A scholarly paragraph states a claim and supports, elaborates, or defends it. The claim is expressed in the key sentence, which will often appear early in the paragraph, but may appear anywhere so long as it is clearly stating the proposition that the paragraph is trying to get across. It will usually be a short, direct, declarative sentence and use relatively simple grammar. If the reader is supposed to find the claim hard to believe, the remaining sentences will support it with evidence. If the reader is supposed to find it hard to understand, the paragraph will elaborate its meaning, defining terms or providing illustrations. If the reader is supposed to find it difficult to agree with the claim, the paragraph will mount a defense, acknowledging the reader’s objections and engaging with them. In all cases, the bulk of the paragraph will be easier (to believe, understand, or agree with) than the key sentence, which, crucially, occasions precisely the difficulty that the paragraph is supposed to resolve.
In scholarly prose, paragraphs generally consist of least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. That is, the ideas scholars express in their writing generally require at least five sentences of support, elaboration, or defense to be rendered credible, comprehensible, or contestable to a peer reader. Something that can be said in less that six sentences doesn’t require a paragraph of its own (but may of course be said in support, elaboration, or defense of another, more substantial, claim). A claim that requires more than two-hundred words before the reader will believe, understand, or agree to disagree about it should be broken into two or more simpler ideas. What this rule of thumb reminds us is that it should take about one minute to read a paragraph properly. 182 words of flowing prose or 6 tightly composed sentences of less than 100 words may take about the same time to read. The reader should feel that the effort was a reasonable one, given the claim being made.
A scholarly paper is a series of paragraphs that together argue for larger thesis. That thesis is often stated in one of the paragraphs, whose key sentence will say something like, “This paper shows that…” followed by a clear, succinct statement of the conclusion of the paper’s argument. That paragraph will describe the paper, so that the reader can understand how the paper is going to show that the thesis is true; it will elaborate what is meant by “this paper shows”. The paper itself can always be summarized simply by listing the key sentences, one for each paragraph, and these sentences can be grouped into sections and subsections, each of which can in turn be captured by a single, declarative sentence. Seven of those can usefully make up the bulk of the third paragraph of the introduction, in effect outlining the paper. Two of them might be used as key sentences for the first two paragraphs of the paper, telling us something about the world we live in and the science we study it with. That is, a well-structured paper contains its own outline in the prose of its introduction.
I’m sometimes asked for examples when I say this kind of thing. In fact, this post is occasioned by such a request from Dominik Lukes in the comments to my last post. My gut reaction is always to be a bit apologetic, like I should have led with an example and in any case owe my readers or audience one. But the truth is that I’m not sure examples are a good idea. What exactly is it, I wonder, that is hard to imagine after reading the first three paragraphs of this post? In what sense is what I’m saying too abstract to picture concretely? I mean, if you want examples of what I’m talking about in the first two paragraphs then those paragraphs, and the rest of the paragraphs in this post, are perfectly good ones. (I have of course deliberately written them to conform to my guidelines.) And what is hard to imagine about a series of paragraphs, each represented by a single sentence (the key sentence) and grouped under 7 to 10 headings? What is an example supposed to make clear?
I should admit that my worry is partly a suspicion that any example I provide will be perceived as an ideal and imitated before it is understood. To put it more starkly, I’m worried that I will be providing materials that allow students (and scholars!) to fake their paragraphs before they make them. I don’t think that’s a good way to learn how to write. I want to train students to present the ideas they have, not to pretend to have ideas they don’t. In my view, the only way to learn how to write scholarly prose it is to think of something you know and then write it down with the aim of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You have to be able imagine facts and people who are capable of knowing those facts. My advice won’t work if instructions like “think of something you know” are completely alienating to you. If you don’t have ideas on a regular basis, you can’t write scholarly prose; you might as well tell a blind man to draw a cat.* The experience of “having an idea” should be familiar to scholars (and university students!). As a writing consultant, I shouldn’t have to provide examples of thinking.
*I am of course aware of the ableism of this remark. I use the image advisedly, after having found this very popular YouTube video by Tommy Edison, which I think nicely makes the point I’m after in the spirit I intend it. There’s no shame in not being a strong thinker on a particular subject. But to expect to be able to write well about something you are unable to form a clear idea in your mind about is a bit silly.