On Writing: Paragraphs

Back in my late 20s and early 30s, somewhere on the way to learning how to write like a grownup, I learned the rules for constructing a paragraph. Here on the verge of 63 and retirement, I find that my approach to the paragraph is changing from the way I learned as a young man. As Bob Dylan says, I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.

The paragraph is what English teachers call a “unit of discourse,” which has certain conventions for conveying information. It developed as an expository tool in the process of analytical logic, where we take a topic such as a logical conclusion and separate it into its constituent elements, its premises and assumptions, to show that that conclusion is a matter of logical necessity. Dissecting such a topic typically takes more than one or two sentences. The strict formal demands of deductive logic require at least three.

The paragraph lets us keep well ordered the discussion of a single complex topic. To help readers comprehend that topic and its relationship to the other topics under discussion, the paragraph allows us to get all the stuff related to that single topic together in one place and clearly distinguish it from (and identify its relationship to) the other topics under discussion.

Paragraphs are like boxes on Moving Day. (I was never a fan of big, easy similes like this, but as I get older I find myself using them more and more.) When you’re moving, when you’re boxing up all your stuff, you take one box and fill it with kitchen stuff and label it “Kitchen Stuff.” You take another box and fill it with books and label it “books.” And so on and so on—so when you get where you’re moving to, you can unpack everything easily.

That’s the idea of the paragraph: you fill each one with the stuff of one topic and one topic only (you don’t put living room stuff in the box with kitchen stuff) (well, you do if you’re like me, but that’s another story). The paragraph’s topic sentence, the first sentence in the paragraph, is the label you put on the box that tells readers what’s in the box.

I understood that idea of the paragraph very well. Then I started writing this column.

Looking over my first few columns as they appeared in print, I noticed that the standard hard-copy newspaper column of 1.83 inches wide makes a paragraph of five or six sentences look much, much longer than on a regular page. Such paragraphs look interminable—and worse: they look intimidating and off-putting. They look hostile, unfriendly, unwelcoming, grim.

I trembled at the thought of subjecting a reader to such a forbidding paragraph. From the reader’s point-of-view, I couldn’t imagine anyone actually wanting to dive into such a paragraph, especially not in a newspaper.

Now I kind of like long paragraphs myself, at least in novels, where the length of the paragraph can be part of the story. At the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is 42 pages long with only eight paragraphs. Those are some long paragraphs. But Joyce is using them to represent something about the way Molly thinks when lying in bed awake in the middle of the night, her husband sleeping beside her with his head at the foot of the bed and his feet on the pillow.

But long paragraphs like that in a newspaper are like waking up sniffing your spouse’s toes.

So I began deliberately shortening my paragraphs so they appeared more inviting. And in the process, I find that my approach to paragraphs becomes more flexible, more immediate, and, yes, you guessed it: in good faith.

Sometimes still, I will write a long paragraph. My paragraphs (along with my readers) sometimes fall prey to my tendency to write long involved sentences, sentences that are built up out of a variety of intricately related shorter clauses (what grammarians call “periodic sentences”), sentences that are composed of what my undergraduate American literature prof once described as a “dense Germanic sentence structure” (God bless you, Denis Murphy, wherever you are)—sentences where only after all the dependent clauses are done, after all the prepositions and participles, the appositives and the parentheses, after all that will the verb finally, at long last, emerge.

But my paragraphs are no longer after being long or short. They’re after doing the job they have to do.

In a newspaper column, there’s often not space for a full analytical discussion of a topic, so you have to find ways other than logic to get into the reader’s head. You start finding other ways of going about the business of creating paragraphs, ways that are more suggestive or emphatic, more memorable or otherwise engaging.

Like everything else in writing, the paragraph can be whatever it needs to be—long or short, expository or aphoristic, analytical or impressionistic. Its job is to communicate to readers a relatively complex idea.

And although complex ideas usually take many sentences to fully unfold, sometimes the best way to communicate a complex idea—and sometimes the only way—is by indirection. As Emily Dickinson says,

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

Success in circuit lies.

Poets understand that not all topics need to be dissected by analytical logic. Some things need to be sung to be understood. And some things need to be in a separate box of their own, because they are simply more fragile and need more care.

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