Sentences and Paragraphs out of Order? Reassembling as a Tool to Restructure

In general, an effective body paragraph has a predictable Structure: (1) it begins with a topic sentence that articulates the paragraph’s guiding claim or purpose; (2) the middle features evidence, analysis, and an explanation of how the evidence and analysis supports the guiding claim; and (3) it ends with a conclusion that recalls the guiding claim in a way that adds to it. But sometimes, particularly when a writer is drafting a paragraph or essay,  the writer presents the information out of order. This revision strategy, reassembling—physically moving sentences around, is a helpful revising exercise because it forces the writer to approach their writing as if they are reading it for the first time. In addition, reassembling paragraphs and sections asks a writer to confront their writing and ask, “is there a better and clearer way to say what I want to say?” (It’s also a great way to step away from the screen and still write!)

Step 1: Locate a body paragraph that, in your opinion, is neither organized nor clear.

Step 2: Copy and paste that paragraph into a separate document, and break up the paragraph so that each sentence begins on its own line.

Step 3: Print out the document, and cut out each sentence. You should have wisps of paper in front of you—each one with its own sentence.

Step 4: Mix up the sentences so that they are out of order, read through them, and then put them together so that the paragraph begins with a topic sentence, continues with evidence and analysis, and ends with a conclusion. As you reassemble your evidence and analysis, ask yourself which evidence and analysis should appear first and which bit of evidence and analysis follows from there. (You can make notes on the paper if you need to add or remove anything to make the paragraph flow.)

Step 5: Compare and contrast your original paragraph with this one. What has changed and what has stayed the same? Chances are that your rearranged paragraph will be clearer than your original, but be sure to check.

Step 6: Now go back to the original paragraph and enter the changes.

This exercise can also be done at the section-level. Here, instead of rearranging sentences, you are rearranging the paragraphs that comprise a section. The process, however is the same: 1) locate a section that is neither organized nor clear; 2) copy and paste it into a separate document; 3) print out the document and cut out each paragraph; 4) mix up the paragraphs and then put them together in what seems like the most logical order. (You can make notes on the paper if you need to add anything.)

No matter whether you are working on a single paragraph or a whole section, there are some baseline elements to remember:

  • The opening sentences of a paragraph (and the first few paragraphs of a section) should inform the reader of what will be argued. The middle sentences of a paragraph (and the middle paragraphs of a section) should really dig into the details of the evidence and the analysis. Finally, the ending sentences of a paragraph (and the ending paragraphs of a section) should expand upon the argument and offer a more nuanced and specific take than the beginning.
  • As you determine the new sequence of your paragraph or section, always interrogate whether or not you have sufficiently explained how the evidence you are using supports the argument of your paragraph or section. Often, we tend to under-explain.
  • Finally, during the drafting process, writers tend to make their major points in the middle of a paragraph or section. This exercise helps you find those middle places where your major points are located and rearrange your sentences and paragraphs so that the major points are made at the beginning and/or end of your paragraphs or sections.

When we approach revising simply by reading our work from beginning to end, we tend to overlook mistakes and awkward phrasing because we are so accustomed to our own voice, subject matter, and thoughts that we cannot see logical gaps or awkward paragraphs. Psychologically, it is difficult to confront a paragraph or section we have written with the intent to move things around. It is much easier to revise a paragraph or a section if it is jumbled up already.

Example:

Please note: we’ve indicated where wording needs to be rephrased in order to achieve a seamless transition between sentences.

Original paragraph:

Although Singleton appears to critique plantation society and argue for the integrity and humanity of the enslaved, his descriptions of several animals, plants, and other living things in the Caribbean complicate and compromise his argument. I contend that when Singleton describes a plant or animal, he is using that object as an emblem to reveal his confusion regarding the enslavement of Africans and his terror of the enslaved. For example, Singleton describes a cocoa tree and uses sublime terms. Cocoa trees were commonly used as emblems for considering enslaved Africans, but although Singleton’s use of the sublime ought to lead him to consider the immorality of enslaving other peoples, Singleton, instead, denigrates the tree finding it ugly and repulsive. Likewise, embedded within a sublime description of a cave in which escaped slaves were known to hide, Singleton concentrates on a sea anemone, revealing that he cannot maintain a strict notion of the boundaries between plants, animals, and humans. There are several other sublime descriptions of plants and animals, each of which present emblematic meaning along with several very vivid rants against plantation society. All told, there is a tension between Singleton’s use of sublime imagery and the messages he places within his emblems.

The sentences of the paragraph are mixed up in no particular order:

Likewise, embedded within a sublime description of a cave in which escaped slaves were known to hide, Singleton concentrates on a sea anemone, revealing that he cannot maintain a strict notion of the boundaries between plants, animals, and humans.

For example, Singleton describes a cocoa tree and uses sublime terms.

All told, there is a tension between Singleton’s use of sublime imagery and the messages he places within his emblems.

Although Singleton appears to critique plantation society and argue for the integrity and humanity of the enslaved, his descriptions of several animals, plants, and other living things in the Caribbean — all of which are couched in sublime imagery — complicate and compromise his argument.

There are several other sublime descriptions of plants and animals, each of which presents emblematic meaning along with several very vivid rants against plantation society.

I contend that when Singleton describes a plant or animal, he is using that object as an emblem to reveal his confusion regarding the enslavement of Africans and his terror of the enslaved.

Cocoa trees were commonly used as emblems for considering enslaved Africans, but although Singleton’s use of the sublime ought to lead him to consider the immorality of enslaving other peoples, Singleton, instead, denigrates the tree finding it ugly and repulsive.

Reassembled paragraph:

Although Singleton appears to critique plantation society and argue for the integrity and humanity of the enslaved, his descriptions of several animals, plants, and other living things in the Caribbean — all of which are couched in sublime imagery — complicate and compromise his argument. All told, there is a tension between Singleton’s use of sublime imagery and the messages he places within his descriptions. For example, Singleton describes a cocoa tree and uses sublime terms. Cocoa trees were commonly used as emblems for considering enslaved Africans, but although Singleton’s use of the sublime ought to lead him to consider the terrifying inhumanity of enslaving other peoples, Singleton, instead, denigrates the tree finding it ugly and repulsive. [Thus hinting that enslaved Africans are likewise, ugly and repulsive.] There are several other sublime descriptions of plants and animals, each of which presents emblematic meaning along with several very vivid rants against plantation society. Perhaps part of Singleton’s difficulty lies in the fact that he cannot commit to the fact that enslaved Africans are human beings. For example, embedded within a sublime description of a cave in which escaped slaves were known to hide, Singleton concentrates on a sea anemone, revealing that he cannot maintain a strict notion of the boundaries between plants, animals, and humans. Thus, I contend that when Singleton describes a plant or animal, he is using that object as an emblem to reveal his confusion regarding the enslavement of Africans and his terror of the enslaved.

Notes:

As you can see, we switched the placement of the second and last sentences of the original paragraph. Now, the last sentence of the original paragraph is the second sentence of the revised paragraph and the second sentence of the original paragraph is the last sentence of the revised paragraph. We did this for two reasons: a) The new last sentence is a much stronger conclusion to the paragraph than the old last sentence. It makes a strong and definitive statement. The old last sentence is not as strong—it vaguely refers to “a tension” and “a message.” But when paired with the first sentence of that paragraph, it lets the reader know what to expect from the paragraph: examples and analysis that proves a tension in the work being analyzed.

After the author’s analysis of the cocoa tree, we suggested a new sentence in the comment section. We made this choice because we felt that the example required more analysis—more explanation of why it is relevant to the argument.

We also moved the second-to-last sentence of the original paragraph so that it now appears between the two examples, and we added an additional sentence whose point is to introduce the last piece of evidence. The rest of the section of which this paragraph is a part concentrates on the second example of this paragraph, the sea anemone. Because this example is integral to the chapter as a whole, we decided that it was important to do some groundwork first and highlight the importance of this example.

The entry, “Do Your Topic Sentences and Paragraphs Align: Thinking Through the Vacuum” provides an alternate tactic targeting signposting failures.

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