Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Thought and Style

A key sentence is not an element of thought but of style. It is important to remember that it is not your mind that divides into paragraphs but your text; the key sentence therefore does not summarize an idea, it summarizes the expression of the idea in a particular context. Some writers make the mistake of thinking that there is some ultimate set of claims, whether theoretical, methodological, empirical, or normative, that it is their task to make. But when trying to come up with key sentences, your goal is to choose, say, five theoretical claims out that infinity of claims that could present your perspective on the world, or the five claims that best summarize your procedure for the purposes of this paper, or the fifteen claims that summarize the facts you have discovered, or the five further claims that tell us what is now to be done. There is no epistemological basis on which to determine whether you have selected the right claims. It matters less what you think and more what you want to say.

Everything is connected. A key sentence's effectiveness can therefore only be assessed in the context of the paper as a whole, i.e., by looking at the other key sentences that together summarize the paper. Making a particular claim will work in one context and not in another because, no matter how true a claim may be, whether or not it makes sense will depend on the other claims you are making. It is the paragraph that must be assessed in terms of how well it supports the key claim, not the claim that must be assessed by how well it corresponds to something in the real or ideal world. In an important sense, there is nothing in the claim to correspond to anything until it has been comfortably composed in a paragraph and installed in a paper. Key sentences make explicit your rhetorical decisions about what to say. This gives you a focus for your efforts to say it. Of course, in the end, what you say must also be true. But what that means is a larger question.

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