Monday, 22 August 2011

Paragraphs Regained

If I’d been clever enough to think of the title ‘Paragraphs Lost’ for the previous posting, putting the two titles together would have shown how brilliant and cultured I am. As it is, I didn’t, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Anyway, whatever its title, the said posting obviously turned out to be considerably less than gripping. That shouldn’t have surprised me. I drone on so often about absurdity being the norm that I should acknowledge that all attempts to impose structure imply meaning and so, by definition, are futile. Before we leave it, however, here’s the ‘correct’ version and some quick thoughts on why I still think it’s a valid exercise.

By ‘correct’, I mean the paragraph in its original form, which means that it’s ‘correct’ for what we wanted it to say rather than being the only possible version. Anyway, the number sequence is 7, 10, 8, 6, 1, 3, 2, 9, 4, 5, which gives you the following paragraph:

Propaganda is seen by some as a necessary evil but by others as just lies. Writers use language to expose the hypocrisy of politicians. The fact that they see themselves as having a higher goal still does not separate them from those they seek to criticize. Politicians use language to manipulate people. But the writer is just as guilty of manipulation. He has an agenda, he shapes his words to create a specific effect and, as a result, he is responsible for distorting the vision of his reader. He claims that his aims are those of society. The politicians say exactly the same thing. It would seem, therefore, that words are dangerous, whoever is using them. Language is a very powerful tool.

The specific ‘clues’ to the ‘correct’ sequencing are:
  • If there’s a plural noun or pronoun – ‘writers’, ‘they’ – it can’t be followed by a sentence referring to the same set of people in the singular. (Politicians use language to manipulate people. He has an agenda.) And vice versa (The writer is just as guilty. The fact that they see themselves as having a higher goal…)
  • Stylistically, repeating a word in successive sentences is awkward. (Language is a very powerful tool. Politicians use language to manipulate people.) This would obviously be better if the second occurrence was replaced by ‘it’ and the two sentences were made into one and separated by a semi-colon.

But the real object of the exercise was to suggest that, just as a novel or chapter is structured for maximum impact (you hope), so paragraphs and sentences need just as much in the way of shaping. The essence of the ‘test’ is to focus on how each sentence links with the one before it and prepares for the one after it.

Technically, a paragraph should deal with one major point. If the emphasis changes, you need to start a new one. The opening sentence establishes the theme, those which follow develop it in more detail and, you hope, lead to a powerful concluding sentence. It should do two things:
  1. Present thoughts in a logical sequence
  2. Link them smoothly to make your argument/narrative coherent.
If anything in a paragraph makes you lose your way or wonder what’s being referred to, it’s failed. Surprises are fine when they’re effects designed deliberately to disorientate the reader, but not when they’re the result of  lack of clarity or stylistic ugliness.

So there, and after all that, just think yourselves lucky you don’t live in Aberdeen because I’m giving two workshops there next month on creative writing and I may well do more of this sort of thing with them. But, for now, I’m going to slip out of this teacher mode and into something more comfortable. Maybe a chiffon negligee, or perhaps the story of how my weekend visit to grandsons in Glasgow added to the population of Italy a six feet two inch 6-year-old called Dib Grinch who plays basketball and sleeps upright in a cupboard.

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  1. That was a very valuable exercise. In the current eBook/digital climate, the recommendation is to keep paragraphs short, 2-4 sentences in length because of the constraints of media used to view the text. That places an additional challenge on the author to write to technological constraints as well as the demands of writing with clarity and style.

    And the follow-up with the chiffon negligee ... priceless.

  2. Re the negligee, Diane, it seems you're easily pleased.

    But your point about how the different media also shape how we write needs to be made and remade. I'd been writing stuff for commercial/corporate websites for a few weeks before it struck me that, whereas on the page you write some blurb to lead up to your punchline, on the screen, the punchline has to come first. If it doesn't, they'll never bother reading far enough to get to it.

  3. Forgive me for not taking time (ie being too lazy) to absorb your valuable exercise, Bill - but the weekend visit to your grandsons sounds promising!

  4. I agree, Rosemary - much more fun than grammar, too.

  5. I am glad I learned this from you. I have been busy on interviews, tomorrow I will probably take it doing Security :) I have not forgotten you my friend. Jackie Paulson your fan!!!!!

  6. Thanks Jackie. And how brave of you to come out of the closet and declare yourself officially as a fan. That brings the total of my fan club to 2 - you and me.

  7. I'd love to come to Aberdeen to attend your workshops. If only I could sit...

  8. This is not flattery but there's not much you don't know about writing, Anneke.

    I hope you're soon mobile again.

  9. Bill,

    Isn't fan short for fanatic?

    Your challenge was an exercise in futility on my part, but refreshing and stimulating, no doubt. Thank you for extending a friendly hand toward my English skills, or lack thereof. I have learned from this, however.

    I'm looking forward to more, and a hopeful "Get Well" to Anneke. My sympathies are with you...