When I teach paragraphs, I always talk about how paragraph breaks should be dictated by textual demands rather than length. Sometimes that approach works out perfectly for a writer: each particular topic fits comfortably within a paragraph, with obvious breaking points. Other times, however, creating a paragraph break can feel awkward. In other words, it’s all well and good to say that each paragraph needs a recognizable topic, but the reality is often more complicated. As I was writing the first draft of my last post, I realized that I was dealing with one of those awkward paragraphs: too long to be a single paragraph, but with enough unity that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to make it more than one paragraph. Since this problem is frequently raised by my students, I decided to use this post to show a few strategies for managing a balky paragraph.
Before we look at the example, a quick note about paragraph length: I generally write shorter paragraphs on the blog than I would in normal academic writing. I do so for two reasons. First, I think the quality of attention that we give to a blog post is often less than to an article, so I try to make the component parts more manageable. Second, I’m aware that people will read a post on all sorts of devices, some of which will offer such a compressed reading space that paragraphs will feel longer than they are. I want to be clear that these considerations apply to blogging and need not concern an academic writer. Academic writing ought to presuppose a certain type of attention (whether it gets it or not is another matter) and ought to presuppose that, regardless of where it might be read, its main objective is to provide the kind of sustained argumentation that generally requires longer paragraphs. All of which is to say that the example that I’m about to show is long only by the standards that I use on the blog. The shorter example works well for this space, and the editing strategies that I will suggest apply equally to the longer paragraphs that we need for academic writing.
Here is the example paragraph (still in very rough form):
We will think about the writing process differently depending on whether we think of the task broadly or narrowly [BROAD TOPIC]. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally creating a separate space for planning and for revising. And for some people, this is surely exactly what they need to do. For some writers, however, allowing writing to be the appropriate name for a broader range of activities is invaluable [SPECIFIC TOPIC]. If we think of planning as a species of writing [FIRST ASPECT OF THE SPECIFIC TOPIC], we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common; I sometimes see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ready to write. I’m not saying writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it may also generate the text that you need or lead you to the questions that you need to examine. Similarly [MY ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT WE ARE MOVING TO THE SECOND ASPECT], we can use writing as a way to manifest our commitment to extensive revision [SECOND ASPECT]. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we are much less likely to enact the degree of alteration necessary to move from first to final draft. When writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to lapse into a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using (re)writing as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall [AN ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT I’M PULLING THE TWO ASPECTS TOGETHER], if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we give ourselves access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.
As I was writing this, I was aware that it might need to be broken up, but I wanted to let it play out as a single paragraph until I knew what I wanted to say. Even in its rough form, you can see that this paragraph splits into two different supporting points. Once I understand the nature of my awkward paragraph, what are my editorial options?
1. Obviously, I could leave this paragraph as is: one topic, two aspects, one paragraph. In that case, I would be making the estimation that I don’t want it to run into a second paragraph, either because I don’t want to devote that much space to the topic or because I don’t want to draw that much attention to it. If I choose this option, it would stay roughly as it is, except for any necessary editing. Making the commitment to a single paragraph may mean lessening the detail so that it feels to the reader like a single idea.
2. I could try turning it into two paragraphs. This option—which frequently makes the most sense—is the one that often puzzles writers. If the first paragraph sets up the topic, can we break up the exploration of that topic into two or more paragraphs? We can, as long as we manage the opening of the subsequent paragraphs properly. In this case, the beginning of the second paragraph would need to be sharpened in order to announce the second element. Rather that simply signalling the shift—as I tried to do above with the word ‘similarly’—I would need some repetition or parallelism to orient the reader; for instance, we could say, as I did in the final version, ‘Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can …’. By echoing the language used in the first point, I alert the reader to the fact that we are turning to the second point. If we were to divide this paragraph into two, it would be fine for any concluding material to appear at the end of the second paragraph; again, just make sure that there is sufficient indication of the scope of the conclusion. This approach also works when using ordinals, as we so often do. We can say that a topic will have two aspects and then announce the first one with a ‘first’. When it comes time to address the second aspect, if we need to do so in a separate paragraph, we will do so with more than just a ‘second’; for instance, we could say, ‘The second aspect of [this topic] concerns …’.
3. Lastly, I could, if I had enough to say, turn this into three paragraphs, with the first one acting like a topic paragraph and the next two each having their own topic sentence. Needless to say, we wouldn’t choose this option unless we want to expand the content and unless we want the reader to pay a lot of attention to these ideas.
Overall, the key is to let the drafting stage be a time when ideas are allowed to develop as they wish, without worrying about the optimal placement of paragraph breaks for our eventual reader. We often won’t know how much space a topic warrants until we try it out. And even when the topic won’t be given much room in a final draft, our ability to create that more compressed version can be enhanced by having previously created a less compressed version. Once we’ve decided on the appropriate amount of detail and development, we can decide about paragraphing. Knowing that we’ve got the proportion right can then make us confident in our ability to divide up the text into workable paragraphs. We have the freedom to divide our text as we wish, as long as we are constantly mindful of the needs of the reader. Think about what you are asking your reader to carry from one paragraph to the next, and give them the necessary cues to make that transition seamlessly.