How Paragraphs Work

Whether you’re writing an essay, a paper, or a chapter, you’re going to be writing a series of paragraphs. You therefore do well to think about what a paragraph does in a text, what role it plays in the larger whole. You’re going to be making a series of claims that together constitute an argument; each paragraph will be devoted to one of these claims. Broadly speaking, we can say that the function of a paragraph is to establish a claim in your argument. It has between six sentences and 200 words with which to accomplish this task, or about one minute of your reader’s attention in which to do it.

In most cases, “establish” means that the paragraph either supports, elaborates or defends the claim, and that means you have to decide whether the claim needs support, elaboration, or defense. (We’ll leave the fourth difficulty on the side for now.) You have to choose your claims wisely, so that they don’t need more than 200 words to do any of these things or are so “easy” that six sentences just seem like a waste of time to your reader. At the end of the day, it’s not your claim that needs support, elaboration, or defense, it’s your reader that needs you to support, elaborate, or defend it. So you have to know what your reader is capable of, and what they’re willing to accept.

“To know whom to write for is to know how to write,” said Virginia Woolf. As a student or a scholar, remember that you know your reader as well as you know your peers. You are writing for someone you respect as an equal — someone who is as knowledgeable on the subject as you are, and whose mind you are familiar with.

Though it’s not always necessary, it will be useful to make the claim you’re trying to establish explicit in one of the sentences in the paragraph. In fact, if you approach the paragraph with this “key sentence” in mind, it will be much easier to write it. The key sentence should be simple and declarative, and it should occasion the difficulty you’re going to help your reader overcome.

“Sensemaking is a retrospective process,” is a good example of the sort of sentence I have in mind. You may decide that your reader needs an elaboration of this point, and therefore go on to explain exactly what you mean by “retrospective” (not to mention “process”!). If you haven’t already done so in another paragraph you may also want to briefly define sensemaking — but keep in mind that, in this example, the sentence works more like a statement about sensemaking than a definition of it. (Compare: “Sensemaking is the retrospective formation of images that justifies the behavior of members in an organization.” That’s also a perfectly good key sentence, but with a few more working parts to belabor.) This question of whether you’re making a conceptual point or an empirical one is useful to get clear about before you compose the paragraph.

Notice that the same key sentence can be presented in very different postures. You can claim that sensemaking is a retrospective process as a simple matter of definition or you can present it as an empirical result. You can even use it to provoke you reader, who may adhere to the view that sensemaking is sometimes a prospective activity. In each of these different rhetorical postures, you might decide that the simple declarative sentence (“Sensemaking is a retrospective process,”) is still the best way to write your key sentence, trusting that the reader will feel the relevant difficulty and take up the appropriate stance to receive the rest of your paragraph. But you might also make it clear already in the key sentence itself. “Karl Weick (1995, p. 24) has defined sensemaking as a retrospective process,” or, “In XYZ Corp, sensemaking proceeds retrospectively,” or, “Contrary to current fashion, my view is that sensemaking is always a retrospective process.” Notice that in each case, we’re still saying that sensemaking is a retrospective process, but we’re pitching the claim at a particular angle in order to sharpen the point, to locate the difficulty we want the reader to experience.

Think of your entire paper as a series of small, surmountable difficulties for your reader, each of which you occasion and then help them to overcome. (This also defines your difficulty, to be sure.) It can be useful to make a list of these claims (noting the associated difficulty for each) as you go along. This gives you what we call an after-the-fact or key sentence outline. It’s simply a list of the claims you presume you have established in your paper, one paragraph at a time. You can always go back to each paragraph and make sure that you really have established it, of course. But the outline gives you a nice way of surveying your argument, like Kafka’s engineer admiring the Great Wall of China. The idea is to appreciate your small contribution to the larger universe of discourse.

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