A Bigger Iceberg (4)

I normally imagine an ordinary empirical research paper in the social sciences as an arrangement of about 40 paragraphs. The first three serve as the introduction. There are then five paragraphs in each of the background, theory and methods sections, followed by a fifteen-paragraph analysis (preferably divided into about three themes), and a five-paragraph discussion section. The remaining two paragraphs go into the conclusion. That’s the order they appear in the paper and, ideally (though often not really), the order in which they are read. We might call it their “narrative” or “rhetorical” order. Each paragraph occupies about one minute of the reader’s attention, after which the reader, again ideally, moves on to the next. It should take about forty minutes altogether to read the paper.

But what about the logical order of these paragraphs? And what about their epistemological foundations? Here it will be useful to arrange them somewhat differently and, as my title suggests, Hemingway’s conception of the “dignity” of our writing will be useful too: “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water.” Now, the entire paper is, of course, “above water” and, in my last three posts, I’ve tried to convince you that there needs to be a solid mass of experience, reason, and reading below the surface to bear it up. But suppose we cut the forty paragraphs of your paper off at the waterline and pushed it into the sea to fend (float) for itself. By Hemingway’s math, 5 would now float on top and the rest (35) would sink out of view beneath the waves. Which five would we see?

I think the obvious answer here is the introduction and the conclusion. In fact, they would float in the opposite order, with the conclusion at the top and and the introduction below it. In fact … I’d expect the key sentence of paragraph 39 (the first paragraph of the conclusion) to outmaneuver paragraph 40 for the top of the tip of the iceberg, planting a flag there with your thesis statement emblazoned upon it. Under paragraph 40, you have paragraphs 1 and 2. And under paragraph 39 you have have paragraph three (which contains your thesis statement but does not state it.) If we were now to dive down and explore beneath the surface of we’d find paragraphs 4 through 8 (the background section) bearing up paragraph 1 and paragraphs 9 through 13 (theory) bearing up paragraph 2. Under paragraph 3 things are bit more complicated because of all the work it does in the introduction: paragraphs 14 through 18 (method) bearing up a part of it, 19 through 33 (analysis), another part, and 34 through 38 (discussion) the rest. Many teachers and reviewers will tell you that the quality of the introduction and conclusion of a paper predicts the quality of the rest. This is because the dignity of the movement of your prose in those five paragraphs depends on the existence of the rest of the paper. You don’t want your iceberg to be a mere inflatable beach toy, a mere surface full of air. What you see above the water should indicate a much greater, much more dignified mass below. Something solid.

Like I say, I’m working on some illustrations for this conception of a paper, and I hope to have them finished at a reasonable quality by mid-September. But I’m happy to hear what you think of the idea as expressed in words. I’m also interested to see how you visualize it.

2 thoughts on “A Bigger Iceberg (4)

  1. Intriguing ideas in these posts, Thomas! I’m going to think about adapting them to my particular academic context (an English Department) as well as for creative-writing classes.

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