Put Things in Piles

girl with pile of paperI have a horror story about a college writing class (I’ll pause while you recover from shock). At a college where I taught writing, we had a professor who would give his first-year students a page of detailed instructions on how to write, literally telling them sentence-by-sentence how to write an essay. Naturally, this wild incompetent also used the 5-paragraph essay format.

What that tenured professor did not teach his students was how to work their way through the complicated, sometimes sloppy, process of examining a topic, generating ideas about it, and figuring out how to organize those ideas (i.e., the way we actually write out here in the real world).

Now, if you’re not a prisoner in a college English class, but you’re writing something for a rational reason, such as needing to say something, no one will be sitting there telling you what each sentence is supposed to do, or how many paragraphs you need to have. You’ll have to figure it out, considering the audience you’re writing for, which is what college students should be doing, so as to develop that useful skill.

And if you are not an incompetent writing teacher, one of the things you can teach in a writing class is basic concepts, such as taking your ideas and grouping them in various ways, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the writer’s thoughts and thus understand what is being said. The most basic way to group ideas is in paragraphs, or to use a metaphor I like at this moment, put the ideas in separate piles.

The paragraph was a great invention, because it’s so useful in letting us show those different piles of ideas. But if we step back from the metaphor a moment, we recognize a difficulty. These ain’t colored shells. We’re talking about ideas here, so there’s no clear and easy way of knowing what goes in which pile (in spite of appallingly stupid practices like the “5-paragraph essay”—and if you ever had to do that, on behalf of the entire English profession, I want to apologize to you).

So what does make a proper paragraph? In part, it depends on what you want to say, but in part (we don’t tell students this), it depends on the context. For a news article, the paragraphs should all be fairly short. For a serious report, maybe in business, medicine, or engineering, the paragraphs may sometimes be rather long. And if a paragraph fills more than a page, no matter what the context, it’s too long, because then you’re not seriously using paragraphs.

In addition to understanding how to use paragraphs, there is the question of how to show the reader when a paragraph begins. I know of three ways, though I’ve only seen two of them ever used. One way would be to start every paragraph with a special symbol, which could be anything ♣, as long as everyone knows what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done, however.

The way a paragraph is normally indicated, of course, is with emptiness. On paper, we always begin a paragraph with a tiny bit of blank space at the beginning. On screen, that’s rarely done, and instead we use an entire blank line between paragraphs. I’ve also seen people on paper use indentation and a blank line at the same time. Using both is redundant and over time will be way more expensive, to add all those extra blank lines on paper.

Last week at work I was looking at a manuscript I was supposed to edit. If you are not one of the lucky people who read this blog regularly, I’m a copy editor on a medical journal. So I looked at the manuscript, and while the authors had used paragraphs, they had some that went on rather long, followed by others that consisted of one sentence. At one point, I even addressed the authors out loud: “Do you know what a goddamn paragraph is?” I also addressed the authors with some other pertinent words that were needed at the time.

Then I realized that the authors of the article had brutishly done nothing to indicate where paragraphs started. They were using paragraphs, but if you ran your eye down the left margin, it was solid text. I thought Where on the entire planet Earth have you seen this done? What makes you think this is OK? Though I think I did see it done once, I believe in a French magazine. But it’s still incredibly stupid.

From working at the journal where I labor so avidly, I’ve come to understand that while most of our writers are as good as nonprofessional writers generally get, some of them are about as bad as the students I used to have in college writing classes. This is why we need copy editors willing to curse and cry over the trash and then fix it.


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