A Measured Little Difficulty

A paragraph is a deliberate act. It presents one thing you know in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words and, if you let it, takes exactly twenty-seven minutes to write. It occupies one minute of the reader’s attention, during which it supports, elaborates, or defends a proposition that you have good reason to believe is true. After reading, the reader may still have doubts, questions, or objections, but your position will be clear and you will have given the reader an occasion to tell you that you are wrong. You respect the reader as a knowledgeable peer and you want to know what they think. You have deliberately opened yourself to criticism.

It is my aim to help you become more capable of this act. You can find out how good you are at it by doing a simple exercise. At the end of today, at the moment when you put away your research and begin to relax, write a simple declarative sentence about something you are knowledgeable about. Choose something you find it easy to think and talk about, something that you’ve got your mind all the way around. Write one true sentence about it and plan to write a paragraph about it tomorrow morning during the first half hour of intellectually demanding work you will do. Then put it out of your mind. Tomorrow morning, compose a paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Set a timer for 27 minutes and stop when it tells you to. That’s it. (Well, almost.)

Maybe you can already see the difficulty. If not, you will experience it concretely when you try it. In order to get a sense of what I am trying to teach you, imagine a sixteen week period (roughly, a semester) in which you do this exercise every day, five days a week. Imagine writing 80 deliberate paragraphs. Even if you didn’t listen to another word I say, I’m sure you will agree that this would make you a better writer of paragraphs. At the very least, it would make you accutely aware of the difficulty of writing paragraphs; and this awareness, I would argue, can’t but make you a better writer of prose. It would also, and not incidentally, make you a better knower of things. It would make you a more knowledgeable person.

In order to get something out of my approach, you don’t have follow such a rigorous discipline. But I do encourage you to practice as you go. I am a coach, not an entertainer. You will not really understand what I am trying to tell you if you don’t actually sit down to write some paragraphs of your own. And I really do mean “paragraphs of your own”. You want to become better at writing down anything you know in a way that opens it to the criticism of a knowledgeable peer. I don’t know you and I am not your peer, so you can’t expect me to tell you whether or not you are improving, nor give you simple recipes or templates to follow. You will be struggling to write down your own ideas for scholars or students in your own discipline.

If I were telling you how to draw hands I would tell you to look at your hand and draw it. Yes, I could assume that it has a front and back, fingers, wrist, palm, etc. (But not with 100% confidence, of course.) I could tell you to notice these things — their outlines and surfaces. But I wouldn’t know exactly what you see or how it would best be rendered on the page. It is the same when it comes to writing. I tell you to think of things you know, consider them carefully, think of your reader, and then write one or two hundred words to help them overcome the small difficulty your knowledge implies. That’s what a paragraph is: a measured little difficulty for your reader to overcome. It takes about a minute of their time and, like I say, when you’re working well, about half an hour of yours.

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