“Consider the postage stamp," advised humorist Josh Billings. "Its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.”
The same might be said about an effective paragraph. Unity is the quality of sticking to one idea from start to finish, with every sentence contributing to the central purpose and main idea of that paragraph.
As we've seen, a topic sentence contains the main idea upon which a paragraph is developed. In a unified paragraph, all of the supporting sentences serve to illustrate, clarify, and/or explain the main idea set forth in the topic sentence.
The best way to demonstrate the importance of unity is to show how the intrusion of irrelevant information can disrupt our understanding of a paragraph. The original version of the following passage, taken from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday, vividly illustrates how people in the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico prepare for the Feast of San Diego. We've upset the unity of Momaday's paragraph by adding one sentence that's not directly connected to his main idea. See if you can spot that sentence.
The activity in the pueblo reached a peak on the day before the Feast of San Diego, November twelfth. It was on that day, an especially brilliant day in which the winter held off and the sun shone like a flare, that Jemez became one of the fabulous cities of the world. In the preceding days the women had plastered the houses, many of them, and they were clean and beautiful like bone in the high light; the strings of chilies at the vigas had darkened a little and taken on a deeper, softer sheen; ears of colored corn were strung at the doors, and fresh cedar boughs were laid about, setting a whole, wild fragrance on the air. The women were baking bread in the outdoor ovens. Here and there men and women were at the woodpiles, chopping, taking up loads of firewood for their kitchens, for the coming feast. Year round, the artisans of Jemez, known internationally for their crafts, would create beautiful basketry, embroidery, woven cloths, exquisite stone sculpture, moccasins, and jewelry. Even the children were at work: the little boys looked after the stock, and the little girls carried babies about. There were gleaming antlers on the rooftops, and smoke arose from all the chimneys.
The third-to-last sentence ("Year round, the artisans of Jemez . . .") is our distracting addition to Momaday's passage. The added sentence upsets the unity of the paragraph by offering information that is not directly relevant to the main idea (as stated in the first sentence) or to any of the other sentences in the paragraph. Whereas Momaday focuses specifically on activities taking place "the day before the Feast of San Diego," the intrusive sentence refers to work that's done "year round."
By moving irrelevant information to a new paragraph--or by omitting that information altogether--we can improve the unity of our paragraphs when we come to revise them.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: Paragraph Unity
The following paragraph, which has also been adapted from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday, describes the very end of the busy day before the Feast of San Diego. Again, we have added a sentence that's not directly connected to the author's main idea. See if you can identify this sentence, which upsets the unity of the paragraph, and then compare your response with the answer at the bottom of the page.
Later in the dusky streets I walked among the Navajo camps, past the doorways of the town, from which came the good smells of cooking, the festive sounds of music, laughter, and talk. The campfires rippled in the crisp wind that arose with evening and set a soft yellow glow on the ground, low on the adobe walls. A natural building material used for several thousand years, adobe is composed of sand and straw, which is shaped into bricks on wooden frames and dried in the sun. Mutton sizzled and smoked above the fires; fat dripped into the flames; there were great black pots of strong coffee and buckets full of fried bread; dogs crouched on the rim of the light, the many circles of light; and old men sat hunched in their blankets on the ground, in the cold shadows, smoking. . . . Long into the night the fires cast a glare over the town, and I could hear the singing, until it seemed that one by one the voices fell away, and one remained, and then there was none. On the very edge of sleep I heard coyotes in the hills.
Practice Exercise: Answer
The third sentence in the paragraph ("A natural building material used for several thousand years, adobe . . .) is the odd one out: the information about adobe bricks is not directly relevant to the night scene described in the rest of the passage. To restore the unity of Momaday's paragraph, delete this sentence.