People arrive in Paragraph City by accident all the time. They step into the tiled train station or pull their luggage from the carousel in the airport or glide down the Interstate exit ramp looking for “a paragraph about a city.” That’s what they asked the Google for and the Google brought them here, and I feel a little sorry when Paragraph City doesn’t have one for them. So here’s the instructions I would give for writing a paragraph about a city.
- Collect data, a heap of it, a mountain of information, way more than you can use. This is my “Write from richness” axiom. If you have 40,000 things you could say about your city, then you can pick the very best 120. If you have only 120 things to say about it, then it all goes in, regardless of quality: that’s bad. So what are the city’s nicknames, its founding date, its major exports & imports & industry & employer, its most beautiful & ugly & dangerous & loneliest parts, its average income & SAT scores & rainfall & snowfall & days of sunshine, its number of parks & apartments & malls & markets & theaters & firehouses & schools & homeless shelters, its rate of violent crime & college education & taxes & cancer…..? Download photos. Jot down notes on your favorite memories. Use all your senses.
- Decide on a dominant impression you will build from a selection of that data. This will guide your description and help you decide what to include in your paragraph. Will you describe the city as a friend, a monster, your child, your mother, a ghost, your culture, your coffin, your wings, a mockery, a trap, a springboard…? It can be fact-based, such as a picture of the city as polluter and a stain on the landscape, or more subjective and personal, such as the place that launched you into a bigger world.
- Gather and order the stuff that will show or prove your dominant impression to your reader. Put all the rest of your heap in a closet and shut the door (another axiom: “What you leave out is as important as what you put in”). What will come first; something that makes a convincing splash about that dominant impression? Some odd contradiction that will make the reader curious to read more? A perfect first impression of the city? A commonly held false-face that your paragraph will contradict? What will come second, what third, and so on?
- Compose a topic sentence, which will probably be your paragraph’s first sentence. You can’t do all the work creating that dominant impression in the first sentence, but everything that follows must be suggested by that topic sentence. The topic sentence is an umbrella in a downpour, and everything you will write about must fit safe & dry under that umbrella. Of if you prefer, your actual city is a mansion of a thousand rooms, and that topic sentence is a door that opens into the one single room that you’ve decided to tour.
- Now write the description. This is where you do your best thinking about the topic, as you write (another axiom: “We learn what we have to say in the act of saying it”). In the process you will think of things in the closet that you want to use, and find other things you thought you would use that now you discard. That’s good; that’s part of the process. Try to use every one of your reader’s five senses at least once – without being absurd.
- Proof read the draft and see if it still matches the topic sentence. If you have strayed away from under the umbrella, then either cut what has strayed or change the topic sentence to include it. Check the last sentence; try to make a lasting impression there. Re-write clichés & stereotypes so they are your own original wording (often getting a specific instance you have experienced to replace the generalization of the cliche helps). Replace the most general verbs (is-am-are-was-were, have, do, go, get, look, see…) with more descriptive verbs wherever that seems like an improvement. Read your paragraph aloud. If anything makes you stumble or sounds funny as you read, write it again until it sounds better.
Finis. Except a piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned (my last axiom for the day, with a nod to Hemingway). But it’s just a paragraph and shouldn’t consume one’s life; there are always new and more amazing things to write. At least that’s the attitude in Paragraph City.