The Art of the Paragraph.

A nice little piece by Elisa Gabbert for The Smart Set about paragraphs; I like it because it pushes back against the terminally boring essay style they teach you in school (“first I’ll tell you what I’m going to say, then I’ll say it, then I’ll tell you what I said”) and it has some tasty examples:

What most people follow is a variation of the rule established for “five-paragraph essays” in grade school, where each paragraph is built around a “topic sentence.” As such, if the essay is an argument, each paragraph represents a subargument, with the first and last paragraphs reserved for introductory and closing remarks. (This seems like a big waste of two-fifths of the allotted paragraphs; in school I learned to save one of my best points for the end, to avoid having to rephrase my intro all over again.) […]

In nonfiction, I’m obsessed with what I’ve come to think of as the invisible transition, where there is no clear, necessary connection between two paragraphs, and yet – something happens. The juxtaposition isn’t as jarring as a non sequitur, but it could have been otherwise. In fact I’d argue that what’s mostly “lyric” about a so-called lyric essay are these transitions, these leaps, more so than some inherently “poetic” quality of the language. Invisible transitions make a text feel more open, and inside these openings, essays gesture toward poetry. […]

I love the way inter-paragraph gaps fight against the idea of essay as argument, and make it an act of discovery. Or rather a document of discovery, like an explorer’s journal, written in pencil and gone back through – to add color more than accuracy; even at the expense of accuracy. The essay needn’t be faithful to the path of the thinking, but the form can reveal how thinking happens, like when a song gets stuck in your head and only later do you realize why you thought of it, that you had read or heard a word from the third verse. There’s magic there – the mind doesn’t always show its work. Why should prose?


  1. the terminally boring essay style they teach you in school (“first I’ll tell you what I’m going to say, then I’ll say it, then I’ll tell you what I said”)

    Huh. I didn’t learn that in school. Years ago I read, and memorized because of the funny final point, a similar list that I didn’t know was a parody:

    1. Tell them what your’re going to say
    2. Tell them how your’re going to say it
    3. Say it
    4. Tell them when you’re finished

  2. This is the basic persuasive-essay pattern I learned:

    The last sentence of the first paragraph states the point the essay is to make. Whatever sentences precede it give necessary context for understanding this topic sentence.

    Successive paragraphs give the arguments for the topic sentence in decreasing order of strength. A variant is to give a medium-strength argument first, then an argument against the topic sentence, and then crush that argument with the strongest available counter-argument relevant to it.

    The final paragraph connects the topic sentence to the wider intellectual world, and may contain an element of speculation.

    What’s described in the quotation above sounds like a dumbed-down semi-parody of this, mixed with a dumbed-down version of how to write advertising.

  3. Interesting, but only even vaguely convincing if you resolutely restrict your attention to newspapers and online media and pretend magazines, journals, and books don’t exist.

  4. John, I should have made clear that the four-point plan is for addressing an audience, not for writing a “persuasive” essay.

    There’s nothing dumbing-down about it. I have used it for decades in speaking to groups on subjects I know. It concentrates the mind wonderfully, and works a charm.

    Of course these little ruses work only for articulate people who don’t rely on humming, hawing and hesitating to carry them through to the end of the allotted time. You may remember the discussion we had about that here a few years ago.

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