Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fat Paragraphs

            Hang out with writing teachers long enough and you’re bound to hear some nonsense.
            I’ve been a compositionist for a dozen years, and many of the people I know best manifest this affliction. Don’t split infinitives. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. And don’t write a skinny paragraph.
            Ask a room full of writing teachers how long a paragraph is, and from some, you will receive a very precise response: five sentences. I met one recently who said three. That one was unusual—she didn’t say “at least three.” She just died in the ditch with the claim that a paragraph must be three sentences long, amen and amen. I tried to imagine her students’ papers, tercet after tercet marching down the page.
            I grilled her on the matter. What about a single sentence of dialogue, I asked. What about interrupted dialogue, wherein a speaker gets out only a part of a word, perhaps followed by a dash? It seems to me like part of a word can be, and often is, a paragraph on its own. I can even envision a piece of punctuation as a paragraph, to express emotion, like surprise. What did she think of that, I asked her.
            “!”
            She didn’t really reply with an exclamation point, as much as I wish she had. Instead, she told me that fiction is different. Different than what, she didn’t say. Different, I suppose, than what she had in her head. But we were talking about writing in general, and we did not specify a genre. The rule was so engrained in this teacher that she couldn’t see past it.
            I’ll admit it; in general, three sentences in length doesn’t seem quite sufficient for an average paragraph in an expository, academic essay. I don’t direct my students to count their sentences, though. Instead, I have them hold their index fingers in the air, and I ask, “About how long is a paragraph?” They hold up both hands and place their fingers yay-far apart. The first time I ask this, they posit that a couple of inches would suffice.
            “Nobody likes a skinny paragraph,” I chide them.
            Their fingers move farther and farther apart, and finally I offer a nod. A good academic paragraph may run half or three-quarters of a page. More than a page, I suggest that they may want to break things up for the ease of their readers. That’s not a rule, though, I hasten to tell them—more of a rule of thumb.
            I would never suggest that a paragraph must have a minimum number of sentences. That strikes me as nuts.
            I do wonder what gets into people and makes them throw out rules as though they are holy writ. This particular rule, though, I kind of get. People enjoy fat paragraphs.
            I’ve been the fattest person on a beach. I’ve been in stores where none of the clothes go up to my size. I’ve been a fat date and a fat job applicant and a fat pregnant lady and a fat (but beautiful) bride. I’ve never felt that fatness got me any particular acclaim or appreciation, except maybe a few grade school field days when I was a fat member of the tug-o’-war team.
            In prose, a fat paragraph looks like a developed paragraph. At a glance, it seems dense—thick with ideas and insights. Without reading a word, the audience knows that the subject has been given extensive thought.
            No one looks at a fat English teacher and thinks that she has any particular substance, aside from the fat. In fact, the thinking is that to develop an actual human body, one should chisel away at it until it is taken down to its essence.
            As a poet, I sort of feel that way about writing—the more a writer takes away, the more room there is for resonance, and for what the reader brings to the endeavor. I have always felt that the reader half-creates any piece of writing, be it poem or treatise or term paper. Trimming the verbiage—going on a word diet—makes more room for the reader at the table.
            I will not complain, though, about the widespread love affair with fat paragraphs. Keep your fairly unnecessary topic sentences, your sources and explication, your use of personal experience or anecdote. Heck, keep your concluding sentences that recap everything you just said and set up the paragraph to follow. No one really writes that way after they make it through their college composition class, but I can’t see where it does much harm. The real writers in the room figure this stuff out. Everyone else gets a basic sense of how to get by. They’re probably just going to buy their essays online anyway.
            But which plagiarized essay should I purchase? What looks healthiest, the most likely to garner me an A?
            Obviously, it’s the one with the fat paragraphs.
            An isolated fragment?
            No.
            “Par—”
            I started to tell you right there, before I got interrupted: “Paragraphs should be fat.”

            And allow me to add that it’s quite all right if the writer is, too. There is substance here.

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful insights again, Karen I may even have my students read this.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for saying that, Brittany! I'd be interested to hear their thoughts. I often ask my students how long a paragraph needs to be, and frequently they give me a specific number, no more, no less, amen. They don't always believe me when I say there IS NO NUMBER. I guess there are bigger problems, though! :)

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  2. I like my paragraphs to come in all sizes.

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