Friday, September 10, 2010


Christopher Lasch says that "the sentence is the basic unit of literary composition". The word "literary" might avoid a clash with William Strunk's classic "elementary principle", namely, "make the paragraph the unit of composition", but I think it is important to get clear about what the "unit" of an academic article is, and what it is a unit of.

My suggestion is that we write sentences and compose paragraphs. (We spell words.) Sentences are the units of writing, and paragraphs are the units of composition. This makes it possible to distinguish between good writing and good composition, and it may explain why I had such a hard time finding well-formed paragraphs in what I thought were examples of well-written prose. A text may be well-written (at the level of the sentence) and yet poorly composed (at the level of the paragraph).

Karl Weick says we should "aim for good sentences" (2005: 409). I have taken issue with this way of putting it before, but what he means, namely, that we should try to write good sentences, is of course true enough. It is, however, often a misplaced emphasis. If we recall Lasch's definition, we can see that Weick's aim is a literary one and, I would argue, is therefore not especially academic. His style is too focused on the sentence, too concerned with the sound or "voice" of the text, and not sufficiently concerned with the ideas being presented, the knowledge content. But there are those, like Barbara Czarniawska, who would defend his style precisely on these terms: his writing is "poetic", not "scientistic". Indeed, he might himself say that he'd rather keep his writing "open to context" than "stuffed with content". That's important to keep in mind.

In some traditions, a paper that consists of well-written sentences in poorly composed paragraphs may be more "publishable" than a paper that consists of poorly written sentences in well-composed paragraphs. This may even be true in most traditions (people may generally be fooled by good sentences even if they value content over form). Still, a culture that values the sentence over the paragraph also values voice over thought. It values style, in a very superficial sense, over composition, which is just style in a deeper sense. It values the expression of ideas over their communication.

Paragraphs are excellent opportunities to communicate your ideas to a well-defined audience that already has a lot of other ideas. They offer occasions to "write what you know" to others who know as much (and sometimes more) about the subject—to say something and explain how you know.

An intellectual culture that aims only for good sentences is always in danger of falling into sententiousness. It becomes a place where people are merely (if sometimes altogether rightly) impressed with "formulations". Writers work on their pithiness rather than the substance of their ideas, and are all too satisfied with a neat turn of phrase. A culture that speaks only in aphorisms may abound in wisdom, but it has no knowledge.


Jonathan said...

The paragraph is not likely to be well-formed if not composed of solid individual paragraphs, so there might be a false dichotomy there.

Gertrude Stein said that sentences are not emotional and paragraphs are. I wonder what you make of that.

Thomas said...

As always, you cut my work out for me. (I take you mean "solid individual sentences" (not paragraphs). I hope I can prove you wrong, Stein might offer me exactly the model I need. She wrote what were barely (if at all) grammatical sentences that, when composed (put together), expressed emotion.

The philosopher of language Donald Davidson pointed out that "The baby seems sleeping" may fail on grammaticality but not on meaning. That is, it's unclear whether it's a sentence, but not unclear what it means.

So I'm going to wager I can take a well-composed paragraph and ruin every individual sentence in it while retaining its composure. That is, at the end, we'll agree that every sentence is bad, but also that the paragraph is well-formed.

I'll wager you a beer.

I would add to Stein's rule that sentences are not conceptual either, where paragraphs are. A good sentence will use a concept only once (maybe twice) and one sentence is therefore not enough to bring the concept, as such, to the surface. It can use the concept but it cannot present or display it as a concept.

The sentence "I love you" does use an emotion but it is not "emotional". Give me a paragraph, however, and I'll make you cry.

Jonathan said...

I've never heard that phrase in the active. It's usually just "I have my work cut out for me" rather than "Someone cutting out work for someone else." Interesting. I like it.

Could there be a good essay that's not composed of good paragraphs too? I could throw a monkey wrench into every paragraph but still preserve the form and shape of the essay, by your logic. I'll have to think about that.

Thomas said...

I definitely think there could be. In fact, I think our point of departure is that there could be. That's those "good pieces of writing" that don't have well-composed paragraphs. But you're taking it to another level if you want to write a good essay made out of badly written sentences gathered together in poorly composed paragraphs. (Academic flarf?)