Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't Abuse Your Body...Paragraphs

One note arising from the last post:

The style of my second sample body paragraph on The Fellowship of the Ring (and yes, I composed both paragraphs myself) has caused some contention among readers. The humanities people have no problem with the paragraph, but at least one of the scientists finds it unclear and kind of pretentious.

Now, I have never claimed not to be pretentious,* but the accusation of lack of clarity bears some discussion. Another reader, whose Internet name is "quasihumanist," has made the following observation:

Arguments in the humanities are unlike those in the sciences. In the humanities, one takes a relatively small amount of evidence and makes intricate, novel arguments, going through many steps to reach a distant and often surprising conclusion. In the sciences, it is at least preferred that one takes a large amount of evidence and uses a standard, well-known method of analysis to arrive at a conclusion which** is relatively obvious given the evidence. If you write a biology paper and all the other biologists while reading it carefully just nod their heads and agree, you have done a good job. If you write a history paper and all the other historians while reading it carefully just nod their heads and agree, you have written a very boring paper.

Quasihumanist makes a good point here. Someone who writes a scientific paper and someone who composes a work of literary criticism are aiming for very different objectives. Both are assimilating and interpreting evidence, but the former focusses on the assimilation and the latter on the interpretation. Humanities papers should be clearly phrased,*** but their style of argumentation can sometimes seem overly subtle or obscure to experimental scientists, who are used to stating that x=yz without stopping to mull over the metaphorical connotations. Humanities arguments can become pretty complex. Don't be put off by the complexity. It's not "pretentious" so much as it is simply a different way of thinking.

Back to body paragraphs:

An extremely easy mistake for a writer to make is to regard the body paragraphs of her essay as entirely separate entities. It's also a rather tempting mistake for a writer to make. People like creating categories. What does Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe do when he finds himself marooned on an island with only a faint hope of rescue? Well, he does quite a few things, but most notably, he sits down and makes lists of the good and bad aspects of his situation. The man is in mortal peril, and he makes lists. Essay writers often experience the same impulse.**** In the earlier stages of the essay-writing process, this impulse is quite useful. The writer lists points...categorises them...recategorises them...and makes strange and wonderful connections. Prewriting is all about lists.

By the time you begin to write, however, you should be left with only one category: your thesis. If you have three (or four or seven or twenty-one thousand) categories connected only by a vague, broad idea, you're going to write a sandwich essay in the worst possible way.

Part of the problem is that it's not particularly difficult to think of a paragraph as an autonomous unit. In a sense, it is an autonomous unit. High-school teachers will often explain to their students that a paragraph consists of a topic sentence, three sentences that provide support for that topic sentence, and a summing-up sentence. These teachers are not actually wrong; they are simply mistaking the model airplane for the real airplane again. The topic-sentence/support/summation model is a useful one, but it is not the only kind of paragraph out there, and it need not be used every single time without modification. Slavishly following what you might call the sandwich-paragraph model will land you in the same difficulties as will slavishly following the sandwich-essay model: you will be so hemmed in that you will leave your argument no room to grow.

A paragraph is a unit of writing that generally deals with one concept or idea. An idea can run over more than one paragraph, but a single paragraph should not cover more than one idea. Sandwich-method devotees often find themselves with so many ideas that they are forced to cram three or four into one paragraph in order to avoid going over the three-body-paragraph limit.***** Their essays tend to read as scattered; a lack of division between sub-points means that the reader is frantically trying to keep track of the bouncy ball that is the writer's argument as it careens without warning from point to point. If you are writing on a particularly complex idea, consider using a series of paragraphs instead of one busy, confusing one. As well, don't feel that your paragraphs all have to be hugely long. When I mark a four-page paragraph, I am constantly flipping back through the pages to figure out where the damned point started. If one of your points is a short, simple one, write a short, simple paragraph.

Some paragraph myths:

1) The topic sentence always comes first. No, it bloody well doesn't. The topic sentence--the sentence in which the writer reveals the paragraph's main point--often comes first because first is a pretty logical place for it, but occasionally, a paragraph begins with a little lead-in or example arising from ideas covered in the last paragraph. If you can't put your topic sentence first, don't get hysterical; improvise.

The idea of the topic sentence is, again, the fault of high-school teachers. As usual, these teachers mean well; they are trying to get their students to make each paragraph's purpose as clear as humanly possible. I applaud these efforts. I do not applaud the formulaic writing that often results. You may do better to forget about the topic sentence and concentrate on the topic. In other words, don't devote all your efforts to ensuring the existence of a single sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about, then relax and assume that the rest of the paragraph's content will fall into place. Try thinking of it not as a necessary sentence but as a necessary paragraph element: that is, you need to make the paragraph's purpose clear. I don't care how you do it. I don't care if it takes more than one sentence. I would advise you not to save it until the end, since then your paragraph is going to be doing a lot of aimless wandering, but I would suggest you not panic if you can't come up with a sentence that follows the Yellow Brick Road. State the topic...somewhere...somehow...as clearly as possible.

2) The topic sentence must be followed by three pieces of evidence, each one sentence long. Okay. Before you continue reading, please scroll up the page a little and go through the paragraph above this one again. You'll notice, first of all, that its topic sentence appears five sentences in, after a short section of explanation. You'll also notice that the sentences that follow the topic sentence do not carefully lay out three pieces of evidence one by one; instead, they explain and justify the topic sentence. These sentences follow logically upon one another; each idea leads to the next. Eventually, the paragraph ends with a summary of the paragraph's main point.

There are not three bloody sentences in the middle of the bloody paragraph, and they do not go, "Firstly"..."secondly"..."lastly." Nor, I must say, did I sit down and think, "Okay...I'm going to put the topic sentence here, and then I shall follow it with exactly x number of sentences, the first of which will have this purpose, and the second of which will have this purpose, and the third of which..."...and I'm sure you get the idea. I just wrote the thing. I knew what I wanted to say and where I wanted to go with the paragraph; I wasn't sure exactly how long it would take me to get there. I let the logic of my thoughts carry me from the beginning of the paragraph to the end.

If you are the sort of person who writes an ultra-detailed outline, go ahead and plan your paragraphs sentence by sentence, but make sure you are planning their content as well as their structure. Someone who adheres to the sandwich-paragraph method is planning the structure exclusive of the content, then shoehorning****** the content in any old how.

Do not succumb to the Metaphorical Shoe Horn of Death. Let your paragraphs be as long, as short, as complex, or as simple as they need to be.

3) The final sentence begins with the word "Therefore" and repeats the topic sentence. No. No. No, no, no, no, no!

What have I said about repetition? Do I have to repeat myself? Again? A paragraph is even shorter than an essay; don't clog it with pointless repetition. You have travelled in your argument over the course of the paragraph. With luck, by the time he finishes your paragraph, the reader will know more than he did thirty seconds before. Your final comment should generally constitute an intelligent observation arising from the analysis you have accomplished in the paragraph.

Your last sentence does not have to encompass the entire paragraph. It should provide a succinct comment that leads straight to your next point (or, in the case of complex points that stretch over more than one paragraph, your next sub-point). Remember: your argument is moving forward. A "Therefore..." + topic ending sends you backward and does not prepare the reader for your next point.

A transition is not simply a silly convention, a relatively meaningless word linking one paragraph to the next. A true transition is thematic; the "However," "Nonetheless," or "Therefore" is a mere surface indication of an essential connection between points. Someone using the sandwich method might argue that a certain painter uses extreme contrast between light and dark, deliberate lack of balance in composition, and the visual suggestion of androgyny in his central figures to create an atmosphere of uncertainty as well as a seemingly contradictory suggestion of impending doom,******* but if she deals with each point alone and does not explore how they work together to create this atmosphere, she is not creating meaningful transitions, no matter how many "However"s she uses.

A paragraph is not, in fact, an autonomous unit at all. A unified argument should move logically and with an apparent lack of effort from point to point, much as the unified paragraph moves logically and with an apparent lack of effort from sentence to sentence. In constructing an argument, you are chasing an idea through from conception to final proof. Each point is a link in the chain of analysis. If you neglect to include one of these links, the chain will fall to pieces. A mark of the sandwich essay is that it often fails to construct such a chain. Its points are independent of each other and, more importantly, interchangeable with each other and with other points that the writer does not have room to include. The writer dealing with the fictional painting in the last paragraph could probably add several other examples (and yes, she is really just listing examples here) to her list of elements that create the painting's atmosphere of uncertainty/impending doom; she could also swap them for the three she mentions. Her argument does not follow a logical trajectory. It consists of a number of examples, each of which separately proves her thesis. As she has neglected to tie these examples together meaningfully, her essay may easily end up remaining on the surface of the issue at hand.

Go deep, not wide. It's better to deal with a narrow issue******** comprehensively than to struggle to encompass the entirety of human experience in the space of three and a half pages. Let Douglas Adams cover Life, and Universe, and Everything. Take one small but important idea and run with it, pursuing it through paragraph after interconnected paragraph until you have covered all the essential issues surrounding it. This approach will actually help you to avoid leaving holes in your argument. If you build an argument around three random, loosely related, interchangeable points, you will be leaving gaps. If you build it around one point, you have more of a chance of creating a watertight, convincing essay.

My next post will discuss conclusions. It will not, however, be a conclusion. I still have many, many ideas to scream at you all.

*Except once in a while at parties.
**Yep...quasihumanist uses restrictive "which"es. He is allowed to do so because he knows the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive adjective clauses and has deliberately chosen to shun "that" for "which." I wouldn't do it myself, but luckily, I am not assigning his passage a mark out of one hundred. He can thus do whatever the hell he wants. If he had used a non-restrictive "which" without a comma, however, I would have stomped all over him and screamed a lot.
***You hear me, Homi Babha? You hear me?
****Without the mortal peril. Most of the time.
******If you don't know what a shoe horn is, I actually kind of envy you. At any rate, Google will tell you what you want to know.
*******I don't think this painting exists. If it does, I sort of want to see it.
********Albeit not too narrow. Unless you are a medievalist graduate student with nothing better to do, you probably don't want to write a ten-page paper on the provenance of a single Old English word.


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