Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Is a Paragraph?

This is also a first draft of a stand-alone page I think I need to have on this blog. Once again, comments are welcome.

The paragraph is the unit of prose composition. It usually consists of at least six sentences and no more than two-hundred words. It makes a single, well-defined claim and supports it. The claim should be articulated in a relatively simple, declarative sentence somewhere in the paragraph. We call this the key sentence. The rest of the sentences are organized around it, beneath it, or up to it.

A paragraph is a very limited statement of what you know. It is the scholar's task to divide the known into discrete, articulable units, each of which can be stated and supported on its own. So training your ability to write paragraphs is tantamount to organizing your knowledge in a scholarly way. It allows for one's ideas to be examined one at a time by one's peers.

I wonder if I'm a mystic about this. The zen master does not offer much in the way of technique, but is very stern about discipline. You must sit down, hold your hands just so, etc. But then you must simply sit and "be" (perhaps counting your breaths) for half an hour. I'd prefer to take this line on what a paragraph is. A paragraph is what you write for twenty-seven minutes when you are trying to say exactly one thing, using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Every time you try to do this you learn something about what it is you're trying to do, i.e., what a paragraph is.

No amount of "technique", principles, rules or "elements of style", will get you around the basic need to practice. Writing forty paragraphs this way will take you twenty hours. I simply can't think of a better way to spend twenty hours learning what that might teach you.

And I say that as someone who sells a six-hour seminar! But keep in mind that my seminar deals with a lot of other topics. I don't talk for six hours about what a paragraph is. I'm inclined to say that this post tells you all you can learn from me about that particular question. The rest you learn by doing.

Like I say, this is actually a draft of what will become a permanent page. And I suppose I'm going to make it my goal to say on that page something you can read in about five minutes, after which the only way to learn more about what a paragraph is is to write one. And then another. And then another.


Liam said...

"I simply can't think of a better way to spend twenty hours learning what that might teach you." I really enjoyed this quote, and I can't but agree. Good stuff!

Thomas said...

Thanks. I was worried that it fell on the wrong side of mysticism. But I also think, if I may say so myself, that I nailed it.