Tag Archives: Reverse outlines

Revising Out Loud

This past fall, I accidentally published a very rough draft of a post. I still don’t know how I managed to hit Publish instead of Save Draft, but I did. The post was so rough that I hadn’t even decided whether or not I wanted to publish it; I often use this space just to think through issues that are on my mind. After my initial horror subsided, I found the reader reaction interesting. Lots of people said that they were actually glad to see a provisional version of someone else’s writing. I’ve certainly talked here about how rarely we see other people’s weak drafts and have often wondered how best to combat this problem. Mistakenly posting a work in progress is certainly one way to show the world how muddled my thinking and syntax can be. I decided there must be some way to build on this accidental overshare, but I wasn’t immediately sure how best to do so.

As I pondered this question, I realized that my revision process has two phases. I often talk about the relatively simple fact that we ought to tackle some aspects of revision before others, but here I’m getting at something different. Before we can begin these sequenced stages of revision, we may need to confront our own ambivalence about what we’ve written. This preliminary phase—which I will talk about this post—is the hard one for me. The second phase is the fun one because it involves fixing something that I know I want to share. The hard part is deciding whether something is worth sharing and whether it can be revised into publishable form. This stage is harder because it is less about technique and more about self-doubt. My litany of self-doubting questions are likely familiar to many of you. Am I saying anything interesting? Is what I’m saying even right? Has someone else already said it better? Might I be inadvertently offending someone? Could I be unnecessarily complicating the issue? Have I contradicted myself? You get the idea. In the rest of this post, I want to talk about the process of responding to such early questions in a way that allows me to make an initial commitment to my own writing. In order to get to the point at which I’m ready to make the necessary revisions, I need to assess three aspects of an early draft: relevance; coherence; and manageability.

Assessment of relevance: The first revision decision is whether I want to share something at all. As I often say here on the blog, some things need to be written more than they need to be read, and I have lots of those in my unpublished drafts folder. To decide whether to publish something on the blog, I need to think about the relevance of the topic to my anticipated audience. In this case, the key point was that presentation slides benefit from being designed rather than written. Was that worth talking about? Since I see such a large number of slides decks that are full of text while being hard for the audience to follow, I decided that these reflections were relevant. By making this decision early, I try to avoid the inefficiency that can result from being noncommittal about my own writing.

Assessment of coherence: Once I establish that I want to keep a post, I have to assess its coherence. To do this, I turn to a reverse outline. Obviously, a reverse outline isn’t nearly as important for a short text as for a long one, but it can still be helpful. Identifying the basic point of each paragraph confirms whether I’ve been able to sustain my attention to a topic and allows me to see whether each of the paragraphs makes a distinct contribution.

Assessment of manageability: Finally, I find it valuable to create a manageable path to completion. It can, of course, be hard to decide how much revision is necessary: finished is not an objective state. Because revision can so easily become a self-perpetuating activity, I like to make a clear plan. This planning doesn’t necessarily stop me from late-stage tinkering, of which I do far more than I should, but it does make it harder for me to indulge my tendency towards endless revision. Knowing that revision ultimately has diminishing returns, I like to make an explicit plan based on revision priorities and available time.

Taken together, these different assessments give me a meaningful way of managing my own discontent. As is not uncommon, my early writing efforts often fill me with dismay. It is important, however, to have a concrete way to move past such feelings of inadequacy. It can be helpful to realize that others are also struggling, but that alone won’t enhance the quality of our texts. To improve our writing, we need a way of channelling any unhappiness. By asking myself these questions, I am trying to be deliberately hard on myself without succumbing to the negativity that results from being indiscriminately hard on myself. There is some discipline required here: I allow myself to be very critical on the condition that I will accept what I come up with when I address the criticisms. In other words, I can’t just continue to find new problems.

Once I’ve finished these initial assessments, I have to do the actual revisions. As I said above, this part I love. Figuring out what a sentence (or paragraph) is trying to do and then figuring out what is getting in its way is a lot of fun. While I often lack confidence in the things I’m trying to say, I sometimes feel real pleasure in my ability to make my sentences and paragraphs do as I wish. I’ll try to do a post in the future that looks in detail at that sort of sentence and paragraph transformation. In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s strategies for getting comfortable with their own early drafts.

The Craft of Revision

All academic writers have some sort of revision process, but that process is often either insufficient (just nibbling around the edges) or scattershot (catching some things but missing others). To improve our revision practices, we generally have to both deepen them and make them more systematic.

My starting point here is the near impossibility of crafting reader-ready first drafts. If the material is conceptually complex, if you are still struggling to understand the implications of what you’ve learned, if the internal connections aren’t yet apparent to you, then the first draft is going to be clumsy. At that stage, the text will be something that you are still learning from rather than something that others can learn from. For most of us, making the transition from a text that helps you to a text that helps the reader takes multiple iterations. When I talk about needing to make a commitment to extensive revision, that choice of words might make it sound as if the main issue is one of will power. The truth is that developing good revision practices takes more than just commitment because revision itself is very challenging. Even with the best of intentions, we still run into problems:

I always run out of time.

In other words, “I’m not actually getting a first draft done early enough to make revision a rational part of my writing process; at the last minute, I’m trying to make it better, but I don’t actually have the time or space to tackle the hard stuff.”

I try to edit, but then I get distracted by content.

In other words, “Even if I have the time and space for editing, I quickly shift my focus away from the writing to issues of content.”

I see some problems but not others.

In other words, “Even with the best of intention, with sufficient time, with sufficient attention to matters of expression (rather than content), I still can’t see all the problems in my own text.”

As these comments demonstrate, the ability to revise our own writing doesn’t generally come naturally. In fact, the challenges of assessing our own writing are such that revision must be thought of as a craft that will need to be consciously cultivated. If we think of writing as an art, it makes sense to think of revision as a craft. No matter how you came to pull the first draft together, there are some recognized ways to get it into a more manageable form.

The first thing to say about the craft of revision is that it is different than proofreading. It’s crucial that we distinguish the process of revision from the final process of making sure there are no errors. Lumping proofreading in with revision may result from the fact that we often use the term ‘editing’ to refer to anything we might do to a draft. But separating revision and proofreading means that we are able to distinguish two activities that are inherently quite different: revision is the active reading and rearranging of our text and proofreading is the process of making corrections and checking for consistency (while not making the sort of revisions that so easily introduce new errors).

Even once we exclude proofreading activities, revision isn’t one monolithic thing; there are a broad range of activities that can be called revision.

  • Word choice: Have you used apt vocabulary?
  • Sentence structure: Are your sentences easy for the reader to follow?
  • Flow between sentences, paragraphs, sections: Have you found the optimal order and then signalled that order to your reader?
  • Tone: Have you engaged your reader while still conforming to academic writing conventions?
  • Economy: Have you avoided distracting digressions or general wordiness?
  • Overall coherence: Is there a clear and discernible argument or structure to your writing?

With all these potential questions, it is unsurprising that we often feel jumbled and ineffectual while trying to revise our own prose. One way to tackle these feelings is by creating an effective sequence for our revision process. Here is one such possibility, drawn from the always-helpful work of Joseph Williams.

Broad structural issues: The first thing to tackle are the big issues. This advice may sound obvious, but many writers do begin with the small stuff. The best way that I know to undertake a structural edit is to do a reverse outline. It is practical to do this sort of revision first, before we end up too attached to everything we’ve written and thus unwilling to make deep cuts. This stage should be somewhat ruthless, and ruthlessness comes easier early in the process. During this stage, we should also be on the lookout for those things that may have needed to be written but not necessarily read. Since writing so often functions as a way of clarifying thought, we need to be alert to the possibility that we’ve said more than is ultimately necessary for the reader.

Clarity: Revising for clarity means looking for extra words and for undue complexity. In our quest for clearer sentences, it can helpful to remember how consistently we are tempted to distance ourselves from our ideas with awkward expressions, weak verbs, and unclear subjects. More generally, we are often flummoxed by the conventions of academic writing, which at least appear to require a degree of complexity that works against clarity. There is always room for clarity, but these issues of tone can still give a lot of grief to novice academic writers who are grappling with complex topics while navigating the demands of a new discourse community.

Sentence-level errors: In this round of revision, we will be looking for errors that may not have been caught while we were thinking about clarity. We will ideally be guided here by an understanding of our own particular writing patterns as well as by an understanding of common issues such as subject-verb agreement, ambiguous reference, or punctuation.

Cohesion problems: By this point, we’ve made a lot of changes, so we have to make sure it all coheres. With all this revision, it’s inevitable that new inconsistencies and infelicities will have been introduced. A final round of revision is often required to make sure our newly arranged and polished text flows naturally.

These four stages reflect the revision order that I prefer, but the process could easily be altered to reflect your own preferences. The crucial notion is that revision should be sequenced—to allow different issues to come to the fore in turn—and that the sequence should run from broad to fine.

In conclusion, I want to stress the way that revision benefits both the writing itself and the writing process: as better revisers, we are better writers. Good revisers are better writers because they have the confidence to know that they can fix the problems that are inevitably created during the composition process. Since writing is usually accompanied by some discomfort about the manifest flaws of our first draft, it is so helpful to develop faith that we will be able to fix problems later. There are many valid approaches to academic writing, but they all must end with a solid approach to the craft of revision.

This post is adapted from a presentation on the ‘art of revising’ for a virtual boot camp run by the Text and Academic Authors Association. The presentation is available as a podcast on the TAA site.

Topic Sentence Paragraphs

In a recent writing class, I talked about reverse outlines and topic sentence paragraphs as techniques for identifying structural issues in a piece of writing. While I’ve talked about reverse outlines in this space a great deal (both potential applications and potential pitfalls), I realize that I’ve never mentioned the topic sentence paragraph. It’s actually helpful to think of the two techniques as complementary: just as the reverse outline tells us what is wrong with an early draft, a topic sentence paragraph can help us see what is right with a late draft. Or, if it’s not quite right yet, can help us to see what needs tweaking. Our deep familiarity with our own intentions and our own writing patterns means that we often fail to see glaring cohesion problems, even late in the game. A topic sentence paragraph can help us to ensure that all is well.

The technique itself is quite simple: copy and paste the topic sentence from each paragraph into a new pseudo-paragraph. This new creation won’t be a true paragraph because it’ll be weirdly choppy and overly long, but it should be a functional microcosm of the text. As such, it should be able to carry a coherent narrative. A topic sentence paragraph isn’t as dramatically informative as a reverse outline; it’s more likely to offer confirmation than revelation. Once you’ve got a draft that you think is structurally coherent, you can use the topic sentence paragraph as a way to confirm that intuition.

The moment to use this technique must, of course, be chosen carefully. You can’t do it too early−because all it will show you is that the text isn’t ready yet−but you also can’t do it too late. To me, the topic sentence paragraph marks the end of my willingness to do large-scale edits. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that extensive revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania will set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working. A hard deadline can sometimes stop us from obsessive editing; whether or not we’ve crafted the best possible document at the point of submission, at least we’re saved from endless tinkering. But when there isn’t a firm deadline−as with, for instance, an early dissertation chapter−editing can become a thing that we do long past the point at which we ought to have moved on. If we are to manage our workflow effectively, every text needs to move through our hands and out into the world. The fact that we could always make it different doesn’t mean that we would be making it better or even that making it better is always the best use of our time.

Another reason to establish a point after which structural edits are verboten is that we can’t edit for all types of issues at once. A text must have a point after which big questions are off the table in order to allow smaller points to engage our attention. Not only is it difficult to proofread a document that is still in flux, such a document is vulnerable to a range of new errors that are the direct result of our own editorial intervention. Being strict about the type of editing that is suitable for each stage of the process can help us to create a document that is well-edited at both a macro and micro level.

Drawing the structural editing phase to a close with a final check is a way of making sure that we haven’t missed any ongoing gaps in cohesion and a way of setting the stage for the final edits. This final editing phase can then lead us to a cleaner text and, perhaps even more importantly, lead us that much closer to a finished text.

Academic Writing Month  2014 (#AcWriMo on Twitter) is coming up in November. Read an explanation on PhD2Published and start thinking if this might work for you! Here are some of my thoughts on AcWriMo 2012 and AcWriMo 2013.

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here:

Writing and Not Writing

As AcWriMo got underway, lots of people in the Twitter feed (#AcWriMo) were wondering what counts as writing for the purposes of this month of academic writing. This question registered for me when I started my first Pomodoro (using my PhDometer!) and quickly realized that the revise and resubmit project I’ve set for myself this month is going to require a lot of not writing. What will I be doing while not writing? Reading the reviewers’ comments closely; thinking about the editor’s summation of those comments; returning to the original article; making decisions about the relevant literature; and so forth. To turn this article into a new and improved version of itself will take relatively little writing, if writing is defined narrowly. But it all counts in my mind since my goal is to get this article back to my co-author in good shape, not to meet some abstract goal of writing a certain amount.

As I read people’s questions about what might count as writing, I began to see a range of possibilities:

Pure writing: When we put our heads down and just write. This sort of exploratory writing involves turning off your internal critic and allowing yourself to figure out what you need to say. This style of writing is well suited to the sort of productivity goals that many have set for themselves this month. As I’ve said many times in this space, I think this sort of uncensored writing is invaluable. However, it’s also potentially fraught with difficulties, so it’s important to be reflective about the process

Provisional editing: When we look back at the writing we’ve just done to ensure that it will make sense to us later.

Revision: When we return to our writing, ideally with a bit of distance, to make it better. Perhaps we’ll start  with a structural editing strategy, such as the reverse outline. At this point, most of us need to be flexible about what is needed: more time to think; a different organizing scheme; a new framing question; a fresh take on the literature. The work we do here may not look much like writing, but it’s definitely moving the text forward. This is the space where I picture myself hanging out this month.

Not writing: When we do things that aren’t writing during times designated for writing. I see three main categories of ‘not writing’. First, we have simple avoidance: in my case, for instance, an assiduous attention to office organization schemes. Is it really efficient to have my paper clips in a different drawer than my binder clips? And come to think of it, why are my paper clips themselves not sorted by size? Or better yet colour? And off I go. Those things are absolutely hazardous to my productivity, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m in full avoidance. We all know what our particular avoidance strategies look like. Second, and here is where things get more complicated, we have understandable avoidance: doing the things that have to get done, such as marking, emails, and meetings. We absolutely have to do these things, but we can try to organize our schedules so that they cannot encroach on our writing time. One of the great things about AcWriMo is the inspiration it provides to carve out writing time and to protect that time. The final way that we avoid writing may be the worst because it involves doing things that look very much like writing. Engaging in writing-adjacent activities can readily eat up our writing time. Maybe for you it’s too much reading or maybe it’s too much editing or maybe it’s too much second guessing before allowing the words to hit the page. Or writing something—a blog post, perhaps—other than what you were meant to be writing. Whatever the replacement activity is, it will use up your writing time and even undermine the concept of writing time. We all need to understand and resist our own habitual avoidance techniques in order to preclude the disappointment that comes from not writing.

Overall, I think it’s helpful to approach AcWriMo with two questions: What writing do you need to get done this month? And what do you want to change about your writing process this month? So, any activity can count as writing if it contributes to your overall goal. And it won’t count if it’s the sort of not-writing activity that has tripped you up in the past. AcWriMo is not a gimmick—it’s an opportunity to make writing work better in your life in the long term. All decisions about ‘what counts’ as writing should be made in that spirit.

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

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.