By Barbara Falconer Newhall
One of the handiest writing tips I know – and an easy one to implement – is this: Think about how you end your paragraphs. The most powerful place in a paragraph is the last sentence. More precisely, the most powerful place in a paragraph is the last phrase or the last few words of that last sentence.
Most writers know that the first sentence in a paragraph needs to be strong. It gives structure to the sentences that follow; it’s there to let the reader know what’s coming up. That first sentence also needs to be interesting enough to draw the reader into the ideas that follow. Most of us know all this. Our high school English teachers drummed it into us. But many writers I meet are unaware of how much they can improve their writing just by paying a little attention to how they end their paragraphs.
“Incoronata must have spent hours working herself up to it because I’d barely lifted the receiver when she dropped her bombshell. She said a good deal. She said she was quitting. She said she’d had all she could take. And then she said there was nothing more to say.”
“Incoronata must have spent hours working herself up to it because I’d barely lifted the receiver when she dropped her bombshell. She said she was quitting. She said she’d had all she could take. She said there was nothing more to say. And then she said a good deal more.”
Which paragraph leaves the stronger impression? What thought do you take away from each paragraph? Which paragraph leaves you feeling that you are in the hands of an exciting writer?
The first graph trails off at the end. There’s nothing wrong with its last sentence grammatically. But an opportunity is lost – an opportunity to leave the reader with the powerful image of an Incoronata so furious that she can’t stop talking.
The same holds true of a sentence. One of the following sentences is from the same Buechner essay, “Our Last Drive Together.” The other one is not. Which one has more zip?
“I pulled [my mother’s] sun visor down, and she said any fool could see that would do no damn good since she was too low in her seat.”
“I pulled [my mother’s] sun visor down, and she said any fool could see she was too low in her seat for that to be any damn good either.”
The second sentence is more powerful, partly because it leaves the reader with the strongest image in the sentence – a cussing old lady. But also because in this version the sentence ends rhythmically. Not with a whimper but a bang.
Why is it that nobody can forget the last line of “The Hollow Men?” Because T.S. Eliot knew how to end a poem – and a sentence.
The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany
Westminster John Knox, 123 pages, $17.95
Wondering whether it’s “different from” or “different than”? I finally figured it out — with some help from the books on my shelf. Read all about it at “Different From, Different Than.”