Forty Measured Little Difficulties

An 8000-word paper in the social sciences consists of about forty paragraphs. With a few exceptions, each paragraph supports, elaborates, or defends a claim that the writer presumably thinks is true. The claim poses a particular difficulty for the reader — it may be hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with — and the paragraph helps the reader overcome this difficulty. The reader may be provided with evidence to foster belief, illustration to clarify meaning, or arguments to address objections. Since a paragraph consists of no more than two-hundred words, it must accomplish its task in less than a minute of the reader’s attention. A paper occasions forty such difficulties and equips the reader to face them. It takes less than hour to read.

Since it takes 27 minutes to write a paragraph, a paper can be written — once — in 20 hours. Working 2 hours a day, taking three-minute breaks between paragraphs, a paper can be written in two weeks. You can even take the weekends off. At the end of each day, decide what four paragraphs you will write tomorrow, assigning a key sentence and a half hour to each; at the beginning of the next, pose each difficulty and compose each paragraph in 27 minutes. Then get on with your day. You probably have other things to think about too, but you can take an hour or two in the afternoon to reflect on the larger structure of your paper and your line of argument. The important thing is to make a decision, when your working day is coming to a close, about what paragraphs you will write tomorrow. Whatever you’ve been struggling with, you need to pick four things you know are true to write about in the morning.

Remember that 27 minutes is 27 times longer than the reader has to read your paragraph. Use the time to make the text as easy to read as you can. A paper consists of forty little difficulties, not one huge impossibility, and it is your job as a writer to cut the reader’s work out for them. Take your time, choose the right words and put them in the right order. Be conscious of the effect you are trying to have on the reader. What experience are you trying to get the reader to have? What claim should the reader feel is being supported, elaborated, or defended?

You can get an overview of these experiences by making an outline that simply lists the key-sentences. A good paper will make sense at that level; that is, if you read your key sentences one after the other, without the rest of their paragraphs, you argument should make sense but, of course, lack a certain persuasiveness. Just looking at the key sentences, however, you should feel that you know they are true, and you should even be able to call to mind your reasons for thinking so. Also, with your reader in mind, each of the key sentences should represent a difficulty to overcome: will the reader need help believing, understanding, or agreeing with it? This difficulty is the occasion you will rise to on each half page of your paper.

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