Monday, January 31, 2011

The Prose Paragraph

If there is a secret to academic writing it lies in the composition of paragraphs. You are trying to put sentences together to form paragraphs and paragraphs together to form articles. You are not trying to merely fill up pages with words. "Article" means "joint" (from Latin articulus, artus, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ar, meaning "to fit together", which is where we also get "arm"). An article joins your knowledge to the larger conversation in your field. But it is also itself jointed. The art of writing for an academic audience develops around the composition of separable parts, or what are now called "paragraphs" (from Greek, para-graphein, the mark "beside what is written" to indicate a break in sense, or joint in the text).

This is going to be the recurrent theme of my blogging up until Easter. I'll try to write at least one post a week about paragraphs and I'm certain that this theme will allow me to discuss almost anything I like. The writing process, after all, should—in the case of academic writing—be organized around the composition of paragraphs. (At certain stages of your writing process, you should consider devoting 30 minutes at a time to one paragraph at a time.) Editing is all about deciding what each paragraph is trying to say, then shaping the paragraph to that end, and moving it to the best place in the paper to say it. Individual sentences are good or bad not in themselves but in the context of the paragraph that gives them their meaning.

A journal article consists of roughly 40 paragraphs. I like to say that this means you're trying to say roughly forty things; you are trying to support forty claims. A paragraph is merely a linguistic structure that supports a claim. Each sentence states a proposition; one of them (one in each paragraph) states the proposition that is the central claim of the paragraph, and the rest provide support for it. They hold it up.

All academic writing engages with what is known in a particular field. The writer has to know what sorts of knowledge claims (including correctives to standing but false beliefs) require a measured amount of a support in order to be staked. The paper consists of parts that each state such a claim in one sentence and provide about five sentences of support. (That 1:5 ratio is very conventional. Not every paragraph will fit this measure.) That sets up the problem of writing very neatly: to write a journal article you have to construct forty six-sentence paragraphs, 240 sentences organized into 40 groups.

You have to know enough to write them. I can't help you very much with that. But I can help you think about how to break up that knowledge into sensible parts and then fit them together into a meaningful whole.


Jonathan said...

I've decided to conceive of a chapter I'm beginning today as a series of 40 paragraphs. I'm starting with a phrase or sentence to define each paragraph. This will produce an outline. Then I will write each paragraph.

The number and order of paragraphs might shift; I might end up with 38 or 43. Some will merge with others or divide into two, but the length will be approximately 40 x 6 sentences.

Jonathan said...

I haven't been able to come up with forty claims to begin with. I planned about 15 paragraphs; I'm assuming some will split into two or three, with subclaims claiming the status of major claims.

Thomas said...

You might find tomorrow's post helpful. I'm going to divide the 40 paragraphs into 8 sections of 5 paragraphs each (actually, 9 sections, but the intro and conclusion count as one). You might have 2 in each group now with your ca. 15 claims, or you might be "missing" whole sections. (They might not actually be missing because your chapter may simply not need them.) Also, each section can (but doesn't have to) be conceived of as a "five paragraph essay", that means it actually contains only 3 claims. (I should add a caveat here: I've read some books, especially popular ones, that constantly introduce and summarize sections. Reader-based writing gone too far, for my tastes.)

Jonathan said...

I have an introduction, three main sections, and a conclusion so far. That's six rather than eight, but possibly my chapter will be shorter than 40 paragraphs.