Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Article and the Paragraph

It's not enough to be able to write a sentence. Scholars must be able to compose themselves in bigger textual situations, like paragraphs and articles.

The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition. If you're only writing sentences, then, you may be a perfectly good poet, but you're not writing scholarly prose. As a general rule—and there are, of course, exceptions—to write a paragraph you need to get at least six sentence to work together in stating a claim and supporting it. In scholarly writing we don't say things with the expectation that our readers will just believe us. We say things that the reader will believe after we give them reasons to do so, and those reasons are provided in the paragraph that supports each individual claim. The reader, then, will not be satisfied simply with six sentences that each assert something to be true. The sentences must be organized around a single claim (made by one of those sentences) and it must be clear how they all contribute to the believability of that claim.

An article is the result of joining paragraphs together, typically about forty of them. At least one of these will tell the reader what the article will show and support this claim with a description of the article itself, i.e., it will explain how the article will show it. An article has sections that group its forty compositional units (the paragraphs) according the kinds of claims they make and the effect they are to have on the reader. And these effects are again "composed" into a larger whole. In general, you are trying to transform the reader's expectations about how the world works. (You are contributing to the reader's ongoing intellectual development.) The theory section is devoted to establishing those expectations and the analysis is devoted to challenging them. In order for this work, of course, the reader must share your theory and find your analysis persuasive. The other sections are there to support this larger effect, to channel that rhetorical force, if you will.

"Article" means "little joint". (And "joint" is the hippest word in the English language.) In an article you join paragraphs together in order to join the conversation that is going on among scholars in your field.


Kate said...

As a first year mature doctoral student who's been writing all kinds of things for many years I'm enjoying the opportunity to look at writing from a new perspective and the challenge of constructing pithy blog posts. I enjoyed the clarity of this post and am impressed it was posted at 7am!

Thomas said...

Thanks! I can recommend keeping a regular schedule. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 6:00AM to 7:00AM are for writing a blog post. Since my prose is expecting to have to perform (and is actually looking forward to showing off!), it usually comes through for me with some measure of clarity.