How to Write Paragraphs

Make them big enough.

A paragraph consists of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it.

The key sentence says that “one thing”. It is one among several (usually around 40) things your paper says. Each paragraph should make a claim that is proportionate to the others,

as the hand should be proportionate to the head in a drawing. Also, a balanced drawing renders each part of the figure with the same amount of detail. Don’t write a tight, rigorous theory section and a breezy analysis.

My theory of the social world conditions the way I see it for analytical purposes. My theory helps me to see certain things and prevents other things, not relevant, from distracting me.

Try yours.

In your theory section you tell your reader what you are able to see and what you are unable to see. In your analysis you tell your reader what you actually saw in your data.

Keep your writing back. Don’t finish your theory section before you have written your analysis. Let the whole paper emerge gradually.

Don’t stick your “limitations” on at the end. Let them emerge in your methods section as determined by your theory, and let them guide the presentation of your data, collected according to your limited methods. Let the analysis run into its limits squarely as you proceed. Don’t instill a false sense of generality in your reader’s mind and then retract it at the end.

Think of the key sentences as the bones in the skeleton of the figure. Remove the prose around them and you expose this structure. It is okay that the bones are not “touching” in the outline; cartilage and muscle are presumed to keep them in the right relative position in the actual paper. The important thing is that the toe bone be connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone. Etc.

The introduction is connected to the background, the background connected to the theory, the theory connected to the method, the method connected to analysis, th’analysis connected to d’iscussion, and now hear the author out (that’s the conclusion, of course.)

You write the paragraphs to “flesh it out”. You keep the key sentences short and simple. They simply state your claims.

Books vs. Articles

“I began to think, at least I learned how to try to think, for to do that, one must be ready to live in a hunt for the most elusive game–our real motive or motives and not the ostensible reason.” (Norman Mailer)

I’ve been away for a while. On returning, I find I owe Randy an apology for leaving his comment in my spam filter for so long. He brings up a good point. Often our excuses for not writing are not the real reason we aren’t writing. I sometimes sharpen this point by noting that people have no difficulty being hard on themselves as long as they know it isn’t true. They’ll call themselves stupid when they know they are lazy, or lazy when they know they’ve been stupid. It’s not the insult that stings; it’s the truth that hurts.

As Randy rightly points out, once a disciplined, orderly process has become second nature, not only are you more productive, you are better able to consider more precisely what is holding you back, and what might be really be keeping you from speaking your mind. Some of the truth you discover there is hard, but it’s healthy to come to the realization of your real limitations. You can then take deliberate action to overcome them.

He also raises a more technical question. Do these difficulties arise differently in the writing of books and the writing of journal articles? My sense, from talking to my authors, is that books are experienced as “freer” platforms for expression. The rhetorical and editorial demands seem kinder and more human. I would also argue that an article is written somehow “closer” to the act of publishing. It feels, in the writing moment, more public, while a book, as it’s being written, remains a private experiment. I think this feeling comes through in the finished products. Articles seem much more, shall we say, “politic” in their expression, while books seem much more frank, more candid.

For this reason it can be a great idea to always be working on a book. Alongside your daily efforts to present ideas for public scrutiny on a running basis in article form, take a moment (27 minutes) to find out what your real motives are by putting similar ideas the way you might in the “privacy” of a book. The reason it feels different is, in part, that you don’t expect quick reactions to a book-length argument. It’s not a simple transaction.

Borges once encouraged us to remember that a book isn’t just a linguistic structure; it is the lasting effect it has on our imaginations. In that sense, perhaps, an article is much “structuralist”. An article isn’t so much the experience we have while reading it as the “impact” it has on our “citation network”. Each paragraph is written to achieve this effect. A book is different. It is truly a conversation with the reader. I like the idea that it’s more “private”. I’ll think more about this.

Performance Anxiety

I’ve been arguing for something I call the “the writing moment”, which is supposed to emphasize the absolute superiority of the writer over the reader. After all, in that moment the writer spends 27 minutes designing a 1-minute experience for the reader–“the reading moment,” if you will. The writer composes a paragraph (of at least six sentences and most 200 words) that says one thing and supports, elaborates, or defends it. Lately, I’ve become aware of a barrier to this message that I have perhaps been too glib about.

Students and teachers alike do not like the idea of sitting down to write something they know in a well-defined writing moment. This, I suspect, is because it puts them face to face with their competence as writers. By asking them to decide what to write the day before and to specify when they will write as well I am not leaving them any excuses for writing badly. Their performance will reflect their competence to evoke pictures of the facts. Their ability to tell the truth.

Even though this performance is an entirely private one, observed by no one until they themselves choose to show the result to someone, the prospect of experiencing themselves writing in complete freedom to succeed or fail according their abilities is abhorrent to them. All through their education, I guess, they had been cultivating the illusion that writing is a completely magical and mysterious process–an experience akin to demonic possession–that “channels” the truth into prose whether they understand it or not. What I am proposing, by contrast, makes them inexorably responsible for their words. It is daunting.

I do not wish to trivialize this resistance to my advice. In fact, I empathize. But I hope that putting it this way makes clear why facing our fears here, overcoming our performance anxiety, is important. We simply have to tell each other what we think. Or we will be trapped in our own personal, subjective point of view. We will have lost our basis in fact. We will have abdicated our objectivity.

27/9/1

“Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.” (Jonathan Mayhew)

Here are some quantitative measures that can be used to understand what we mean by “quality” in a prose text. A scholarly prose paragraph can

  1. be written in 27 minutes,
  2. sustain 9 minutes of direct criticism
  3. be read in 1 minute.

That is: Spending 27 minutes attending to the composition of a prose paragraph is a meaningful use of your time in scholarship. Moreover, after writing it, you are able to listen to a peer critique it for nine minutes, learning from this critique and improving the paragraph. When finished, a reader is able to extract the intended meaning from it in one minute (even if the reader is not persuaded by it, the meaning should be clear). The paragraph should look like something that was written during 27 minutes of deliberate effort (not dashed off in five) and has survived (or benefited) from 9 minutes of knowledgeable peer criticism, aimed directly at it.

Why we so often tolerate writing, in our students and in our colleagues, that doesn’t even pretend to live up to this standard is beyond me. Obviously, I’m not talking about blog posts and tweets. I’m not saying all our communication should happen through carefully crafted prose. I’m saying that our core claims to know things should be thus composed, somewhere in “the literature”. And I say this in full recognition that I, too, have been negligent in putting my knowledge out there in this form. Occasions, I want to say, conspired against me until now. I’m starting to feel free enough to get this done.

 

Knowledge as Competence

I got an interesting and very precise question from a student in class today. “You say you have to believe what you know. But isn’t belief totally subjective?”

There are two ways to respond. One is to stick to one’s philosophical guns and say that knowledge isn’t “merely” belief but a special kind of belief, namely, “justified, true belief”. Belief can be acknowledged as a the subjective or “mental” component of knowledge, i.e., the part that has to be “in the mind”, without saying that knowledge is entirely subjective. Belief is a necessary but sufficient attribute of knowledge.

But in the class I had been pursuing another line. I hadn’t actually said, “Knowledge is justified, true belief.” I had said “Knowledge is the ability to form justified, true beliefs.” When faced with a particular situation, I had said, knowledge is your competence to make up your mind about it. “Competence” here implies that you’re going to form not just any old belief but a “good” one. And goodness in the way of belief is what we call “truth”. The requirement of justification prevents us from counting as “knowledge” the sort of prejudices that allow snap judgments, even when they happen to hit on the truth. We have to be able to provide a reasonable account of why we believe something if we are going to claim to know it.

I think this strategy of treating knowledge, not as a kind of belief, but as a basis for (or “way of holding” or “way of forming”) beliefs might be fruitful, but I’m not sure how well it holds up to philosophical critique. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s been discussed to death among philosophers. Comments are welcome.