 1:

  • Offers an example or point in support of the topic sentence

Supporting sentence 2:

  • Offers another example or point that elaborates on the previous sentence—Supporting Sentence 1—by offering more specific detail

Supporting sentence 3:

  • Offers another example or point that elaborates on the previous sentence—Supporting Sentence 2—by offering more specific detail

Other supporting sentences follow this pattern, offering examples or points the move, sentence by sentence, to more specific points as the sentence immediately preceding it

Here’s an example of the hybrid pattern:

If you have never made yeast bread, behold one of the great dramas of the kitchen; every ingredient is a character. Yeast is the prima donna. Her volatile temperament is capable of exploitation only within given limits of heat. Wheat flour is the hero. He has a certain secret something that makes his personality elastic and gives convincing body to his performance.

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More examples:

The Ladder Pattern

Note that the supporting sentences can be presented in any order; that is, they do not depend on each other (are not subordinate to one another) to make sense.

(1) o In this day and age, when modern society places greater and greater demands on the environment, public transportation makes a good deal of sense. 

            (2, 3, or 4) o Imagine the amount of fossil fuel that a busload of people consumes compared to that which would be consumed if all of those people on board were driving their own cars. 

            (2, 3, or 4) o  Think about the amount of land that a stretch of railroad tracks takes up compared with the tangled mess of asphalt that criss-crosses our country like wires in an overloaded circuit box. 

            (2, 3, or 4) o How much space in our crowded urban areas is dedicated to parking lots that go unoccupied for the better part of each 24-hour day?

The Staircase Pattern

(1) o  The cougar has a disturbing habit of following people.

            (2) o  It will trail a person silently for miles without threatening or attacking, often making no effort at concealment.

                        (3) o  This audacious behavior is certainly nerve-racking, but there seems to be nothing sinister in its motive.

                                    (4) o  The cougar is curious:  that is all.

The Hybrid Pattern

(1) o For many citizens of Houston, wrestling night on Friday at the Coliseum is the major social event of the week.

            (2) o The Friday-night spectacle attracts a crowd as diverse as any you’ll find anywhere.

                        (3) o Clusters of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational fans scatter freely about the dusty bleachers.

                        (4 or 6) o The odd tourist and traveling businessperson is just as likely to have been drawn in by the event’s growing legend throughout the region.

                                    (5 or 4) o  A lot of people in the ringside know each other, by sight if not by name.

                                                (6 or 5) o  For example, Mrs. Elizabeth Chappell, a ringside regular for some 25 years now, is better known as “Mama.”

Paragraph Focus Continued

Here are four other paragraph development patterns. They are a bit more complex than the previous three patterns.

  • Specific to General – Consider this an inverted ladder organization, with the specific examples building to a general statement at the very end. Here’s the ladder paragraph above revised to fit this pattern (I’ve simply moved the topic sentence to the end and added a few phrases):

Kids are spending more time watching TV, watching Youtube videos, or playing videogames on the Internet; this doesn’t leave enough time for reading quality pieces of literature. Participation in athletic activities also appears to enjoy greater social status than “booksmarts” among today’s adolescents. When a kid finds herself with a bit of spare time, the social nexus of a multiplayer online videogame offers a far more attractive option than sitting alone, quietly thumbing through a book. Literature, once a staple of a young person’s development, now finds itself in direct, intense competition with other activities for the young person’s time.

  • Chronological order – As the title suggests, in this pattern events are presented as they transpired in time:

Hard as it may be to imagine in this age of multi-media entertainment, literature was once a citizen’s chief source of entertainment, particularly in the wide, expanses of sparsely settled American land. Literature eventually found its way into mainstream educational curricula, where it was considered to instill positive, common values in an increasingly diverse population. With the dawn of radio, literature was still considered a complement to the bold, new media. The slow, steady, solitary work of reading proved a less attractive option to the combined visual and aural stimulation of television. Today’s Information Age, driven as it is by the desire for fast—and vast—information, literature is having a hard time even getting people to slow down long enough to remember there ever was such a thing.

  • Climactic order – Like the staircase paragraph, this pattern begins with a general statement and develops with specific details. In this case, those specific details are arranged in order of increasing importance, ending with a dramatic statement:

The 20th century and early 21st century have seen literature go from the best of times to the worst of times. A century ago, being versed in the classics signified a high social standing. Around the turn of the century, literary works were promoted to instill in an increasingly diverse population a common set of values. The popularity of broadcast radio offered a compelling complement to one’s reading habits. The advent of television is when literature proponents really began to worry about an entire nation’s attention being diverted away from books and into the “boob tube.” A few decades’ worth of statistics on the Internet have confirmed literature advocates’ worst fears: The end may be at hand.

  • Spatial order – In this pattern, the reader’s attention is directed to details in some described space with the “reveal,” which here functions like a topic sentence, coming at the end:

Downtown Burlington, Vermont, presents a superficial image of progress and inclusivity. A Black Lives Matter flag flies alongside others at City Hall. Choice parking spots at public buildings are reserved for electric vehicles. Marches in support of myriad political causes routinely command the downtown business district’s most important avenue, the Church Street Marketplace. Invisible to the observer is one serious challenge that does not speak through flags, signage, or mass gatherings—does not speak at all, its voice silenced by shame: food insecurity.

Bibliography

Christensen, Francis L., Notes on a New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers, NY: Harper and Row, 1967.

, Bonniejean Christensen, A New Rhetoric, NY: Harper and Row, 1976.

Christensen, Bonniejean, The Christensen Method, NY: Harper and Row, 1979.

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