Monday, March 14, 2011

Can You Compose a Paragraph in a Crisis?

"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (Ernest Hemingway)

I'm developing an almost mystical relationship to the prose paragraph. It is at the heart of the problem of "academic writing". The difficulty of academic writing is simply the difficulty of writing prose paragraphs. The problem of writing a journal article is the problem of composing forty prose paragraphs about the theories and methods you use, the practices you study, and the results this study brings. Your strength as a writer develops around this relatively straightforward task. Your confidence as a scholar lies in the knowledge that you can write a prose paragraph when it is needed.

A paragraph is a single claim with a measured amount of support. So to think in paragraphs is to think in terms of supporting claims. As an academic writer, your pride should be your ability to compose paragraphs on a particular range of subjects essentially at will. Part of this ability comes from simply training your prose; it is a matter of developing strength and grace as a writer. Another part of it, of course, comes from the knowledge you are building every day through study. You know that a number of statements about a number of objects are true, and you know why those statements are true. So you can't just state the truth, you can elaborate its basis. Your elaboration ties the claim to a foundation that is shared and respected by your peers. Each of these grounded claims is a paragraph.

How much support does a claim need? Knowing the answer to that question for each claim defines your scholarly expertise. From the abstract perspective of writing, I can tell you that the answer is that each claim needs about six sentences of support. But I can't tell you what those six sentences have to say concretely before your reader will let you move on to the next claim (which may, in turn, have to be a claim that supports a previous claim or supports the support you offered for a previous claim). All I know is that, as an academic writer, you will not say a series of things (write a series of sentences) that neither require nor provide support. Your efforts will be devoted to making claims and supporting them.

One morning last October, I wrote 236 words in 9 sentences in ten minutes. I only had ten minutes because I was digging myself out of a pile of work—the result of taking too much upon myself that week. I was pressed for time to get everything done, so I decided to minimize my writing time. That week I managed to write a half-dozen coherent paragraphs in five ten-minute sessions. Less than an hour of writing over five days resulted in about a thousand words. Six not altogether useless paragraphs. Seen strictly from the point of view of quantity, that's one-eighth of a journal article.

Though I was very busy, I was not getting stressed out. The act of writing for ten minutes was not just a sign that I was keeping it together, it was a means of doing so. Instead feeling my writing slipping away from me, I felt that I was making progress, despite some radical constraints. I was also able to think of my other tasks in the same perspective, devoting some time to each of them without letting any of them consume all my energies. The act of composing my thoughts into paragraphs every day kept things in perspective.

No matter how busy you get, I tell writers, always give yourself at least ten minutes with your prose every day. Do this just as you will spend at least ten minutes in the bathroom every day, and (hopefully) at least five hours in bed every day. In fact, even if you have to get up ten minutes earlier than usual every day during the "crisis" to do it, it is well worth the effort. You will get more out of your time in bed that way, trust me. No matter how bad it gets, show yourself that you can articulate one true sentence (you can always do this; don't make it out to be harder than it is!). That will take a minute or two. Now, show yourself that you know why that sentence is true for eight or nine minutes. Then go on with your day. Whatever ever else happens, at least your prose still works.


Fr. said...

With your permission, I am assigning the first three paragraphs of this post as compulsory reading to the stats course that I co-teach. The last session of the course is a 'wrap-up' session where we hand out instructions about writing a scientific paper, for which the students have been crunching numbers during the semester. I cannot imagine a better reading for this session. Of course, please mention any other of your posts which I might also assign along with this one!

Thomas said...

If you mean that you will direct them to this blog and they will read the content here, you are welcome to assign any post on this blog to your students. I've been writing a great deal about paragraphs this year, so perhaps just go back (or do a search for "paragraph") and see if there is anything you like.

If you mean that you are going to reproduce those three paragraphs in some other form (like putting them in a compendium, or posting them on Blackboard), then please send me an email and describe it more precisely.

(There's a link to my department homepage to the right.)

Fr. said...

Thanks—I meant scenario #1, offering a bunch of quotes on a slide and then sending the link to the post. I realised there was a whole archive of notes on the topic, it would be great to see an assemblage of them at some point.

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

I like these comments. I always tell people struggling with writing to try and find at least 15 minutes a day to write. My hope is usually that they will actually go on for more than fifteen minutes. It is great to hear what you have been able to accomplish in those short spurts.