Historical Writing Project

Good and Bad Writing -- Exercises in Evaluating Writing Samples

The Paragraph: Coherent versus Incoherent

The paragraph is the essential building block of any composition you write. Normally it should have a topic sentence (or sentences) indicating the direction of what follows and then information developing that topic. The details should follow in a logical order and relate clearly to the topic.

Notice the difference between the two paragraphs that follow. One has a number of random details about John Muir. The other makes a specific point about Muir and backs it up with supporting details.

Incoherent Paragraph

John Muir was born in Scotland. He had a long white beard. He took a ship to America. In college he studied lots of things. He liked mountains. His father was very strict and whipped him if he did not memorize passages from the Bible. John Muir had a difficult life. But he liked nature including the flowery Central Valley of California. Scotland is a very nice country.

Coherent Paragraph

During the years when Americans were settling the last frontiers, respect for nature became part of the American credo. John Muir helped make it happen. He wrote articles in national magazines, founded a wilderness preservation society, and fought for the protection of wilderness areas. Eventually his name would adorn campsites, lakes, mountains, and forests. It appears more often in California’s nomenclature than that of any other man. The Muir Woods near San Francisco, the John Muir Trail along the Sierra Nevada crest, and the Muir Grove in Sequoia National Park are a few of the more famous sites bearing his name. John Muir devoted his life to expanding American appreciation for the wilderness. “Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get his fellow sinners into the Jordon,” wrote Muir, “than I to baptize mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.”

Study that first paragraph again – sometimes entire essays are written that way, random and sloppy!

Notice how things flow logically from point to point in the second paragraph: growing appreciation of nature leads to John Muir’s contributions to environmentalism leads to Muir honored in many wilderness place names leads to use of quotation to accentuate his enthusiasm for promoting nature.


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