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English Composition 1

Bad Paragraph / Good Paragraph: Effectively Developing a Persuasive Paragraph

The paragraphs below are on the short story "To Hell with Dying," by Alice Walker. You should get a clear understand of why one of the paragraphs below is poorly developed and why the other paragraph is well developed.

This page is about persuasive and interpretive paragraphs, paragraphs in which a writer tries to prove a claim. The paragraphs below argue interpretations of a short story, but the principles of organization and the support and development of ideas explained below are the same for any persuasive paragraph.

Effective paragraphs of this type tend to share certain characteristics, outlined below:

Read this page carefully, and make sure that your own persuasive and interpretive paragraphs are well developed!

Bad Paragraph/Good Paragraph

Strong organization and the effective support and development of ideas are important characteristics of a well-written paragraph and essay. They are also aspects of writing essays that students sometimes take a while to master. Once you understand a few basic concepts, though, you should be able to strengthen both the organization and the support and development of ideas in your paragraphs and essays.

Imagine that both paragraphs below were written in response to an assignment asking students to write a persuasive paragraph arguing whether or not Mr. Sweet is a good companion for the narrator and her siblings in Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying."

Bad Paragraph
In Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying," Mr. Sweet was a good companion for the narrator and her siblings. Mr. Sweet always made the narrator feel special. She loved to be around him and was overjoyed whenever he would visit her. Mr. Sweet played with the children just as if he were a child himself. Mr. Sweet also displayed a great deal of respect for the narrator and her family. Even though his alcoholism and lifestyle was a bad influence on the children, his virtues far outweighed his faults. Mr. Sweet had a positive impact on the children that would last their entire lives. He was compassionate, caring, and honest, and the children learned to respect themselves and others from their experiences with Mr. Sweet. He also inspired the children to succeed. Mr. Sweet's lifestyle did not make him an excellent role model for the children, but he was always an excellent companion.

Why is this a Bad Paragraph?
The assignment called for a persuasive paragraph, and this paragraph fails miserably in this regard. The reason is that there is no argument at all presented in the paragraph. Instead, the writer has simply written a series of claims with no supporting evidence whatsoever. In other words, there are no facts from the story presented in the paragraph to convince readers that any of the claims are believable.

Can you imagine a lawyer’s case if he or she presented it in a way similar to the way the paragraph above is developed? It might go something like this: "My client is innocent of assaulting the victim. My client is a kind family man who would never even consider committing such a crime. In addition, he has always been able to control his tempter, even in difficult and trying situations. Furthermore, my client was not even near the scene of the crime when it occurred. I would also add that all of the evidence the prosecution has presented against my client points instead to his innocence. I rest my case." Gee, is there something missing from this "argument"? As with the bad paragraph above, the lawyer presents no supporting evidence whatsoever, just a series of claims. The claims mean absolutely nothing without supporting evidence, and the client will probably be sent to the big house.

The writer of the bad paragraph needs to reduce the number of claims in the paragraph and to present "abundant" support for the claims that remain, as in the example below.

Good Paragraph
In Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying," Mr. Sweet was a good companion for the narrator and her siblings. First, Mr. Sweet made the narrator feel special. The narrator recalls that "Mr. Sweet used to call [her] his princess" and that he "made [her] feel pretty at five or six, and simply outrageously devastating at the blazing age of eight and a half." Mr. Sweet also made the narrator feel special by turning to her for support and comfort. During one of his trips to the narrator’s home, Mr. Sweet was feeling especially sad, but the narrator "held his wooly head in [her] arms" to comfort him. She also realized "how much depended on her" during those times when she participated in Mr. Sweet’s revivals, clearly revealing her knowledge that she played a special role in reviving him. Second, Mr. Sweet was a good companion for the narrator and her siblings because of the children’s ability to relate to Mr. Sweet on their own level. Mr. Sweet "had the grace to be shy with us," the narrator says, adding that this quality "is unusual in a grownup." Mr. Sweet would also "dance around the yard" with the children, as if he were a child himself. While his alcoholism may have been the cause of some of his behavior, his drinking problem seemed to help make him a good companion by turning him into an "adult child," at least from the perspective of the narrator. She notes that "his ability to be drunk and sober at the same time made him an ideal playmate." His alcoholism made Mr. Sweet "as weak as [the children] were," and, like a child, the drunken Mr. Sweet could keep at least "a fairly coherent conversation going." His childlike emotional state was also something that the children could relate to at times. The narrator states that after his revivals, Mr. Sweet’s "eyes would get all misty and he would sometimes cry out loud, but we never let it embarrass us, for he knew that we loved him and that we sometimes cried too for no reason." Unlike some adults who can seem distant and intimidating to children, Mr. Sweet is described by the narrator as if he were a child himself. Both Mr. Sweet’s ability to make the narrator feel special and the children’s ability to relate to him on their own level made Mr. Sweet a good companion for the narrator and her siblings.

Why is this a Good Paragraph?
The writer of this paragraph uses ample evidence to support the claims presented in the paragraph, and the writer also attempts to explain how each piece of evidence is logically supporting some claim. In addition, the writer has limited the number of claims in the paragraph, presenting only one primary claim and a few secondary claims (explained below). The writer also stays focused on one main idea throughout the paragraph, beginning and ending the paragraph with a statement of this main idea.

At 410 words, the good paragraph might be a bit long, but the length is revealing. Why is the good paragraph longer than the bad paragraph? It’s not simply because the writer has added more words but instead because the writer is attempting to argue a point with evidence and explanation. You will probably find it difficult to reach the minimum number of words for your papers if you present nothing more than a series of claims; you will probably find it difficult to keep your papers under 1000 words if you develop and support your ideas thoroughly.

Something Else to Consider
I wrote the bad paragraph without even looking at the story. I didn’t need to look at the story just to write a series of claims. However, as I wrote the good paragraph, I not only had the book open, but I was marking passages that I felt could be used as part of my argument. Developing and supporting ideas well requires more work and more thought than writing a bunch of claims. This helps explain one of the reasons for low grades on those papers where ideas are not supported and developed.

A Few Words on Organization

Organization and the development and support of ideas are closely related. We have already talked about developing and supporting ideas effectively, but take a moment to consider the organization of the bad and good paragraphs above. As I have said in class, effective persuasive paragraphs often begin with a claim and are followed by specific support for that claim. Can you guess which paragraph follows that pattern of organization?

Organization of the Bad Paragraph

Organization of the Good Paragraph

Primary Claim of the Paragraph: In Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying," Mr. Sweet was a good companion for the narrator and her siblings.

  1. Secondary Claim 1: First, Mr. Sweet made the narrator feel special.
  1. Secondary Claim 2: Mr. Sweet also made the narrator feel special by turning to her for support and comfort.
  1. Secondary Claim 3: Second, Mr. Sweet was a good companion for the narrator and her siblings because of the children’s ability to relate to Mr. Sweet on their own level.
  1. Secondary Claim 4: While his alcoholism may have been the cause of some of his behavior, his drinking problem seemed to help make him a good companion by turning him into an "adult child," at least from the perspective of the narrator.
  1. Secondary Claim 5: His childlike emotional state was also something that the children could relate to at times.

Summary of the Main Points of the Paragraph: Unlike some adults who can seem distant and intimidating to children, Mr. Sweet was described by the narrator as if he were a child himself. Both Mr. Sweet’s ability to make the narrator feel special and the children’s ability to relate to him on their own level made Mr. Sweet a good companion for the narrator and her siblings.

Ah, there is logic to all of this. Notice that the good paragraph does present several claims, but that’s all right as long as the secondary claims, once proven with evidence, work to support the primary claim of the paragraph. If I had additional time to revise the good paragraph, though, I might try to reduce the number of secondary claims and increase the amount of evidence I use to support the claims that remain in the paragraph. Now, think carefully about the ways you are organizing your persuasive paragraphs and essays!

This page was last updated on July 25, 2006. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.