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Brilliant Guide: How to write paragraphs successfully in a literature essay (2021)

how to write paragraphs in a literature essay

I get it.

Writing paragraphs can be hard.

All those uncertainties gnawing away at you:

  • How do you begin a paragraph?
  • What structure should a paragraph have?
  • How long should a paragraph be?
  • Why does your teacher keep giving you low grades even when you actually tried this time?
  • What do you have to do to get this problem off your back?

These many doubts make it so easy to reach for distractions, to postpone the evil hour… just for a little bit longer.

But:

The time for paragraph misery is over!

Because I’ve put together something nobody else has done:

An easy-to-follow guide to writing a paragraph.

One that actually shows you how to write a paragraph in a literature essay – with clear demonstrations.

Will this work for you? Well, look at this way…

My easy-to-follow-guide will work for…

  • Children at school who are starting out with essays
  • University students writing assignments and dissertations
  • More advanced writers who still want help with their essay style
  • Everyone in between.

Are you one of those? Yes? Then this is for you.

“I don’t care about your introduction and your philosophy – just take me to the good stuff!” Click here to fast forward

Introduction

What you’ll learn

  • You’ll learn an easy paragraph-writing routine that anyone can master
  • Tricks for structuring an argument like a pro
  • Hacks for showing greater insight
  • Problem-solving life skills

You’ll learn a simple routine for writing what I call a Grass Roots Paragraph – a routine which you can then use to help you write any paragraph in a literature essay.

The Grass Roots Paragraph does away with the formulae and mnemonics used in schools around the world (dare I mention them? PEE? PETAL?) – and replaces them with writing based on thinking.

My routine represents a basic thinking pattern that you can use again and again to build paragraphs – and, yes, even entire essays.

This will work equally well whether you want to:

  • Write essays faster so you can free up time for socialising or doing things you enjoy.
  • Write essays better so you can boost your grades and improve your future university or job prospects. 

And unlike some frameworks for building paragraphs, you can apply this basic thinking pattern beyond the classroom or the lecture theatre.

A Grass Roots Paragraph is a paragraph that finishes with top down structure (expository, if you like) – the one your teacher, professor, or examiner, wants to see. BUT:

It achieves that with a ‘bottom up’ approach (exploratory)

… an approach which starts with the thing your essay is supposed to be about:

THE TEXT.

My Grass Roots approach (which I’ll show you in a minute) is based on a few basic and reassuring rules of thumb:

  1. You trust your instincts
  2. Your embrace trial and error
  3. You make a start – you have to start somewhere

Sound good?

If so, read on – and get ready to transform your academic writing, impress your teachers, and improve your grades.

The thing nobody has told you about writing essay paragraphs

Let’s face facts.

Life is messy, right?

Things don’t work out as you planned. And sometimes things do work out…

…. only not in the way you planned. Well guess what?

It’s the same with writing. Good writing is a messy process.

And it’s the same with writing good paragraphs.

That’s right – a really good paragraph is unlikely to work out exactly the way you planned…

… although…

… it can still work out brilliantly in a way that you had not planned. And that can be very satisfying.

It’s like this:

If you structure your argument right, the paragraphs will take care of themselves.

Or, let me put that another way:

When you’re writing an essay, a paragraph is just a block of text. But this block of text holds a specific thing:

An argument.

And there are some particular things a convincing argument needs:

Logic. Order. Organisation. Structure.

If your argument has those things, then your paragraph will have them too….

But here’s the thing nobody tells you:

OK, so the outcome might be organised. That is to say, your finished paragraph might be beautifully structured and flowing. But:

The process is messy.

That’s right: neat paragraphs, messy process.

But… if it’s so messy, how can I help you? How can anyone help you? Doesn’t this just further prove that some people are just ‘good at writing essays’ and others are not?

I don’t think that’s true. And I think I can help….

5 Reasons why you might choose to trust me on this one (or not – your call)

Don’t care about this bit? Already trust me implicitly? Hanging on my every word? Click here to fast-forward.

In a minute, I’m going to introduce you to my Grass Roots Paragraph-writing loop. But…

… unless you’re happy simply to accept everything I say, don’t you want to know a bit more about what this is based on? I mean…

… who the hell am I to tell you how to write?

(1) I’m a trained, qualified, and experienced English teacher

That helps, right?

I’ve marked thousands of essays and I’ve been able to see the kinds of errors and omissions which students make again… and again.

So I decided to put in the work to show you how you can do better. For free.

This guide is based on that experience and that work. It’s my pleasure.

Next, let me make something clear:

(2) The routine I’m going to show you… people have been following it for centuries

I don’t claim to have hit on some new algorithm or formula that until now has escaped the greatest minds in the world. After all, I myself am pretty ordinary. However…

…I’d be willing to bet that most competent essay-writers follow something like this pattern of working.

Don’t get me wrong….

I’m not saying that they formally follow this step-by-step process. And it may be that a lot of the work takes place in their heads. But I reckon they follow some version of this simple and logical thinking pattern.

What makes me so confident of that?

Easy:

It’s because it’s what do. And I’m nothing special. And I know it’s what I do because…

(3) I did the spadework for this guide myself

In order to try and show you how to write paragraphs, guess what I did?

I went and wrote some paragraphs.

I gave myself the kinds of question that my students tend to get given – and I had a go at answering them. I mean…

… how else could I do it? Give you an essay-writing framework – PEE or PETAL or whatever? I’ve never used those frameworks when writing for myself. Ever. How could I possibly recommend to you a formula that I’ve never had a use for?

No way – you deserve better than that.

So:

All I could do was try writing paragraphs myself. And all the while, I was keeping track of how the paragraph developed, and how I approached the problem. So that I could try and coach YOU to do something similar.

So, I repeat: this isn’t new. What’s new is that someone (i.e. me) has made an attempt to capture it and put it into a guide for you.

Now there are some other guides on ‘how to write a paragraph’ out there – sure there are. But…

(4) Some other guides may not actually be that helpful

Think about it:

Most explanations or guides on ‘how to write a good paragraph’ begin with:

“Well, first you need your topic sentence.”

Source: All the other paragraph guides out there.

Some people might not like what I have to say next:

Beginning the writing process with your ‘topic sentence’ is unrealistic.

Why?

Because you can’t write your ‘topic sentence’ until you know what your paragraph is about. And you don’t know what your paragraph is about until…

… you’ve written the paragraph.

And to be fair to the many young people I’ve taught over the years, that’s probably why they don’t begin their paragraphs with what teachers like to call a ‘topic sentence’.

Because here’s the thing:

The ‘topic sentence first’ approach is based on the outcome (the finished paragraph) rather than the process of writing it.

And it is the process of writing that is causing you difficulty, yes?

So if that approach isn’t working for you (or if you’re just interested in how you could do better) you might want to give my Grass Roots Paragraph a try.

Jargon Watch (some more controversial views)

By the way, ‘topic sentence’ is not a term I will be using in my guide. I’m not saying there’s anything ‘wrong’ with using it – if you find it helpful – but…

… to me, it reeks of classroom jargon.

Think about it – it only ever gets used in the classroom. I mean, imagine this:

You’re writing a job application for your dream job. Or better still, you’re already in your dream job, and you’re writing…

  • A business pitch
  • A medical research paper
  • A legal opinion
  • An executive report
  • A formal proposal or recommendation…

…or any other text in which you have to put forward an argument, viewpoint, or outlook.

Are you going to be asking “hmm… what’s my topic sentence here?”

You are not.

You’ll be asking:

  • “What’s my angle here?”
  • What’s the main point I’m trying to get across?”
  • “What’s my argument?”

You’ll be using ordinary language that people use in the real world.

In my guide, I’ll be doing the same thing.

OK, now here’s the 5th and final reason you may choose to trust me.

(5) I designed this guide so you can adapt the process to YOU and YOUR NEEDS

When I was developing this process (which I will share with you very soon) I wanted something that was:

  • Simple – not too many steps, easy to remember and turn into a habit, no silly essay-writing jargon
  • Adaptable – something you can use and modify to suit you and your needs
  • Authentic – something that recognises and celebrates problem-solving skills that you’re actually going to use in the real world

Because let’s face it…

There is more than one way to skin a cat. Or…

Different things work for different people.

So let me get this clear:

What I’ve come up with is a model or a template.

It’s not the law.

It’s not something that you have to stick to religiously if you feel that you’re already standing on your own two feet. In fact…

… my aim is to help you to the point where you don’t need my guidance at all.

Because the loop – or your own version of it – will have become a familiar routine, a set of habits that you follow instinctively and without having to think about it, whenever you’re writing critically or argumentatively.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Now there’s one more thing I need to mention before we (honestly) get down to it…

The Importance of Trial and Error

Any minute now, we’re going to dive in and write a Grass Roots Paragraph. Now remember my rules of thumb:

  • You trust your instincts
  • Your embrace trial and error
  • You make a start – you have to start somewhere

All I’m saying is: be prepared for a bit of ‘error’. This is part of the process. After all…

the word ‘essay’ actually means ‘try’. So ‘Trial and error’ is a perfect methodology to adopt!

OK, enough talk. Here’s how you write a paragraph:

Introducing the Loop

I call it a loop, rather than a cycle. ‘Cycle’ sounds (to me) too formal and rigid. A loop is something that you perform; a cycle is something that performs you!

So here it is: here is the 5-step loop that you use to build a paragraph.

It goes like this:

  1. You find something interesting
  2. You try and understand it
  3. You find a home for it
  4. You take a step back
  5. You decide what’s next

And you do that over and over again.

That’s it!

Don’t believe me? Well, I’m going to show you how this can work: step by step… word by word… sentence by sentence.

How this guide works

Get ready for some modelling

Here’s what’s going to happen:

I’m going to model the loop for you – several times – and show you how it works. That way, you can copy or adapt this routine to your own essay-writing.

We’re going go through the loop several times, moving through a series of difficulty levels. The first couple of loops are very basic – then things gradually get more complex.

To write a basic – but brilliant – paragraph, you have to get to Loop 3 – which means performing the Loop a minimum of 3 times.

The structure of this guide

THE BASICS – Write simple, effective, balanced paragraphs

Loop 1: Making a start
Loop 2: Building it up
Loop 3: Branching out

[Coming Soon:]

INTERMEDIATE – Break through your attainment barrier and get better grades

Loop 4: Raising the bar

ADVANCED – Create more adventurous readings and boss your essays

Loop 5: Things in common
Loop 6: Critical distinctions

Making this work for you

When you’re writing an essay yourself, you’re unlikely to progress through the difficulty levels in a straight line (in the way I do in my demonstration).

In fact, if I’m honest…

… I didn’t do that when I was writing this guide!

Instead, you’ll want to repeat loops or even go backwards. That’s absolutely fine – in fact, it’s to be expected.

So don’t expect the ‘Route 1’ journey I’ve created below: I’ve simply done it that way to demonstrate each difficulty level once.

Also:

The later versions of the loop may be too advanced for some readers (for now!) – so don’t attempt them if Loops 1-3 give you enough of a challenge.

The trick is to recognise when you’ve reached your difficulty threshold.

Then… you either:

(a) Continue to repeat the loop at that level
(b) Backtrack
(c) Go back to the beginning

This way, you can make my guide fit your individual needs. Don’t worry – I’ll remind you about this as we go.

The example essay question we’re going to answer

Now don’t worry if you haven’t read the text I’m using, but let’s imagine that the essay we have been set is:

How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between Lennie and George in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?

Essay Question

Again, don’t worry if you haven’t read Of Mice and Men. Honestly, it doesn’t matter – you’ll see what I mean later.

Also, we’re going to imagine we’re writing the entire essay, whilst in fact we’ll be writing one paragraph that will feature in the final (imaginary) essay.

By the way: Before tackling any question in an essay or a paragraph, it’s important first to…

Boss the Question

I won’t go into detail here, but basically that means:

Not letting the question dummy you into accepting key words and terms at face value.

Instead, you should always look for opportunities to

  • Quibble over the wording of the question
  • Unpack the language of the question
  • Consider all your options in terms of how to interpret it.

As it happens, though…

… I’ve chosen a deliberately ‘dull’ question.

What? Huh? Why?

Because this is the kind of question I’ve seen in plenty of exam papers.

The only interesting words are ‘present’ and ‘relationship’.

We won’t worry about ‘present’ for now (but I’ll challenge it much later in my guide). As for ‘relationship’, it’s worth doing a quick brainstorm of what this word might mean or entail what the ‘ingredients’ might be:

In fact, there’s a good cheat here:

So what might the key ‘ingredients’ in a relationship be? You can guess!

You can guess what this ‘relationship’ might involve without even so much as glancing at your text, because all human relationships involve these things in some measure:

Possible ingredients in a relationship:

  • Attitudes or feelings towards each other
  • Responsibilities or duties towards each other
  • Power balance (or imbalance)
  • Dynamic (a shared mood or energy between people) 

And that kind of helps us with answering this next question…

“How can you just ‘write a paragraph’ if you don’t know what the rest of the essay is about?”

Just watch me.

And you’ll be able to do it too.

But… since you ask…

Maybe writing one really good paragraph will help us work out what the rest of the essay is actually about?

I know. You’re supposed to write a plan first, right? But you know what?

We’re not going to write a plan.

Don’t get me wrong…. Planning is good. I like planning. But…

… planning writing isn’t actually as simple as some people would have you believe, and the ‘full essay plan first’ strategy is not for everybody. So for for now…

Just go with it.

Essay hack: to make my life easier when planning this paragraph, I did the following:

  • Opened a fresh note in Evernote (this is my preferred notebook software, but you can use whatever work surface you prefer – a Word doc or a piece of paper will do)
  • Skim-read an electronic copy of the text (though a physical text will do). If it’s over 100 years old, you’ll find it at Project Gutenberg.
  • Copied and pasted every sentence or phrase which I could find which I thought might help me to answer the question. (Alternatively, if you’re using a paper text, use a highlighter. If you don’t want to mark your paper text, take the time to scan it or make a photocopy.)
  • Roughly sorted my quotations into groups
  • Gave a title to each group

This makes it a lot easier to find useful quotations later on. Try it!

The Basics

Loop 1: Making a Start – find a relevant quotation and write a basic interpretation of it.

Loop 2: Building it up – find a similar quotation from nearby to support the same interpretation.

Loop 3: Branching out – find a further quotation from somewhere else; dress up the paragraph so it answers the question.

Loop 1: Making a Start

Here’s what I’ll do for you in Loop 1:

  • Show you the importance of browsing and skimming the text
  • Model how to select a passage that’s good enough for you to make a start
  • Guide you through choosing your starter quotation
  • Give you confidence forming an interpretation based on that quotation

Step 1: Find something interesting

Here’s what’s going to happen

Our journey towards writing a great paragraph begins with a search for a single interesting phrase or sentence from the text – a starter quotation. Your fire starter, if you will.

In this first step, you’ll work on an important life skill:

Skimming and browsing stuff.

You’ll do this to identify a key passage and then find a single quotation which is going to act as the starter for our paragraph.

So here’s what we’ll do:

(i) Browse and skim the text for key passages
(ii) Find a passage that looks relevant
(iii) Find your starter quotation

Why are we doing it this way?

So let’s get this straight: we’re starting out by looking for a single quotation? Really?

Yes indeed.

Surprised? Wait – don’t tell me…

… this runs against everything your teachers have ever told you, right?

You can hear them saying “Where’s your topic sentence?” Well…

Forget all that – for now. Because…

… when building a grass roots paragraph, we start with quotations and then we work our way back towards the argument we want to make.

Crazy, huh?

Don’t get me wrong, though:

We’re not going to present the information in that order. Not at all. In fact…

… we’ll cheat.

We will cunningly put the argument (once we’ve got one) at the top of the paragraph to make it look as if we had it all worked out all along.

And you teacher will never know…

What a dastardly trick!

So we begin with the spadework of digging up the good stuff from the text.

“OK,” I hear you say,  “but…”

How do we know what to look for?

Guess what – we don’t know.

Not exactly. But this is what I mean by ‘trust your instincts’ and ‘trial and error’. You see, dear reader…

you already have a great instinctive awareness of the bits of a text that are interesting, relevant, and worthy of being singled out for a closer look.

Honestly:

If you have read this far and understood what I’m saying, there’s not a doubt in my mind that you have this instinctive ability. (‘Intuitive’ is probably a more accurate word, but then I wouldn’t be able to post pictures of cute animals, would I?)

You just need to listen out and wait for something to ring the notification bell.

You see, we’ve been given a question, right?

“How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?”

And that should be enough to go on – for now. Because:

  • We know what the first chapter is
  • We know who the characters are
  • We know what a relationship is

(Haven’t been given a question? My suggestion is: just follow your instincts and find something interesting. The process below will be a useful exercise in discovering what interests you about the text more generally.)

So to make our lives even easier, we’ll first…

(i) Browse and Skim the text for key passages (and trust your instincts)

We need a passage that rings that notification bell. So how do we go about finding one?

First, we’ll look at the guidance in the question – what we might call parameters – and we’ll use that to help us find our key passages.

Example

What was the question again?

Question: How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?

So… here are the parameters:

  • Focus on relationship
  • Two characters
  • Only 1 chapter

So now, we skim-read the text. (This is assuming you’ve actually read your text before, of course!)

We’re simply looking for passages in which the two characters are talking or interacting with each other. If it’s hard to narrow it down (e.g. because they do that a lot) we’ll try and pick out the more dramatic moments in their conversations.

And we do that until we…

(ii) Find a passage that looks relevant

Rather than explain this, I’ll just show you:

Example

From my skim read, I’ve picked out some parts of the chapter where the same two characters are talking to each other.

And I haven’t been too picky. You have to start somewhere. So…

I trusted my instincts and went for the extract below.

Before you read it, let me just repeat:

This is the way you should work too – trust your instincts and make a start somewhere that seems suitable. You might not pick the ‘killer’ passage straight away – but you have to start somewhere.

Now – the passage.

Again, don’t worry if you haven’t read the text I’m using. (Maybe worry if you haven’t read the text you’re using….)

Have a read of this short extract. If you don’t know the novel, you’ll pick it up – there’s an explanatory note below the passage.

Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”

“Yeah, what ya want?”

“Where we goin’, George?”

The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at Lennie.

“So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard!”

“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”

“O.K.- O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tellin’ you things and then you forget ’em, and I tell you again.”

“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.”

“The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard Street and watchin’ that blackboard?”

Lennie’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Why sure, George. I remember that… but… what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says… you says…”

“The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ in to Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?”

Extract from Chapter 1 of Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

Quick explanation of the subtext of the passage above:

OK – even if you don’t know the rest of the story, hopefully you can catch roughly what’s going on here:

  • George and Lennie are two guys looking for work.
  • George is frustrated with Lennie for forgetting stuff that George has told him over and over again.
  • Lennie remembers some things…
  • … but apparently not the things which are important to George – like:
    • where they’re going
    • what they’re doing.
  • And Lennie genuinely seems to want to please George by remembering things – but he often fails.

So… why this passage?

Because it looks relevant.

As I said, I trusted my instincts. I didn’t sweat over it. The question is about a relationship between two guys. And sure enough…

… here we have the same two guys talking to each other. And one of them is getting rather hot under the collar and using some strong language. It seems very likely that there will be interesting things to say about this exchange between the characters. So:

If you’re following the Grass Roots method, this is how you could start out too. Remember: trust your instincts.

(iii) Find your starter quotation

Now we’ve made life easier for ourselves by zooming in on a specific passage, we repeat the process.

Only this time, we’re only rereading the passage and we’re looking for a single quotation which rings the notification bell.

Example

We’re looking for something which shows George and Lennie’s relationship in action….

OK, I’ve read over the passage again, and I’m going to pick one quotation that I find interesting. And it’s this:

The hell with the rabbits.

George

Why’s it interesting?

Well, don’t get me wrong – it’s nothing mind-blowing or spectacular. But here are my reasons:

  • George’s language: “the hell with […]” seems quite strong… and he seems to using it because he’s frustrated and unhappy – with Lennie. So there’s probably a decent chance that this might tell us something about their relationship.
  • Something funny: There’s also something quite comical about “The hell with the rabbits.” I mean, personally, I find quite funny the idea of this angry “little man” (as Steinbeck’s narrative describes him) helplessly damning cute, harmless, imaginary little bunny rabbits to hell – simply because he’s annoyed.

Do you see how I’m not being too picky at this point? I’m not pretending for a minute that this line somehow holds the key to my entire paragraph or the entire novel. It just seems relevant. It’s a way in. It’s an entry point. We have to start somewhere.

And it might be a dead end. But if it is, we’ll just put it to one side and try something else. (Spoiler alert: it’s not a dead end.)

So that’s Step 1 complete!

We’ve chosen the quotation that’s going to act as the starter for our paragraph. It might not end up being the core of our paragraph – but it’s going to get us started. Next it’s time to make something of it

Step 2: Try and understand it

Here’s what we’re going to do in this step:

(i) Describe what’s interesting in your own words (form an interpretation)
(ii) Provide a little context – in your own words (so your statement makes some sense)
(iii) Put them together (capture your understanding)

(i) Describe in your own words what’s interesting (form a statement)

Here’s something that’s probably happened to you in the past – maybe a long time ago:

Have you ever sat a test – maybe a ‘comprehension’ test – where you’ve been asked to read part of a text and then answer questions about it in your own words?

Do you know the reason the in your own words question gets included in a lot of so-called ‘comprehension’ tests or exercises?

It’s this:

It shows understanding.

And that’s exactly what this stage of the loop is about.

So:

Now’s the time to try and summarise (in your own words) what’s interesting or noteworthy about the quotation you chose. And keep it really brief and to the point.

To show you what I mean and give you confidence, here’s my example.

Example

Chosen quotation (reference): The hell with the rabbits.
What’s interesting ‘in our own words’: George speaks harshly to Lennie.

There it is. We have our first statement. The word ‘harshly’ is the magic sauce. Why?

Because it’s my word – not John Steinbeck’s.

However, that did take some thought. So be prepared to think hard about the word that’s going to ‘capture’ what’s interesting from your point of view.

* This is a good time to try using a thesaurus!
 
Now, our statement feels a little isolated and lonely at the moment. It would be a good idea to…

(ii) Provide a little context – in your own words (so your statement makes some sense)

When you read the passage, you can see that George hasn’t spoken harshly to Lennie ‘out of the blue’. He hasn’t done it for kicks, but rather –

Something has prompted him do it.

Chosen quotation: The hell with the rabbits.
What’s interesting ‘in our own words’: George speaks harshly to Lennie
A little context ‘in our own words’: Lennie has irritated George

As I said before, to understand, we put things in our own terms – using our own vocabulary. To do that, I’ve chosen “harshly” and “irritated”.

Remember:

These are not Steinbeck’s words – they are mine. And they enable us to do something important:

(iii) Put them together (capture your understanding)

The in your own words statements we created (above) enable us to form an interpretation:

Example

Here’s our interpretation:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him.

And our reference to try and support that interpretation would be

“The hell with the rabbits”

Simple. And with that, we have captured a plausible understanding of the quotation.

It’s not mind-blowing. It’s not spectacular. But it’s a start. You have to start somewhere.

Next, it’s time to…

Step 3: Find a home for it

Finding a home for what we’ve created is easy at this stage. We’ll simply combine our interpretation (the bit in our own words) with our reference (the starter quotationx) in a complete sentence – or two sentences if preferred.

Example

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him: “The hell with the rabbits.”

OR

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him. He says “The hell with the rabbits.”

That’s it. But in case you’re wondering…

For some of my readers, putting something like this together is challenging enough. For others, it may seem a bit basic or clunky. If it does, don’t worry – we’re just moving through the gears.

Now, we’ve been focusing – which is good. But when you focus for a while you can lose sight of the bigger picture. So at this point it’s a good idea to…

Step 4: Take a step back

Later on, we’ll be using this step to check various things:

Key questions when taking a step back:

(i) What was the question again?
(ii) Is our material relevant to the question?
(iii) Are we answering the question?
(iv) How are we answering/going to answer the question?
(v) What’s our take-away?

Right now, though, we’ve hardly written anything, so there’s not much to check. But make no mistake:

If you’re serious about writing a good paragraph, this step is going to be absolutely vital.

So:

We’ll ask a few questions that are going to be useful when we’re repeating the loop later on.

(i) What was the question again?

How does Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?

Here’s another life skill – right here.

You see, as I keep saying…

… life is messy.

And when we get engrossed in any sort of work or activity, it can be easy for us to lose sight of the most important thing:

What are we actually trying to achieve?

I know. It sounds so obvious. But:

We’re not as good at keeping our objectives in mind as we think we are. And there are good reasons why you should care about that…

Because believe it or not, there are people out there who are particularly keen on individuals who are capable of keeping sight of that question. Do you know who those people are?

Businesses and recruiters.

Businesses love people who are ‘goals oriented’, and their recruiters and HR departments have been told to recruit people who are like that. So…

… in fact, writing an essay (or a paragraph) can actually be good practice for making a habit of checking and rechecking what your goal is.

In our case, our ‘goal’ is a satisfactory answer to the question. And so every time we get to Step 4 in the loop, we’ll quickly check: what was the question again?

Now, having reminded ourselves of the content of the question, we need to ask…

(ii) Is our material relevant to the question?

Here’s another vital question. And another life skill. And another skill that employers and university and college admissions officers love:

Seeing what’s relevant and what’s not.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Cutting through to the salient issues.


These are complex skills you can build up through practising a more simple activity in your paragraph-writing:

Effective use of trial and error.

Notice the key word in there?

Effective.

In this case, ‘effective’ means spotting the errors early and not spending more time on them than is necessary. After all…

… we don’t want to put time and effort into writing a whole paragraph only to find that it doesn’t help us answer the question, do we?

One more thing:

Effective use of trial and error also means putting the error to one side (rather than discarding it altogether) in case it turns out to be useful after all.

So, asking the question ‘is this relevant?’ helps us to keep the ‘error’ to a minimum, whilst retaining a stock of ideas that might just slot in somewhere later on.

Example of checking that your material is relevant

Here’s what we’ve got so far:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him. He says “The hell with the rabbits.”

Is this relevant?

Gut instinct should tell us…

Yes.

We’re on track with this. We can tell by working backwards:

  • We’ve been looking at how one character talks to the other
  • Talking to one another is important in relationships
  • And the question is about a relationship…
  • Between those two characters.

So it seems likely that the inquiries we have made so far are going to be useful.

(Of course, if the question were “How does Steinbeck use setting in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?” then our examples might not have been that relevant, and we might need to put them ‘on the side’.)

Now:

Being relevant is necessary – but it’s not enough. We need to check…

(iii) Are we answering the question?

Guess what? This is another life skill.

Example

Question: How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?

What we have so far: George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him. He says “The hell with the rabbits.”

So, are we answering the question? Honestly? No, not yet. It’s a bit like this:

Question: How do you make an apple pie?

Answer: An apple is a kind of fruit.

It feels relevant – apples go in apple pie. But it isn’t answering the question.

Take heart: it would be pretty remarkable if we were answering the question at this stage!

But:

Now is a good time for you to remind yourself of this important fact:

If you’re not yet answering the question, you need to move towards answering it.

And every time we come back to Stage 4 of the cycle, we will check that we are at least moving towards answering it.

(iv) How are we going to answer the question?

Eventually, we’ll be doing this:

Coming up with a killer statement which is direct, precise, and has punch.

But:

We’re probably not in a position to do that – yet. In fact…

… this is the nature of the Grass Roots Paragraph: we trust our instincts to lead us towards something that will help us answer the question… but we don’t know what the answer is going to be yet.

In fact, there’s a bit of a ‘cheat’ here. Let me explain:

A good essay will have a thesis at the beginning – in the introduction. A thesis is a concise, pithy, and insightful statement, which sums up the whole of your argument in the rest of the essay.

But the rest our essay does not exist!… and we don’t know what our thesis is.

This is exactly my point:

Writing one really good paragraph can help you start to form the thesis which will in fact go at the top of your essay. It’s possible that some of the ideas that you come up with during this process eventually get ‘promoted’ to the thesis. Don’t worry – your paragraph will understand.

Then, all your paragraph needs to do to ‘answer the question’ is… support the thesis.

I’ll try and show you this later on.

For now, let’s crack on. We’ve stepped back. We’ve looked at the bigger picture. Now…

(v) What’s our takeaway going to be?

In other words, what do we want the reader to take away from our paragraph? What difference is our paragraph going to make? Where is it going to lead?

It’s probably too early to answer the takeaway question – after all, we’ve already established that we don’t really know what our paragraph is about yet. But:

We’ll put it in our routine straight away. And here we are, talking about it.

Example

Suffice it to say, if we’ve found an example of George speaking ‘harshly’ to Lennie, then their relationship is not all roses and sunshine all day every day. Equally, though…

… most friendships – even close ones – have their moments of tension or friction.

So:

We’re not going to draw any sweeping conclusion on the basis of this one example. We’re just going to carry on…

Step 5: Decide what’s next

This isn’t as daunting a prospect as it may seem. ‘What’s next’ pretty much boils down to one of two things:

  • You search for new, similar material (i.e. another quotation), OR
  • You compare the material you’ve already got

In the first few loops, it’s always going to be about the search: you might as well stock up on good material first. There’s nothing to ‘compare’ yet – you just don’t have enough stuff. So:

The remaining question is…

Where should you look for this new, similar material?

Here are some good places – and it’s worth trying them in this order:

  1. The same place you’ve just been looking!
  2. The text around that passage
  3. Other passages in the text which you think might have something in common
  4. Notes you have taken (or, with permission, notes somebody else has taken!)

And our search will bring us full circle back to…

the beginning of the Loop – Step 1: Find something interesting.

TIME OUT

Before we do that (go back to the beginning of the Loop) I want to let you in on a little secret…

The stuff we’ve just done: that’s all you have to do to write a good paragraph!

OK – you need to go through the Loop a few more times. But it’s basically the same stuff.

And in a minute I’m going to carry on showing you how you can use this to transform your essay-writing.

Sure, there are some fancy tricks we can do – and I’ll show you some of them too. But:

Repeating that kind of routine is how you build a paragraph.

Is it the only way?

Of course not.

Is it a magic formula?

Nope.

Do you have to stick to it rigorously?

No.

It’s just a natural way of approaching this particular type of problem.

Better still…

… it’s a method that will serve you way beyond the classroom – in your professional and personal life. This is how people work through problems in the real world.

Don’t believe me yet?

Well, let’s go through the cycle again, and I’ll show you how you can use it to build on what you already have. After all, so far we’ve only got a sentence or two….

Now, a reminder:

Knowing your level

The next cycle will be pretty straightforward too, but:

I’ll notch up the difficulty level just a little bit.

As we progress through the cycle several times, I will gradually make things more complex. My advice?

Be realistic about your current ability with paragraph-writing and essay-writing. Once you get to your limit, and you feel things are getting too complicated, simply go back and repeat the loop at the difficulty-level that’s right for you. This will help you build up one paragraph (or multiple paragraphs) at your level.

Good to go?

Right – let’s get back to it.

Loop 2: Building it up

Recap: Here’s what we did in Loop 1

  • Selected a single quotation
  • Put together a short, simple interpretation
  • Satisfied ourselves that it was relevant to the question
  • Decided that we needed to add to it by finding something similar

Here’s what I’m going to do for you in Loop 2

  • Help you show that your first example wasn’t just a fluke
  • Introduce you to ‘Parachuting’ as a way of bringing in new examples
  • Remind you to double-check that what you’re doing is relevant
  • Guide you towards thinking about how you might answer the question

And here’s the thing you’re currently doing wrong

If you asked me to identify the most common weaknesses I spot in essays written by students, perhaps top of the list would be this:

They fail to build on what they already have.

I see this time and time again.

For example:

The student offers one quotation… and then…

They move on!

But it’s so much better to have a range of supporting quotations. This is because:

  • More evidence makes your argument more credible and believable
  • You’re showing better thinking skills, because you can see that TWO independent things can combine to create ONE impression or effect.

The way I see it, using a range of supporting quotations makes your argument seem three-dimensional.

So – in Loop 2, we’re going to ‘build up’ our paragraph by finding more examples, and parachuting them into what we already have.

And so here we are back at the beginning of the loop….

(Loop 2) Step 1: Find something interesting (a similarity or a connection)

We’re looking for something similar to what we already have

Quick recap: In Loop 1, our chosen example was George saying “The hell with the rabbits” to Lennie. And we thought that maybe that seemed a little on the harsh side (if not exactly the worst thing Lennie’s ever heard in his life).

Now we’re looking for something similar to that.

And how do you decide what’s similar? Easy:

  • Trust your instincts
  • Be bold: you have to start somewhere

To give you an idea of how things might develop in your paragraph, here’s my example.

Example

Remember the passage we were looking earlier? The one where George says “The hell with the rabbits”? Perhaps you noticed that George repeats his “The hell with […]” curse only a few lines later in the same passage?

“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.”

“The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits.

O.K! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard Street and watchin’ that blackboard?”

Lennie’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Why sure, George. I remember that… but… what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says… you says…”

“The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ in to Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?” 

“The hell with the rabbits […] The hell with what I says.”

See any similarities there?

What a gift!!

A repeated phrase or expression like this offers a really useful similarity on which you can start to build up your paragraphs.

OK, so not all similarities will be as obvious as this one. Sometimes the similarity will lie not in the language but in your understanding of its implications. But:

I’ve picked this language-based similarity to emphasise something:

Obvious is good. After all…

… some similarities might appear so obvious that we take them for granted. When in fact they contain noteworthy things like these ones below:

This utterance of George’s (“The hell with what I says”) is clearly ‘similar’ because:

  • Again, George is speaking to Lennie
  • George uses exactly the same speech pattern and strong language: “The hell with […]”
  • Again, we could describe this talk as ‘harsh’ towards Lennie
  • Again, it’s because Lennie has irritated him (“I remember some girls come by and you say… you says…”)

In addition to the above, it’s also interesting because:

  • It’s a repetition – possibly emphasising how repetitive (and therefore frustrating) George finds these kinds of conversation with Lennie.
  • Like before, there’s also something quite comical about “The hell with what I says.” Last time George was damning cute little bunny rabbits – now it’s his own words he’s sending to hell – whilst at the same time trying to use his “words” to talk some sense into Lennie. Poor George! It seems kind of ridiculous.

OK, great. So we’ve found something that’s similar and interesting. Now it’s time to…

(Loop 2) Step 2: Try to understand it

Last time we did Step 2 (in Loop 1) we kept things really simple – and it’s no different this time round.

Example

Here are two statements in my own words which show understanding of our chosen quotation:

  • Lennie has (again) irritated George
  • George (again) speaks harshly to Lennie

So our quotation (“the hell with what I says”) further supports or corroborates the very simple statement we made in Loop 1, which was:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him.

Only now we have two supporting quotations:

Quotation 1: “The hell with the rabbits”
Quotation 2: “The hell with what I says”

Simple enough. Now we need to…

(Loop 2) Step 3: Find a home for it

Why this bit is easy

This bit is easy because…

… because in Step 2 we suggested that this second quotation supports more or less exactly the same interpretation we made earlier. So we can simply parachute it into our existing statement.

Example

Say it in two sentences…

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him. He says: “The hell with the rabbits” and “The hell with what I says.”

Or say it in one sentence…

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him: “The hell with the rabbits”, “The hell with what I says.”

(Notice the colon (:) in the second example. You can’t just chuck a comma in there, or you’ll spoil the grammatical sense (and correctness) of the sentence.)

I call this parachuting because you’re really just ‘dropping’ your new quotation into what you already have – without changing any of the surroundings.

An Acknowledgment

Now, for the more confident writers amongst you…

… I know:

The statement we have so far is still quite basic and clunky. And we will fix that in due course.

But we’re taking things one step at a time. And now we have:

(a) a clear statement
(b) two supporting quotations.

Clunky or not, we have our interpretation. So it’s time to…

(Loop 2) Step 4: Take a step back

(i) What’s the question again?

“How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?”

(ii) Is this relevant?

Yes, it’s relevant. As before. George and Lennie (the two characters named in the question) are talking to each other – and things get a little heated. This is surely going to show us something about their relationship.

(iii) Are we answering the question?

Still ‘no’. We’re working towards it, though. And it’s worth asking ourselves the next question…

(iv) How are we going to answer the question?

Although we don’t know exactly, we can start moving in the right direction.

Here’s one idea:

Asking ourselves other questions is a good way of making some progress here. For example…

  • Maybe begin with some closed questions to which the answer is either Yes or No.
  • Try asking yourself the kinds of question your teacher asks.

Here are some examples based on my George and Lennie scenario. These are questions that I might use to get a class thinking if they are struggling with the main question. Some of them are closed questions that ask for a Yes or No (and hopefully a Because…)

Examples of little questions that can help you answer the main question
  • Do George and Lennie get on well? Are they friends? Are they enemies?
  • Is it an ‘equal’ relationship?
  • Are they in competition?
  • What ‘kind’ of relationship is it?
  • Does it remind you of other relationships you’re familiar with? A teacher-pupil style relationship, for example? (I don’t think so.)

Don’t sweat this: you don’t have to answer these sorts of questions now. But give it a try. You will come back to them later.

(v) What’s our takeaway going to be? (Or ‘so what?’)

Answer: at the moment our takeaway is simply going to be the simple point we’re trying to make: that George speaks harshly to Lennie. If you’re worried at this point that your reader is going to say…

OK…. So what?

The reader of your essay

… then that would be a good reason for continuing to have this question in the list of questions that we ask in Step 4. There’s a chance you will be able to give your reader more food for thought in later loops.

That brings Step 4 to a close, and all but completes our work in Loop 2. What remains is for us to…

(Loop 2) Step 5: Decide what’s next

Remember, your decision in Step 5 is basically going to be between 2 things:

  • search for similar material
  • comparison of the material you’ve already got

And like last time, we’re going with the first option: search for similar material. You see…

… as I said at the beginning of this Loop, this is where lots of students mess up:

They don’t build on what they already have.

That’s right… feeling a little depleted by the process of finding two examples to support the same point, they move on to fresh pasture in the hope of easier pickings.

I’ll explain why this is a bad idea in a minute – but here’s my main advice:
Keep building on what you already have. To do that, you can either:

Why it’s worth repeating Loop 2

Let me be clear here:

We have not exhausted the original extract I chose. That extract is very much ‘open for business’.

In fact, even now, I’m looking at George calling Lennie a “crazy bastard” in the same extract. Does that sound a little ‘harsh’ to you? It would be absolutely fine to repeat Loop 2 using that example. Why not give it a go yourself?

Why eventually it’s worth moving on to Loop 3

Let’s use our imaginations for a minute. What if…

we just caught George at a really bad moment when he says “The hell with the rabbits”?

What if in fact George hardly ever talks to Lennie that way, and we just happened to focus on the one moment he does?

What if he spends the rest of the chapter being sweetness and light with his companion?

That would mean that our examples were cherry-picked or unrepresentative, and that we risked our argument’s being flawed, thin, or misleading.

So:

Let’s be realistic about what we have demonstrated so far. It’s better not to pretend that the one passage we’ve looked at so far holds the key to the whole chapter.

So far, we have demonstrated that on one occasion, George speaks harshly to Lennie. And it’s a worthy start, but we’re not where we want to be yet.

Here’s what we want:

We want to be able to say something that is generally true of George and Lennie’s relationship.

Not just true once!


To help us achieve that, we need to take the nice example which we have worked hard to develop – and find some others:

  1. Maybe George uses “hell” in dialogue with Lennie elsewhere?
  2. Maybe George speaks ‘harshly’ to Lennie elsewhere?

To explore these possibilities, we’re going to need to comb the relevant section of the text for the material we need.

Essay hack: If you can get hold of an electronic copy of the text, the automatic search function – for certain key words – can be really helpful here. So in this case, I might run a search for “hell” or “damn”. There’s no perfect substitute for your own careful reading (George might use some other language that we haven’t thought of) but this is a useful hack.

And when we find something, we’re back at Step 1…

Loop 3: Branching Out

Here are the things I’m going to do for you in Loop 3:

  • Provide simple steps on how to further build your body of supporting evidence
  • Show you the power (and responsibility) of saying something that is generally true rather than just true once
  • Give you clear modelling of how to join up and coordinate your paragraph so it reads like an argument
  • Empower you to actually start answering the question (finally!)
  • Help you to offer some sort of conclusion to the paragraph

Recap

In our first two cycles, we came up with:

  • A simple statement
  • Written in our own words
  • Based on a distinct moment in the text
  • Interpreting that moment
  • Relevant to the question
  • Supported by at least one quotation

To get to where we are, we studied what I call a key moment in the text, contained in a passage which we selected.

However…

Here’s what we’re going to do now

The question asks us about the whole chapter.

“How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?”

So it would also be a good idea to start opening up some new passages, whilst sticking with the same idea as the one we formed in Loops 1 and 2. We can always come back to our original passage later….

So…

… for our next example, we’re going to ‘branch out’ and find different moment in the chapter that still contains something similar to the point we are already making. A moment that contains an example of…

… George speaking harshly to Lennie – the thing we’ve been looking at for the last 2 Loops!

This way, we can start to show a grasp of the chapter as a whole. In fact…

… you can even start to create the illusion that you’ve mastered the whole text. When in fact you’ve just dipped in and out of a few key passages! What a dastardly plan!

(Loop 3) Step 1: Find something interesting (a similarity or connection)

Here we are once again at the beginning of the cycle. You know how this goes now:

We’re on the lookout for something that rings the notifications bell.

At the end of the last cycle, we were combing the text for something similar to what we already had. There are all sorts of ways two things can be ‘similar’ – so…

  • Trust your instincts
  • Be bold: find two or three possible examples so you can then choose the best one.
  • Be prepared for a bit of trial and error

Essay hack: If you took my earlier advice about going through the whole text and compiling a long list of quotations that just might be relevant to the question, this is where you start to get your money back.

For the time being, I’ve done the work for you. Here’s my example:

Example

We were looking for another example of George ‘speaking harshly’ to Lennie, or maybe using the word “hell” in conversation – or both.

And sure enough, George delivers the goods:

“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”

Let me show you how I found this example:

A quick summary of the context

Like any quotation, “You can jus’ as well got o hell” requires a little bit of context if we’re going to understand it well. So here it is.

Earlier in the chapter, George upsets Lennie a little because he (George) oversteps the mark and says some unkind things out of frustration – about how much of a drag it is having Lennie around and how George’s life would be easier without him. He realises immediately that he’s been unkind and sort of apologises.

But Lennie takes advantage, using a little reverse psychology on him (guilt-tripping him, if you like) and talking about how he could just go away and “live in a cave” on his own if George doesn’t want him.

This isn’t very subtle of Lennie, but it’s enough to get George to do the thing that Lennie really wants – which is to tell the story about how they’re going to find a ‘little place’ (a farm) and live happily ever after – with Lennie looking after the rabbits.

So all is well between George and Lennie as we near the end of the chapter, and George even starts to get a little philosophical as they gaze up at the stars….

“I won’t get in no trouble, George. I ain’t gonna say a word.”

“O.K. Bring your bindle over here by the fire. It’s gonna be nice sleepin’ here. Lookin’ up, and the leaves. Don’t build up no more fire. We’ll let her die down.”

They made their beds on the sand, and as the blaze dropped from the fire the sphere of light grew smaller; the curling branches disappeared and only a faint glimmer showed where the tree trunks were. From the darkness Lennie called, “George – you asleep?”

“No. Whatta you want?”

“Let’s have different color rabbits, George.”

“Sure we will,” George said sleepily. “Red and blue and green rabbits, Lennie. Millions of ’em.”

“Furry ones, George, like I seen in the fair in Sacramento.”

“Sure, furry ones.”

“‘Cause I can jus’ as well go away, George, an’ live in a cave.”

“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”

The red light dimmed on the coals. Up the hill from the river a coyote yammered, and a dog answered from the other side of the stream. The sycamore leaves whispered in a little night breeze.

[End of chapter]

“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”

Perfect – we’ve found something that looks similar to the lines we originally selected:

The hell with the rabbits
The hell with what I says
You can jus’ as well go to hell

Now to make some sense of our new example….

(Loop 3) Step 2: Try and understand it

We’re still keeping things simple at this stage. If you’re hungry for more adventurous analysis, stay with me – it’s coming!

Here’s the quotation – or moment, as I like to call it – of which we need to show understanding. George has said:

“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”

Now, just as before, a good way of showing understanding of this moment is by putting things in our own words in an interpretation. Which might look like this:

  • Lennie has irritated George
  • George speaks harshly to Lennie

Sound familiar? Good. Now, if we wanted to…

… we could write:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him: “You can jus’ as well go to hell [….] Shut up now.”

But if, dear reader, you have been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that…

we’ve already made this statement – with different examples.

So, we’ll be able to do some tidying up in the next step…

(Loop 3) Step 3: Find a home for it

Why Step 3 is a bit more developed this time round (and why it’s worth it)

We’ve made some crucial progress in the journey to writing better paragraphs:

We’ve started drawing together material from different parts of the chapter.

And that means…

… this next stage becomes a little more developed.

But:

It’s worth putting in the effort to do it right – because:

This is where we can really start to make an impression on your teacher or examiner.

So:

Things we might do in this stage include:

More advanced techniques for ‘finding a home’ for your existing material

(i) Economise on our interpretation
(ii) Adjust our statement so it
(a) forms a ‘home’ for all the quotations and
(b) is easier to defend
(iii) Coordinate our argument, which means
(a) Signposting your argument 
(b) Putting your quotations in context

(i) Economise on our interpretation

To ‘economise’ could be described as using no more of something than is necessary. In our case, we want to use no more words or sentences than are necessary. Rather than try and explain, let me show you what I mean by this:

Example of how to write your interpretation with better economy

If what follows sounds obvious, you’d be amazed at the number of students who needlessly repeat themselves – taking the punch and pith out of their essays.

Now, we started out by looking at two things that George says:

The hell with the rabbits
The hell with what I says

And we came up with this simple interpretation:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him: “The hell with the rabbits”; “The hell with what I says.”

Then we found an example which in some ways looked similar:

“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”

And we came up with another simple interpretation:

George speaks harshly to Lennie because Lennie has irritated him: “You can jus’ as well go to hell [….] Shut up now.”

But clearly we’re not going to write out the same sentence twice in our paragraph!

So, at this point, the simplest thing to do is to parachute our third quotation into the first observation we made – to make a general point:

George speaks harshly to Lennie when Lennie has irritated him: “The hell with the rabbits”; “The hell with what I says”; “You can jus’ as well go to hell [….] Shut up now.”

Which reminds me: this will often mean that we have to…

(ii) Adjust our statement so it (a) covers all the quotations, and (b) is easier to defend

Again, I’ll show you what I mean:

Example of how to make your statement easier to defend

In the example above, I’ve changed “because Lennie has irritated him” to “when Lennie has irritated him.”

Why?

It’s because we’re no longer talking about a single moment of irritation – but rather there are two. Now our statement covers both of them.

But hang on….

There are still a couple of things that need adjusting:

George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie, especially at times when Lennie has irritated him: “The hell with the rabbits”; “The hell with what I says”; “You can jus’ as well go to hell [….] Shut up now.

These tweaks make our statement easier to defend with the limited amount of evidence we have gathered. How?

  1. The word ‘sometimes’ is vital here. It prevents our statement from being too much of a sweeping generalistion. We don’t want to imply that George spends his whole life speaking harshly to Lennie – because that would be an impossible position to defend.
  2. The phrase ‘especially at times when’ helps us shift the focus of the discussion to favourable ground.

Essay hack: By the way, the adverbial phrase “especially at times when” is a bit sneaky. We haven’t actually explored whether George ever ‘speaks harshly to Lennie’ when Lennie hasn’t irritated him – only when he has. But our statement kind of implies that he does. You could say that we’re selling the reader a dummy, hoping that he or she will accept our more general statement when we have only demonstrated the more specific one. You’ll have to judge from your own circumstances whether you think this is acceptable.

OK, there are still some things we need to fix up, though, and that’s what we’ll do in a sec. For example…

We’ve taken two separate ‘moments’ in the chapter and shoved them together. There’s no context, no idea of what makes George say what he says, no indication of the passage of time between these moments.

In fact…

… for all your reader knows, Lennie is busy inflicting physical torture on George when George says “the hell with what I says” – something which would completely change the complexion of George’s language and meaning.

In short, these quotations deserve a better home. So let’s fix that.

(iii) Coordinating (Signposting and Context)

Well done on getting this far. I have good news:

This is where the paragraph really starts to heat up and read like a convincing and argumentative piece of writing!

First, two things to note here:

  • We have several quotations which support the same statement
  • They’re from different parts of the text.

That means there is now some complexity in our argument – it has numerous different working parts. And that means…

We need to coordinate.

We need to show how it all adds up.

We can’t just throw all the information together and expect the reader to do the hard work.

(Though that is something that many students do.)

Let me show you:

Example of how to coordinate the sentences in a paragraph

George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie, especially at times when Lennie has irritated him. For example, in Chapter 1, when he learns that Lennie has forgotten where they are going, and Lennie tries to talk about other things, he says: “The hell with the rabbits”; “The hell with what I says”. Similarly, at the end of the chapter, George is trying to get to sleep and Lennie says that he might leave George and go and “live in a cave”. George replies “You can jus’ as well go to hell [….] Shut up now.”

Changes I’ve made:
  1. Offer some context: We’ve been asked a question about the whole chapter, so we need to provide some indications of where our examples have come from – otherwise they might not make sense.
  2. Signposting: (For example… Similarly…)

Let me offer a warning here:

Offering context can lead to a very common problem students experience with essay-writing:

Falling into the trap of retelling the story.

But:

Good signposting solves this problem:

Have you every been told that you’re just “retelling the story” or that your essay contains “narrative rather than argument”?

Well, here is a quick and easy way of rectifying that problem.

It may not seem much, but these little words or phrases (For exampleSimilarly) make a huge difference to the sense, readability, and authority of your paragraph – and they help to keep you on an argumentative footing rather than a narrative one.

Why is that?

Because they explain the relationship between your statement and your various supporting references. This is one of the crucial differences between narrative and argument: you’re not just retelling the story, but offering parts of the story as examples.

This is sometimes called signposting because it helps the reader find his or her way around your paragraph. Believe it or not, these tiny additions make a huge difference to the authority of your paragraph, because they bring out the structure of your argument. Have another look at my example above: can you see how much better it reads?

Essay hack: Honestly, when I’m marking a pile of essays, I am very appreciative of students who do this signposting thing. It makes the essay so much easier and quicker to read. And that may not be in the mark scheme or the exam specification, but it can’t hurt your mark…

OK!

Now that we’ve come up with some new material, and we’ve found a home for it, it’s time to…

(Loop 3) Step 4: Take a step back

Still here? Give yourself a pat on the back and stand back to admire your handiwork! This step is about building on your success so far, keeping you on the straight and narrow, and fine-tuning your paragraph so that it will really fly.

(i) What’s the question again?

“How does John Steinbeck present the relationship between George and Lennie in the first chapter of Of Mice and Men?”

(ii) Is our material relevant to the question?

Yes – we still think the way George and Lennie talk to each other is likely to tell us something about their relationship.

(iii) Are we answering the question?

Let’s see. We’re beginning our paragraph with…

George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie.

No, it still doesn’t directly answer the question. 

And we’re going to have a go at fixing that now.

For some, it won’t be the final fix or the perfect fix, but we’ll have a go…

(iv) How are we going to answer the question?

We’re going to answer the question by identifying a key characteristic or ingredient of the thing we’ve been asked about (George and Lennie’s relationship) and saying:

“Yep, that’s part of their relationship. And John Steinbeck put it there. Question answered. Partly.”

Or words to that effect.

We’ll get there with a bit of trial and error, and asking other questions – I’ll show you:

How to come up with your brilliant, pithy, answer to the question

(i) Ask your own questions
(ii) Answer them as honestly as you can, in your own words
(iii) Get fresh vocabulary from your answer
(iv) Select vocabulary that is actually supported by the examples you have gathered so far
(v) Form a direct answer to the question using your selected vocabulary
(vi) Tighten up your answer to the question with a few clever tweaks.

Now let me get on with showing you how to do it:

(i) Ask your own questions

Last time we were at this stage in the cycle, I dropped in a few example questions (which I try to answer below). My challenge to you was to ask yourself the kinds of questions that your teacher might ask you. Failing that, try to ask yourself some provocative Yes/No questions.

(ii) Answer them

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to try and answer my questions – in my own words.

(By the way, I’m going to use a teeny bit of knowledge of the chapter as a whole here. If you haven’t read the chapter, this is nothing to worry about – just go with it. The only reason I’m doing this is to shed light on the short extracts you have read, and to exemplify the kind of conversation you should be having with yourself at this point.)

Question: Do George and Lennie get on well?
Answer: It’s complicated. Looking at the chapter as a whole, there’s certainly a sort of companionship between George and Lennie – and that involves a certain amount of getting on. But looking at our examples, there are undoubtedly moments of tension or conflict between the characters. 

Question: Is it an ‘equal’ relationship?
Answer: No way! George is in charge. George has the brains. George seems to have some sort of responsibility towards Lennie… but he also depends on Lennie understanding and cooperating. And Lennie seems to have the power to accidentally ruin George’s plans.

Question: Are they in competition?
Answer: I don’t think so: on the whole they seem to be trying to help each other out.

Question: What ‘kind’ of relationship is it?
Answer: I guess ‘companionship’ is the best word I can find to describe it.

Question: Does it remind you of other relationships you’re familiar with?
Answer: The closest I can get to is a superhero and his sidekick (like Batman and Robin). Or what about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson? Obviously there are big differences here, though.

NOW, our answers to those questions help us in a particular way:

They give us some fresh vocabulary.

(iii) Get fresh vocabulary

From my answers above, the two words which I feel are going to help me answer the question are…

  1. Companionship
  2. Tension

However…

(iv) Select appropriate vocabulary

From the new words we’ve come up with, we need to use selected vocabulary that is actually supported by the examples you have gathered so far.

Now… I can see an issue already…

… the examples we’ve been working on so far (examples of George speaking harshly to Lennie, remember?) don’t do much to help us show ‘companionship’.

It’s not really a problem, though, because…

we’re going to put that idea to one side and keep it (it might be useful for another paragraph, or even an introduction).

Tension, on the other hand, seems to be a good candidate for our argument. So…

(v) Use your freshly selected vocabulary to form a new, direct answer to the question

… Let’s include that word (tension) in a rough statement which – hooray! – directly answers the question:

George and Lennie’s relationship is characterised by tension.

We can then combine this statement with the groundwork we did earlier:

George and Lennie’s relationship is characterised by tension. For example, George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie, particularly if Lennie has found a way of irritating him.

Fantastic. We are now properly answering the question – but here’s the amazing thing:

Because we’ve taken the Grass Roots approach, we weren’t 100% sure how we were going to do it until this moment.

But loads of writing happens in this way! Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay, would be proud of us.

And as for those people who think we should have had it all planned out in advance…

They will never know!!

(vi) Tightening up your answer to the question

Here’s just a reminder of the vital, essay-changing answer we came up with up with:

George and Lennie’s relationship is characterised by tension.

Now, take note:

This answer will – or should – continue to change as we gradually perfect the paragraph (and the essay as a whole – if we were actually doing that).

It’s a placeholder. It does the job of (sort of) answering the question. But more importantly…

… it is sitting there in the paragraph, nagging us.

Nagging us to review it later on. Nagging us to check whether our paragraph is actually saying something more specific or more powerful than we have realised.

Now, here are some initial ways we could make some improvements.

Qualifying your argument

Currently, our placeholder statement is this:

George and Lennie’s relationship is characterised by tension. For example, George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie, particularly if Lennie has found a way of irritating him.

Hang on, though…

It’s not all tension – not if you read the whole chapter. So let’s qualify our statement. We’ll change it to:

George and Lennie’s relationship is partly characterised by tension.

OR

There is sometimes tension in George and Lennie’s relationship.

These are solid, defensible statements. They are made easier to defend by the inclusion of “partly” and “sometimes” – because each of those words reassures the reader of your essay that you know this is not the whole picture.

OK – next tip:

Another great improvement you can make at this point it to recognise that George and Lennie are not real, and are in fact literary constructs created by a writer. I’ll show you what I mean:

Recognising literary constructs

OK, ‘literary constructs’ sounds a bit fancy, but it’s really just a case stopping yourself from writing as if the characters, scenarios, and events in the text are real.

It’s natural for us to talk about texts in this way, but in a critical essay we need to recognise that it’s all an illusion – so that we can study how the illusion is put together.

The question asks us “How does John Steinbeck present [etc.]” So we could write:

Steinbeck creates some tension in George and Lennie’s relationship, as evidenced by George’s sometimes harsh speech with Lennie, particularly when Lennie has found a way of irritating him.

OR

Steinbeck partly characterises George and Lennie’s relationship with tension. A good example of this can be found in George’s frequently harsh speech to Lennie – especially at time when Lennie has irritated him.


Before we continue with our ‘Step 4: Take a Step Back’, there’s another thing to notice here.

TIME OUT: Why understanding hierarchy is the key to writing good paragraphs

Remember that our original interpretation (back in Loop 1) was the simple…

George speaks harshly to Lennie [once]

which we later generalised:

George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie [i.e. more than once]

But now, notice what has happened to that interpretation:

George and Lennie’s relationship is partly characterised by tension. For example, George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie, particularly if Lennie has found a way of irritating him.

Our original interpretation has turned into an example

– an example supporting a broader (and better) reading of the text – and one that actually answers the question.

And you never know…

… maybe even that argument (the ‘characterised by tension’ argument) will turn out to be an example of an even bigger idea we want to communicate.

Now hear me out, here:

To some readers, the work we’ve done above might seem complicated, but actually…

It’s a darn sight simpler, more flexible, and more adaptable to real life than remembering meaningless paragraph-templates or formulae like ‘PEE’ or ‘PETAL’. If you can get your head around this, then YOU are the boss – instead of some exam system leading you a merry dance.

You see, it’s like this:

At the end of the day, pretty much any idea can either be broken down into smaller ideas – or can be found to be part of a bigger idea.

And a crucial part of learning how to write paragraphs and essays is becoming fluent in separating and ranking your ideas – in seeing their hierarchy.

Pretty much the whole point of this guide on how to write paragraphs is based on this paradox:

That you won’t come up with the best or the biggest ideas first…

BUT

That in the finished product you’re supposed to offer them first.

So it’s a gradual and messy process, as I said right at the beginning.

To recap:

  • In the early stages of this process, we spent a fair amount of time and effort coming up with the observation that ‘George sometimes speaks harshly to Lennie’.
  • But with some further thinking, we realised that this could be made part of a broader observation, which is that ‘there is sometimes tension in George and Lennie’s relationship.’
  • And the second idea – which we arrived at later in the process, comes earlier in the paragraph because it’s more important.

It is worth getting used to thinking about paragraphs in this way – as an organised presentation of ideas, with your quotations or your specific references at the bottom of the food chain.

Why?

Because (putting it as briefly as I can)…

Organising stuff is satisfying – both for the writer and the reader!

If you get good at this, writing essays becomes much more absorbing and less of a chore. From the reader’s point of view, your ideas seem more developed and convincing, and your whole essay becomes more enjoyable to read – leading to higher grades.

Still with me? You’re doing fantastically well. You are very close to completing your Grass Roots Paragraph – and dazzling your teachers! There’s one more question we need to answer, first, as part of Step 4: Take a Step Back:

(v) What is our take-away going to be?

This is another of those great life-skills that you acquire by writing essays and paragraphs well.

It’s a powerful question in the world of business and work – and one that separates the dynamos from the time-wasters:

What do I actually want people to take away or learn from this?

Eventually, your paragraph is going to need a concluding sentence which acts on your answer to that question – and which maybe tees up the next paragraph.

As with the opening sentence, you’re unlikely to write the perfect version of this until you’re nearly finished with the whole essay. But, as I keep saying:

You have to start somewhere.

So it’s worth making a start with your concluding sentence once your paragraph has a ‘core’ (which ours most definitely does!).

How do you do this?

Well, a reliable way of making a start involves repeating the wording of the question and then bringing your own language to bear on the question.

In fact…

… there are worse things you can do than basically repeat the language from your introductory sentence to the paragraph. This solution (perhaps a temporary one) has several advantages:

  • It makes your paragraph seem consistent
  • It makes your paragraph seem well-organised
  • It helps your reader to verify for themselves that your argument makes sense

We could therefore – for now – conclude our paragraph like this:

Steinbeck therefore presents George and Lennie’s relationship as one that is partly characterised by tension.

For some readers of this guide on how to write a paragraph, completing all of the steps above and concluding a paragraph like this will denote a great accomplishment –

And I salute you.

For more advanced writers, finishing in this way may feel a bit ‘wooden’ or even anti-climactic –

And there are ways of dealing with this.


For now, though, it’s fine to have a ‘placeholder’ – something to remind us later on that we need to ‘finish’ the paragraph by making sure that it fits in with the rest of the essay.

So that is what we’ll leave in place.

(Loop 3) Step 5: Look for something similar or something new

Still here?

You are a champ!

Loop 3 has been pretty epic, right?

Well, this is the end of Loop 3 – I promise! But it’s also where you can really stretch ahead of the competition if you can manage a few more minutes of focused attention. After all…

most people aren’t able to do this.

Have an honest conversation with yourself about whether you want to:

(a) Move on: You decide that your paragraph is finished – time to make a start on the next one and go back to Loop 1!

(b) Go Parachuting: Stick with your existing ideas but look for more supporting evidence. You might want to go back to Loop 2 to help you do this.

(c) Keep building: You take two or more of your existing ideas and you turn them into something more sophisticated. I’ll show you how… in Loop 4.

This, dear reader, concludes the ‘Basic’ section of my guide on how to write a paragraph.

For many readers, this will be enough. In fact, it will have been lengthy and hard work.

But… let’s say you’re already reasonably comfortable with essay-writing.

Let’s say you can do more or less everything in the guide so far.

It’s just that, somehow…

… you’re just not getting grades you want.

Somehow you’re not showing your teacher the insight that they say they want to see. Those other students in the class… they always seem to be the ones to come up with the good ideas – and to get recognised for it.

Let’s change that.

[Loops 4, 5, and 6 will be coming soon!]

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