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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Paragraph/Schmaragraph, Part I

Back in elementary school, we all learned the progression.  Words, sentences, paragraphs.  It all made such eminent sense then.  Words, sentences, paragraphs ...  Sort of like crawl, walk, run ...

Later on, in junior high and high school, the teachers began pounding into us the notion of the paragraph, and we began absorbing the idea that there's really only one kind of respectable paragraph, the kind that has a Topic Sentence perched on top like a sentinel crow, a bunch of closely related examples, and then a "clincher sentence" or a transition to the next one.

If our paragraphs looked like that, we got good grades.  We were writers.  If not?  Well, we just had to keep focused.  Keep on topic.  Learn the pattern.  Apply it in all situations ...  Don' think--just do it.

Later (1966), a seventh grade English teacher, I read this in my first textbook, Language for Daily Use (1965): "A paragraph is a series of sentences which develop one topic or one idea" (109).  The section mentions that paragraphs have topic sentences; usually, they are first--but they can come later, too, if you're clever.  But don't try to be too clever too often.  Stick to the program.

(Oddly, I notice that the authors of Language for Daily Use selected for an example a paragraph from the Call of the Wild, the one that begins, "Buck's first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare."  The first sentence in chapter two.  When I "taught" that page in 1966-1967, I had read The Call of the Wild only in Classics Illustrated form. I had no idea what Dyea was (a town, now completely gone,  on the southeastern Alaska coast, a town where thousands of gold-seekers began their trek into the Klondike over the Chilkoot Pass) or how it was pronounced (die-EE).  I did not suspect where that I would one day also stand on the Dyea beach, my 13-year-old son beside me.)

And so I pounded into my students the same notions about paragraphs that my teachers had pounded into me.  Topic sentence.  All subsequent sentences stick to that topic.  This is a real paragraph!

Later still (in the early 1980s) I taught at Western Reserve Academy; all students had to buy and use Warriner's English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course (1977 edition).  In it, I read some familiar material in Chapter 21: "The Paragraph"--"A paragraph is a series of sentences developing one topic."  And: "The topic of a paragraph should be stated in a sentence somewhere in the paragraph."  And: "In general, place the topic sentence at or near the beginning of the paragraph."  And on and on.

In those years, we pounded into our college-prep students the idea of the "five-paragraph essay," an essay that features an introductory paragraph that ends with a three-part thesis statement, then paragraphs on each of the three parts of the thesis, a concluding paragraph.  All paragraphs had topic sentences perched on top like ... you know.

I did not notice then what I notice today, looking at Warriner's.  A footnote on page 309 (the first page of the chapter): "This chapter is concerned primarily with the paragraph in relatively formal expository writing.  The student should realize that the rules for paragraph organization and development given here do not apply to the paragraph in narrative writing or in very informal personal essays or in news writing."

That's a footnote that all of us pretty much ignored.

I did not think then what I think now--that most "rules" for paragraphs are grotesque distortions of the ways writers actually approach their work.  I don't know many writers (except in school) who ever sit down and think--I'm going to write a five-paragraph essay today.  No, it's usually more like--I'm going to write about Lassie today.  Or: I'm going to write about my early years today.  Or: I'm going to write about Shakespeare today.  Or: I'm going to write about how procrustean paragraphs piss me off.

Since 1999, I have reviewed nearly 1100 nonfiction books for Kirkus Reviews--books by winners of the Nobel and Pulitzer and National Book Award, books by people I'd never heard of, as well--and in only a couple of cases have I read books whose authors employed the paragraph definitions and restrictions we so often place on student writers, K-12--and beyond.  And those couple of books sucked.  Dull as dirt and a lot less useful.

Enough for today--but here's where we're going tomorrow: (1) There is no such thing as "the" paragraph.  Just good ones and bad ones, effective and ineffective ones.  (2) The five-paragraph essay is about the worst thing we could teach young writers.  And one of the principal reasons for its  lingering appeal?  It makes grading essays easy.  All of its other "virtues" are bogus.


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