Last night, I went looking for examples of well-formed paragraphs and it wasn't easy to find one. Most writers, it seems, ignore the rules of composition, using an intuitive sense of when to start a new paragraph. I suppose this could be shown to be true of my writing as well (especially on this blog), but I was surprised at the extent of "the problem". Even works that I had previously thought were very well-written, seem to have been composed with almost no regard for form at this level. I finally found an exception in Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise (Fourth Estate, 2007), a history of twentieth-century music.
Culture ranked low among Franklin Delano Roosevelt's priorities. Music hardly registered at all. To the extent that the president supported the arts, it was with an obligatory aristocratic air. As Richard McKinzie has written, "Roosevelt was willing to do the noble thing, and support painting, theatre, and other creative arts in the same way he supported them as the 'lord' of Hyde Park manor." Alert to all twitches of the political web, Roosevelt knew the dangers inherent in federal funding of the arts. Only with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, the adamantly liberal First Lady, did the experiment last as long as it did.
There's is nothing spectacular about this paragraph. It simply does its job. (For a spectacularly good paragraph, see this post.) It positions the arts (and music specifically) on FDR's list of priorities. It characterizes FDR's attitude (as aristocratic), it cites support from another source (McKinzie), and it explains why FDR prioritized as he did ("the political web"). It has a clear key sentence...
Or does it? What is the key sentence? The most natural candidate is the first one, and there would nothing wrong with reading the paragraph that way. But I think the real key sentence is the second one, except that it really says, "Music hardly registered among Franklin Delano Roosevelt's priorities". Or, the key sentence could be the first sentence with "music" instead of "culture" as the subject. That is, I think the paragraph is supposed to tell us that FDR gave a low priority to music, and that the explanation for this is that he didn't care much about art and culture in general. That the key sentence, then, is not actually there is not really a weakness of the paragraph. It just shows that after you have composed the paragraph around a key sentence, you can reword it for flow. Ross here displays his mastery of the form precisely by not being a slave to it.
I like the way that sounds so much that I'm going to say it again. Whatever their genre, good writers display their mastery of form by not being slaves to it.
Notice also the last sentence. Here Ross hands off the broader subject (of state patronage of the arts under Roosevelt) to his next paragraph (on Eleanor Roosevelt) without leaving the topic of the present paragraph (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). By telling us that is was "only with [her] support" that the experiment lasted, Ross is saying more about the president's commitment to the arts than the First Lady's. Her views and policies, however, are now nicely set up for subsequent elaboration.