The Paragraph

The paragraph is the unit of scholarly composition. Scholars “compose themselves” in paragraphs of, generally speaking, at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Each paragraph says one thing in its “key sentence” and supports, elaborates or defends it with the rest. In each posture, it addresses the difficulty the reader presumably experiences when facing the claim it is making. If the reader finds the claim hard to believe, the paragraph must support it with evidence. If the reader finds the claim hard to understand, the paragraph must elaborate its meaning. If the reader finds the claim hard to agree with, the paragraph must defend it against the reader’s objections. Notice that in each case, we answer the question “How shall I write this paragraph?” by asking another: “Who is reading this paragraph?” Or, better, we ask: “What does the reader know?”

The reader may simply not know that what you are saying is true. You must therefore present your reasons for thinking so. In your background section, this will mean citing authoritative sources of available information on the company, country or region you have studied, or the history and politics of the practices you have looked at. In your analysis, you will be drawing on your data to support your findings. Either way, you must use sources that your reader is inclined to trust, whether by the credibility of the sources or the virtue of your methods. The reader must find your claims more believable after reading your paragraph than they would appear if merely asserted or baldly stated. The paragraph must be more believable than the key sentence.

Alternatively, the reader may not doubt that what you are saying is true but find it difficult to understand. Less radically, the reader may simply want to know more precisely what you mean. This will often happen in your theory and methods sections, both of which should use notions that are familiar to your reader but often require specification for the purposes of conducting a particular study. In your theory section, you may wish to specify how the familiar concept of “cognitive frames” informed your coding scheme. Reading your methods section, the reader may know what a “semi-structured interview” is but be curious to know exactly what your interview guide looked like, or how the subjects were selected. In some cases, you will be introducing a concept you don’t expect the reader to be familiar with. In any case, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Finally, there may be no question of believing or understanding what you are saying. The reader may have already made up their mind that the claim you are making is false. Here you will have to defend the claim against the reader’s objections. While you should try to be persuasive, you should not realistically expect to change this reader’s mind. Often such paragraphs are there merely to note a point of disagreement that will presumably survive this particular encounter. (Some of your readers will agree with you, but will also want to see this claim defended, rather than supported or elaborated.) It is a condition of participating in discourse that some of our opinions are not universally shared. If you write as though there is nothing to dispute, no other reasonable position take, then your text will seem either naive or closed-minded.

It should be clear that you can’t decide on your rhetorical posture without thinking of your reader. It is not the claim itself that requires support, elaboration or defense; it is the reader that demands these things of your claim. As you write your text you are constructing this reader, or at least an image of this reader–what Wayne Booth called the “implied reader”. It is not necessary that your actual readers identify with the implied reader, but it is necessary that they respect the reader your text associates them with, the reading they are “implicated” in. Booth also talks about how a text suggests an ethics by showing us “the company we keep”. A text is always looking for someone to understand it. Perhaps this is why Virginia Woolf could say, simply, “To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” In composing each paragraph, you are seeking the company of your reader.

See also: “The Elephant in the Lobby”“The Fourth Difficulty” , and “How to Write a Paragraph”.

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