Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Five Paragraphs of Prose

Composition teachers have a useful exercise that can also serve as a thought experiment. It's called the Five Paragraph Essay. It is generally presented to prove that any idea, topic, theme, suspicion, belief, opinion, or thesis can be converted into prose. It immediately moves us from the question of whether or not writing is possible to the (much more important) question of how good it is.

Here's my version of the exercise. I have deliberately presented it to be agnostic about whether the essay should have a positivistic or deconstructive bent.

Start with an object or event that interests you. Next, identify three major elements of its composition or traces of its presence. That is, choose three things you could say about it to make it either more or less present to the reader. These will serve as your material for reconstructing or deconstructing it in prose.

Now you write a single paragraph that introduces your object or event and the three things you want to say about it. You then write one paragraph for each of the elements or traces you have introduced. Lastly, you write a paragraph that summarizes the preceding four.

The first and fifth paragraph will be very similar in content but will differ in form. The main difference is that the first should presume a reader that does not yet know what you're going to say and the fifth should presume a reader that has just read what you did in fact say.

Try to make the first and last sentence in each paragraph resonate with each other. Try also to make the last sentence of each paragraph resonate with first sentence of the next. One way to do this is to make sure that (1) each opening and closing sentence brings two important notions together, (2) one of these is repeated in the opening and closing sentence of one paragraph and (3) the other is used in the closing sentence of one paragraph and the opening of the next.

Notice how neat a structure emerges from this.

§1 A+B ... B+C
§2 C+D ... D+E
§3 E+F ... F+G
§4 G+H ... H+I
§5 I+B ... B+A

If you complete the exercise exactly as instructed, you can predict the following:

B will name your object or event.
D will name the first element or trace.
F will name the second element or trace.
H will name the third element or trace.

C will connect your object or event with its first element or trace.
E will connect your first element or trace with the second.
G will connect the second with the third.
I will connect the third element or trace with the object or event you have chosen.

Notice that C, E, G, and I could be reduced to one notion:

§1 A+B ... B+C
§2 C+D ... D+C
§3 C+F ... F+C
§4 C+H ... H+C
§5 C+B ... B+A

In this case, you will be continually referring the discussion back to the object or event you have chosen.

Objects and events are tractable to research in so far as they can be turned into peer-reviewable prose. That means they must have a name and there must be something to say about them. If that is possible then a five paragraph essay is also possible. You keep working on those five paragraphs until they are interesting to your peers. From there you expand the essay to make it convincing. This will of course often require much more than five paragraphs.

In my next post, I’m going to try to offer a positive example and, in the post after that, a deconstructive one.

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