When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.
In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”
This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.
While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.
This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences into coherent paragraphs.
If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.