David R. Williams calls sentences and paragraphs “the tools of the writing trade.” In his book Sin Boldly! Dr Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2000) 31, he says, “The sentence is the hammer you use to drive your points home. Each blow must hit a nail. Each sentence must communicate a thought clearly from your mind to that of your reader. Disorganized jumbles of words and phrases cannot do this. Only when the words are arranged in a logical order with a subject and a verb is a complete thought expressed.”
Williams goes on to explain what makes for good sentences and paragraphs:
Sentences should be varied. Writing the entire paper in short, choppy sentences will make you sound like Mr. Rogers reading Dick and Jane. But long, elaborate sentences full of subordinate clauses and other complexities one after another will wear down your reader and produce an impenetrable thicket of words instead of clear, concise prose. There is no happy middle ground here. Mediocre is boring; even God spits the lukewarm out of his mouth. Go back and forth between both styles.
The paragraph is the next unit of organization. It needs to be disciplined and unified as if it were a mini-essay all by itself. That is, each paragraph needs to be organized around its own topic and must begin with its own topic sentence, a sentence that in one way or another introduces the particular topic that distinguishes that paragraph. The remainder of each paragraph, the logic and evidence that back up the topic, must flow naturally from the topic sentence that heads it. One insight per paragraph is the rule. By “insight,” I mean something you must take a risk to say, something a reasonable person would want explained, explored, or defended. You will know you are doing it right when you feel exposed and doing it wrong when you feel safe and dull.
For more helpful writing tips from Williams – including what to do if you find different ideas competing in one paragraph – click here.