I’ve just uploaded a short paper, “How to Write”, to accompany my lecture video of the same name. It’s a bit old and I’m going to revise it. Comments are therefore more than welcome. I’m happy hear what you think of both my style and my ideas. And what you think your students might think. Have at it!
I think both scholars and students do well to consider the time their readers spend with what they have written. Consider a 5-paragraph or 5-page or 8000-word essay. Think of them as consisting of 5, 10 and 40 paragraphs respectively. Now, consider this: each paragraph takes about one minute to read and should support, elaborate or defend an easily identified statement (articulated in the “key sentence”). That is, every minute or so, the reader should “get” something–namely, one of the things you’re trying to say. This goes on for however many minutes there are paragraphs.
Think about this when you are writing each individual paragraph. Have you constructed a minute of reading experience for the reader that effectively delivers your message. Do you even know what the message in a given paragraph is? Have decided whether the reader will find it difficult to believe, understand or agree with? Have you made specific rhetorical choices in an effort to help the reader overcome this difficulty? Do you care how this minute feels in the mind of the reader? Have you taken into account the minutes leading up and following after this minute? In many cases, these minutes will have passed according to your instructions, i.e., reading the words you have selected in the order you have arranged them.
Instead of thinking of your text as a structure that simply abides by the rules of style and grammar and therefore “stands up” to a certain kind of judgement, think of it as a texture. Imagine that the reader feels something as their attention passes over the surface of your writing.
If you are reading this blog you are probably a student or scholar working in a particular academic discipline. Take a moment and think of something within this discipline that you know well, something you have reason to believe is true. (At some level, after all, knowledge is justified, true belief.) It may be a simple, practical fact or complex theoretical insight. Think of something, in any case, that you might confidently assert among your peers. I’m not suggesting that holding such beliefs is the only thing you do, nor even the most important thing. I’m just reminding you that you do hold some beliefs in this way, and I want you to call one of these beliefs to mind.
Now subject this belief to doubt. Draw the belief into question. Ask yourself how you know that this thing is true. Ask yourself how good your reasons are, how likely your reasons to believe it are to be wrong. Keep in mind that it’s possible to be wrong for the right reasons or right for the wrong reasons. When was the last time you checked the sources that support your belief on this matter? Could new evidence have come to light? Might you simply be remembering the story in a convenient but ultimately inaccurate way? Pull the belief out of the space in which you are quite certain about it, and imagine it in a tougher room. Put it in a state of crisis. Think critically about it, just for a moment.
Now make up your mind. Is it true or false? What sort of investigation, if any, will you have to carry out to decide? What sorts of reasons will you bring to bear on this question? Are they the same as the ones you started with? (Your belief may remain firm during this process, though your reasons to hold it change.) Take about 10 minutes to consider the matter.
Okay, now find a peer to discuss it with. Ask them for 20 minutes of their time to talk through your doubts about something that you had previously been quite certain about. Your peer might immediately share your doubts, or even be quite sure you were wrong all along. Or this conversation itself might raise doubts in the mind of your peer. In any case, try to explain the conclusion you reached. Seek their input and advice. But don’t let the conversation go on and on. After twenty minutes, thank them and be on your way.
Finally, take a moment to write a single paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends your current belief on the matter. If your peer ended up disagreeing with you, you might consider writing the paragraph with them in mind, defending your belief against their objections. If your peer had a hard time understanding you, you might elaborate your meaning. If your peer found your assertion difficult to believe, try writing a paragraph that supports it with evidence. Don’t spend more than half an hour on this.
Hopefully the value of this exercise is obvious. It will let you experience your mind, your voice and your prose style directly. It will give immediate information about the quality of your thinking, your speaking and your writing. Pay attention to how you went about deciding what to think, what to say, and what to write. And notice that this is giving you important insight into how you think, speak and write. It’s also showing you how you can improve your ability to do these things.
Finally, please notice that they support each other. Or, at least, they support each other when you are doing them well. When you are not concentrating, however, they may undermine each other. In any case, the clarity of your mind and your voice will be apparent in the clarity of your style. Your style and your voice represent your mind, we might say; your writing and speaking represent your thinking. You do well to train these abilities and strengthen the connections between them.
“At first sight, the statement appears as an ultimate, undecomposable element … An atom of discourse.” (Michel Foucault)
“The phrase ‘At first sight’ implies that the idea is introduced only to ensure its elimination.” (David Webb)
“…the paragraph can be described very roughly as an autochthonous pattern in prose discourse…” (Paul Rodgers)
It is my view that scholarly discourse divides into paragraphs. I don’t mean that scholars always talk in tightly composed paragraphs, only that what they say — when they speak as scholars — can be restated within the form of a paragraph: a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. A paragraph makes a statement for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Everything a scholar knows can be be articulated in such statements, and, while Foucault is right to question its undecomposability, Rodgers is no less right to say that the pattern seems to have “sprung from the soil it inhabits”. Would it strain the metaphor to say that when statements are discarded they return to that soil as a kind of compost? Discourse is the soil out of which paragraphs are composed and into which they decompose.
The important thing about the paragraph is that it states a claim along with its basis. It expresses a belief along with the author’s reasons to think it is true. This lets the reader, not merely believe or disbelieve the claim, but consider it carefully; it lets us discuss it. The claim may be true but the reasons bad, in which case the statement will not hold up under scrutiny, even if the claim will later emerge in discourse again, this time supported by better reasons. Or the reasons may be good but the claim nonetheless false, for reasons not yet discovered and not yet articulated in the discourse. One day they will be, and they will appear in paragraphs making the counter-statement.
For my part, I want to help students and scholars become better at composing paragraphs in their writing, and decomposing them in their reading. If we all committed to the idea that “knowledge”, at least in academic settings, is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something, and we all worked to keep our prose healthy — to support the emergence of these native patterns, and hasten their return to the earth when their work is done — then I think our discourse, too, would be more vibrant, more joyful. Scholars are organized by “discipline” and this is not at all incidental. I’m not just playing on words when I say it takes discipline to write a paragraph. The form of the statement, the pattern that we recognize in the paragraph that makes it, is shaped by the traditions of a community of scholars. We work hard to acquire that form, to get into shape.