Friday, February 25, 2011

The Composure of the Paragraph

There are two senses in which the paragraph is the "unit" of composition. We can look at what distinguishes paragraphs from each other and what gives each paragraph its internal coherence. That is, we can look at the paragraph as that which divides a paper into (roughly) 40 (roughly) equal units or we can look at paragraph as something that has its own particular kind of unity.

On the page, a paragraph is a group of sentences between two hard line returns. Each new paragraph usually begins with a tab indent. When we are editing our texts (or someone else's) we can ask whether those line returns and tab indents are in the right place. That is, do the physical divisions of the text express its intellectual structure? Sometimes, we will find that what looks like a single paragraph on the page really makes two distinct points, and these two points should be given separate paragraphs. Sometimes we will find that two physically separated paragraphs are really supporting the same claim. They should be combined into one.

This week, when writing about my research agenda, I have had to say something about related but distinct objects. My scholarship is about an individual theorist and about sensemaking research and about organization studies and about administrative science and about social science. So it has been natural to write paragraphs about each of these objects or, rather, paragraphs about how my research approaches each of these objects. I have found that a paragraph that I first think will say that, e.g., sensemaking is a research topic for organization studies ends up being about how organization studies is a subfield of the administrative sciences. I then need to go back and remove the references to sensemaking, moving them into another paragraph. What is happening in those situations is that an externally imposed division of the text conflicts with the internal unity of the paragraph. The paragraph wants to be itself.

But this compositional desire of the individual paragraph must, of course, be disciplined by the compositional needs of the whole text. Sometimes a paragraph must give up a bit of its unity in order to serve its function in a series of paragraphs that develop a single theme. Here the need for a soft division (a smooth transition) between paragraphs overrides the desire for internal coherence.

I want to call the expression of a paragraph's "compositional desire" its composure. The paragraph is pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions by the rest of the paper; but it stands its ground and sometimes pushes back. It holds its own. Each paragraph re-centers the formation of meaning in the reader's mind; meaning does not simply flow through the pages unchecked. As a writer, too, you find your composure by identifying the center of significance of each paragraph, refocusing your efforts on it, giving some thought to the internal coherence of five to ten sentences at a time. The reader should experience the result of this process as a sense of calm in each paragraph, a kind of serenity.

"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water," said Hemingway. The composure of the paragraph is grounded in this dignity of movement. Each paragraph is centered on the "tip" of what you know about its subject matter. You know much more than what the paragraph says, so you have a great deal of excess strength in your attempt to say it. This gives you your particular grace as a writer. We can put it this way: a paper isn't an expression of your state of mind in a single gesture. Rather, it is series of poses (about forty in all), each of which is grounded in the depth and breadth of what you know.

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