The Ideal Paragraph

The ideal paragraph takes one minute to read. It occupies exactly one minute of the ideal reader’s attention. In an academic setting, the reader is, ideally, another knowledgeable person, an intellectual equal, a scholarly peer. If the writer had not written it, but came to it with fresh eyes, it would take the writer a minute to read it too. During its allotted minute, the paragraph supports, elaborates, or defends a single claim, and both its position (the claim) and its posture (support, elaborate, defend) should be clear to the reader before the minute is over. The reader is now able to distinguish the key sentence from the rest of the paragraph. The reader feels that the paragraph has helped them to believe, understand, or agree with the proposition that the key sentence expresses. The paragraph has overcome the difficulty it presented to the reader. Ideally, the reader then moves on to the next paragraph.

The ideal paper is a series of one-minute reading experiences. Ideally, however, the reader does not experience the reading at all; the reader experiences the ideas that the writer has on their mind. The prose, as George Orwell put it, is “like a window pane”. Ideally, the ideas pass before this window on the mind of the writer in an orderly manner, one at a time, coming into view and moving along in moments that last a minute each. During that minute the reader is given enough information to answer the two questions that Wayne Booth could not believe the tutors at Oxford confined themselves to asking of any text: “What does the author mean?” “How does the author know?” (“No university could be that good,” he said.) The ideal writer of the ideal paragraph is writing to be read in this ideal tutorial. I might add that classes at the Copenhagen Business School are scheduled to last 45 minutes. The ideal paper has forty paragraphs.

I said that the ideal paragraph takes exactly one minute to read. A paragraph does not become better by getting the job done faster but by getting more work done in the minute it has to do it. If the paragraph is able to support its key sentence in thirty seconds of a qualified reader’s attention, it is not hard enough to believe; if it can be elaborated in 45 seconds, it is too easy to understand; and if it takes two minutes to defend, it is simply too disagreeable. The solution is to adjust the difficulty of the key sentence so that exactly one minute of support, elaboration, or defense is what is needed. An ideal paragraph resolves an ideal difficulty under ideal conditions for an ideal reader. Under these conditions — under exactly these conditions — the reader is qualified to the tell the writer that they’re wrong.

In an ideal paper, made of ideal paragraphs, the key sentences are at most two minutes apart. There is no ideal position for the key sentence; it can be the first, second, penultimate, or last sentence, or it can be anywhere in between. If the key sentence comes first in one ideal paragraph and last in the next there will two minutes between them in the mind of the reader. Elsewhere in the paper, the reader may be led from the key sentence at the end of a paragraph directly to another key sentence at the beginning of the next. Sometimes, one idea is separated from another with a bright line, sometimes the nuances of one shade off into the nuances of the next. “Right orientation, disposition, atmosphere,” said Michael Andews, the painter; “it’s reassuring to know these things.” As musicians say, it’s all about finding the pocket.

No paragraph is ideal. The writer is constrained by the imperfections of being human, of being materially embodied and socially situated, of working under conditions that are, to put it mildly, less than ideal. So, some paragraphs will take more than a minute to read and some will pass much too quickly. Reality, let us say, intercedes in the process. This is for the most part to the good because we want our writing to be about something, we want it to refer to reality, to the very conditions that force us from the ideal path, that prevent the expression of our talent in the perfect immanence of the presentation, as Kierkegaard put it. To approximate this perfection, however, the writer arranges the work in moments that last 27 minutes each, and often spends more than one such moment reworking a given paragraph. Each time, the writer gives twenty-seven times more to the idea than the reader takes from it. What remains is real.

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