The Epiphany of the Paragraph

To have gathered from the air a live tradition…
this is not vanity.

Ezra Pound

This weekend I had one of those moments of clarity that changes nothing. It was merely (and literally) just another case of a middle-aged man discovering that he had been speaking prose all his life. Or, in my case, teaching prose for the past twenty years.

When I was younger, I thought I was a philosopher, first of mind, then of language, finally of science. But at some point I realized that if I had a contribution to make to modern scholarship it lay in helping people master the art of academic writing. More precisely, I could help people write down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. There are times when I think this still makes me a philosopher, working in a tradition that can be traced back, through Bolzano and Kierkegaard, to Kant, and then forward to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, through Feyerabend and Kuhn, Foucault and Derrida, back up to the present day. But it is unlikely that I will ever make a serious contribution to those traditions. I am a writing consultant, not a scholar.

But even in that humble role, I fear, I sometimes cut a disappointing figure. After all, I am strangely aloof to style manuals and author guidelines; I eschew any authority to tell you how to get published or succeed as a scholar. (I don’t even like to tell students how to pass their exams.) I’m happy to talk about it, but I don’t have the one simple trick to how to “get things done in academia.” After all, I am not a successful writer myself. I defer to those who do publish in the so-called “top journals” for advice on how to satisfy your reviewers. My goal is to help you become a better writer.

What use is that? you may ask. This is the substance of my little epiphany this weekend. Over the years, I have increasingly focused on the paragraph as the unit of composition for scholarly prose. I have defined this unit as (1) at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate, or defend it, and which constitutes (2) about half a page of prose and (3) one minute of a reader’s attention. I strongly believe that any scholar worth their tenure is able to compose a coherent prose paragraph, thus defined, about anything they know, and feel entitled to assume that they know a great many things. Writing papers and chapters and monographs is really just a matter of arranging a series of such paragraphs in a plausible order. If you can write a good paragraph, you have the writing skills you need to succeed in scholarship.

I emphasize writing skills, but that isn’t the whole of it, of course. I don’t know if you have the knowledge or the intelligence, the cunning, the courage, or the compassion that is required to survive (i.e., not “perish”) in the modern university. (I do have some sense of how hard it is.) Just because you can write a paragraph doesn’t mean you should; and just because you can’t doesn’t mean you’ll never pretend to. Careers are complicated, and nobody is perfect. But you will never regret the effort you made to develop the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in twenty or thirty minutes. This ability is the foundation of your confidence as a scholar among your peers. It is the basis of your discipline.

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