Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paragraphs

You come upon a page where the paragraphs begin to remind you of past times, when you'd overpacked for a trip.  Before you realize it, they seem stuffed, cramped.  You wonder about the thoughts behind packing them at such density.

Suspicions are further exacerbated when you see there is no evidence of dialogue, not even the unpunctuated sort used by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, who take long trips but know how to pack for them.

The pulsing, stuffy paragraphs yank you back to earlier times, in particular reminding you of serious, grim English teachers who stressed the need for topic sentences in every paragraph.  It is not that you have any objection to topic sentences; they can appear pretty much where they please--if you are not made aware of them because they seem so correct.

For your part, you have devoted hundreds of hours to writing paragraphs, some of them quite long, others no more than a word or two; on occasion they are lacking one of the two things those same grim, serious English teachers told you were required in every sentence.  Those "things" of course are the subject--who is the focus here?--and the predicate--what the subject is doing or is being done to--and if a sentence has them in order to cross over the border into real language, a paragraph should have an ample supply.

Nor is this a rant against grammar; some paragraphs, when you look at them in a close-reading mode, have grammar going for them when they have little or nothing else.  Of all the things you learned related to grammar, the thing you enjoyed most was diagramming sentences. The more complex the sentence, the more diagramming it was like working at the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in The New York Times, mysterious, adventurous.  This is, then, a rant against boring paragraphs, ones that border on pomposity or some kind of faux-authoritarian voice rather than the storytelling voice of a man or woman who has a story to tell, then proceeds to tell it.

One way to tell if a paragraph is boring is to decide that it has interesting if not outright useful information, then goes forth to make you wish you hadn't taken the time or trouble to read the paragraph.

Another way to tell if a writer's particular approach is boring to you is to note the number of times you find yourself rereading one or more paragraphs, determined to get at the writer's purpose.

Still another way is to see if you find yourself skipping or skimming.  Writers whose work you admire not only do not, accordingly, bore you, they intrigue and inspire you, make you feel the conscious desire to be as engaging and connected with your subject at hand.

It may be simplistic to set out the observation that is probably the topic sentence here, but such things do tend to start as elephants in the living room, then want to be recognized:  Paragraphs that do not convey a sense of their author's care about them and concern for them have little chance in the world of being read with anything other than relief at the fact of their having come to an end.

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