Tradition and the Individual Paragraph (1)

“…we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it….” (T. S. Eliot)

On the weekend, Julia Molinari published another thought-provoking post on her blog. She addresses the important question of whether writing is a “general” competence that can be taught separate from the specific purposes for which it is used. In this context, I should emphasize, “academic purposes” are not specific enough; but, as it happens, I believe there is such a thing. And it all comes down to the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph.

As I said in the comments to Julia’s post, no matter who I’m talking to (from first-year students to full professors in all disciplines) I always define academic writing as “the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.” I encourage everyone to think of their readers as their peers, which means that students should think of the others in their cohort. I think of this as a very “general” definition and one that applies across the board. It provides me with a sufficient focus to teach a substantial set of “generic” skills and support all students and faculty, regardless of discipline, in their efforts to develop them.

I’m currently reading two papers that are giving me some insight into why I think this, and the sense in which my particular approach might be controversial. In 2007, when I was in the early stages of my career as a writing coach, Mike Duncan published a detailed review of the scholarship on paragraphing in College English. In 2016, Iain McGee published “a descriptivist perspective” on the problem. Both papers continue a tradition that goes back to the 18th Century and, since that time, what it means to write a paragraph has undergone many changes and been subject to much discussion, theoretical reflection and practical discipline. If I could do it all over again, I think I might have chosen to write a PhD dissertation on the subject. For now, a blog post will have to do.

The opposition of “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” approaches seems, to me, to turn on a particular way of constructing the object of analysis. Indeed, it turns on constructing it as an object. The descriptivists are telling you what a paragraph looks like, and the precriptivists are trying to tell you how to make one. What is a paragraph? When do a bunch of words on a page constitute such a thing?  But at another level, I would point out, they are arguing about how words on the page become a paragraph. And by this I don’t mean the way they are written. I mean in the way they are read.

A paragraph, on my approach, is one minute of your reader’s attention. In that minute, you should say some specific thing and support, elaborate or defend it. At the end of the minute, the reader should know what you mean and how you know. The paragraph accomplishes this task, not in isolation from the other paragraphs, but in a particular order. A paragraph may occupy the first minute of a reader’s attention or the seventeenth minute, and the difference matters, as does what has happened to the reader in the minutes leading up to the present paragraph. Most of the discussion about the paragraph seems to see it as an object that is located in “space”, i.e., the “structure” of an essay. Stealing a notion from Nabokov, I think it might be useful to approach the paragraph through “the texture of time” instead — as a series of passing moments in which some definite experience has been arranged for the reader. Like any art, there’s both a tradition of production and tradition of reception. Poets have learned to write, but their audiences have also learned to read. Scholarship is no different and I think we do well to look at the way the individual paragraph is experienced by scholars when they read in some detail.

This week, that’s what I want to write about. Let’s see what sorts of paragraphs I come up with!

One thought on “Tradition and the Individual Paragraph (1)

  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for engaging with my comment about the paragraph break as a place to pause. You might find my recent research-based book ‘Understanding the paragraph and paragraphing’ (Equinox) a useful resource to engage with as you consider this challenging subject. It took 5 years to write and, in terms of covering the relevant research, is fairly comprehensive.

    Best wishes


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *