Almost any good book on writing will include a section on composing paragraphs, telling the importance of five factors: topic sentences, coherence, unity, appropriate length, and proper development. Most students can understand these five aspects of good paragraphs, but remembering the list is more challenging—until now.
Introducing . . . CLOUD.
The letters in CLOUD stand for Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, and Development. Using the CLOUD framework, you can easily remember the five critical attributes of good paragraphs. Let’s review each of these below.
C is for Coherence
Make sure sentences flow logically from one sentence to the next. Coherence is achieved through systematic progression from one related idea to the next.
In addition to logical coherence, be sure your sentences have appropriate cohesion. Whereas coherence refers to the logical and rational interconnection of ideas, cohesion focuses on specific words that clarify the relationships among the ideas. Cohesion words can occur both within and between ideas. The following samples show different types of cohesion words.
L is for Length
Especially regarding paragraphs in the body of a document, avoid writing paragraphs that are so long that they look difficult to read. Many people suggest line counting as a way to determine maximum paragraph length, such as five or six lines for short messages or eight or nine lines for long reports. Perhaps a more reliable method is to just trust your eyes—if a paragraph looks long and uninviting to read, it is too long! When you encounter a paragraph that is too long, find the most logical breaking point (where the topic changes) and divide the paragraph in two, or perhaps even three.
And remember—sometimes a one-sentence paragraph is best!
O is for Organization
Generally use a direct approach in paragraphs, with a topic sentence leading the way. The topic sentence serves as a mini-agenda, or forecasting statement, for the paragraph. Feel free to also add a summarizing sentence at the end of the paragraph as appropriate. To check your document for direct-paragraph organization, skim through the document and read only the first sentence of each paragraph. As you do this, see if you obtain enough of the critical information to understand generally what the document is about. If you don’t understand, go back and write more descriptive topic sentences for each paragraph. Because many people read in detail only the first few lines of a document and then just skim the rest of the message, good topic sentences are critical.
U is for Unity
Once you have a topic sentence in place, ensure that all subsequent sentences in the paragraph have unity; i.e., each sentence should refer to the content introduced in the topic sentence. For example, if the topic sentence is about vacation days, the paragraph content should be about vacation days. However, if the topic sentence includes vacation days and sick days, the subsequent sentences should discuss both vacation days and sick days.
D is for Development
Be sure to give adequate information to support, or develop, the topic sentence. You can develop the main point of a paragraph in many ways, as shown in the following examples.
Now that you have a basic understanding of CLOUD, test your ability to use CLOUD as you read the two following paragraphs. Identify the specific CLOUD strengths and weaknesses in each.
You probably noticed that the first paragraph fails three of the five paragraph tests. To its credit, it is not too long and it does have unity, but it has problems with organization, coherence, and development. For example, it does not begin with a good topic sentence (the idea that Kerry is being fired). It also bounces from one idea to the next and reflects a lack of coherence and cohesion. Further, it fails to develop the case for Kerry being fired.
The second paragraph reflects good strength in all five paragraph standards. It begins with the main point, achieves unity by sticking with the topic of discussion, moves logically through the reasoning behind the decision, gives sufficient detail to understand the reasoning behind the decision to terminate, and avoids excessive length.
In addition to using CLOUD to help with composition, you can use it to guide your review of completed paragraphs. For instance, a colleague once said to me, “I can sense poor writing when I see it, but I don’t know how to give feedback for fixing the problems.” Using CLOUD as a feedback framework could be a tremendous help to this colleague.
CLOUD is a great tool both for writing and for giving feedback on the writing of others. For example, if you are creating a blog, you can use CLOUD during the composition process. If you’re reviewing an important email written by a colleague or subordinate, you can use CLOUD as a framework for giving feedback.
Memorize the CLOUD framework—Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, Development—and try it on a few paragraphs. As you gain confidence in its use, I think you’ll like it.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.