Sentences, Paragraphs, and Essays

“…it was to me as if someone were to use a precision instrument to open crates.” (Hermine Wittgenstein)

Let’s say that we write sentences, compose paragraphs, and arrange essays. I know that we often say that we “write” paragraphs and essays, too, and even whole books, but, if you think about it, it’s actually only ever the sentences, properly speaking, that we write. The experience of expressing a thought is not the same thing as that of supporting, elaborating or defending a claim to know something. Nor is the experience of reading a sentence the same as that of reading a paragraph. With each sentence a thought comes into view, and a paragraph puts these thoughts together. Now, some writers, to be sure, challenge us by putting all their thoughts into one sentence that runs on for the whole paragraph. For them, writing and composition are essentially indistinguishable. But very few writers let their sentences run on for a whole essay or chapter or book. (You’d have to be the daughter of James Joyce’s biographer to attempt such a thing!) Still, even if you pepper your papers with periods, you may not be writing, composing, and arranging as deliberately as you could. Let me try to explain.

Sentences are written and read at more or less the speed of thought. A sentence expresses a thought — it says something — and writing a sentence is basically a matter of deciding what to say. You do well to notice what “writing” is in precisely this sense. Try it. Have an idea and write a sentence that expresses it. Now have another. Write another sentence that expresses another idea. You can keep going as long as you like. You can try bigger ideas, more complicated ones, which will need bigger words or longer sentences or both. In any case, a “thought” is the sort of thing that can be put in a sentence, which, if someone were to read it, would, ideally, occasion that same thought in their mind. (If it can’t be expressed in a complete sentence it isn’t a finished thought.) Each sentence in this post is my attempt to get you to think what I’m thinking as I write it. If you’re thinking about sentences and about writing them, I’m doing my job.

Paragraphs are more complicated because they require the reader to put several thoughts together. A paragraph takes about one minute to read, after which the main claim will be believed, understood, or rejected by the reader, who will then move on to the next paragraph. The main claim is itself expressed in a sentence, which we call the “key sentence”, and which also of course expresses a thought. So you might think that a paragraph, too, expresses a thought, just using sentences instead of words. I urge you to distinguish between a thought here and a claim. It is one thing to think of something and quite another to assert a claim. The thought that is expressed in your key sentence is a claim that uses the thoughts expressed in the other sentences in the paragraph for support, elaboration or defense. It’s important to make sure that each sentence can be thought on its own, even if some of them, and especially the key sentence, suggest difficulties that require further thought. The paragraph puts all those thoughts together in a composition that resolves these difficulties in some interesting way.

Needless to say, the arrangement of paragraphs into essays is a still more complicated business. Each paragraph has to be composed and then arranged, and then, usually, rewritten, sentence by sentence, to occupy its final place in the essay. But given that the sentences are well written, and the paragraphs have been carefully composed, “writing” an essay is really just a matter of arranging a series of claims in the right order. These claims are represented by your key sentences, which can be arranged in a surveyable way simply by listing them one after the other. You can then ask yourself, “If I were to successfully support, elaborate or defend each of these claims, and presented them in this order, would my reader find my argument compelling?” An essay, remember, is ultimately just an attempt — you’re trying out a line of argument on your reader. The question is whether you can see see it clearly just by looking at your key sentences, as “dots” to be connected by the “lines” of your paragraphs. Obviously, your reader will have to make those connections too, so you must arrange your claims in an accessible order, with direct lines from one point to the next as often as possible.

While I recognize that this distinction between writing, composing and arranging is somewhat artificial, I think much of the difficulty of writing stems from not observing it in practice. We think we have to “write” our essays in the same sense that we “write” our sentences. This suggests that we have to have the whole essay “in mind” in the same way that we have the thought that a sentence expresses in mind as we write it. Or we may think that we should compose sentences with the same care that we compose paragraphs, meticulously considering each word as it passes through the mind of the reader. Or we think that a paragraph is simply an arrangement of sentences — merely a series of thoughts to get through — rather than a moment of the reader’s intellectual composure. Some of these misunderstandings make writing more difficult than it needs to be, while some of them produce writing that is harder to read than it should be. Writing well means knowing when to just write, when to compose, and when to make an attempt at arrangement. By making the right decision about what to do, not only are we more likely to succeed, we’re more likely to enjoy the work. And that’s actually the best reason to think carefully about what you are doing when you’re writing. It will make you happier while you’re at it.

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