By Alexander Landfair
Reading an essay such as might appear in a Harpers or New Yorker, many students might be struck by how little it resembles a typical “classroom essay.” For starters, essayists in magazines tend to be blatant transgressors of the 5-paragraph form. Such essays rarely have clearly identifiable thesis statements (at least as they are defined in the freshman composition class) and even might, confusingly, seem to have more than one main topic. Some intros alone contain might contain five paragraphs!
Many students will understand the difference as a matter of license. “This is a published writer—and once you’re famous you’re allowed to break the rules.” But experienced writers themselves would likely consider the situation differently.
Rather than a rule-based or formula-based approach, seasoned writers seem to take a task-oriented approach toward structure. By guessing at the tasks a writers aims to knock out in each paragraph–and viewing paragraphs as series of “moves”— I try to reverse-engineer essays the essays I wish I’d written. In this way, “paragraphing” becomes more than a writing strategy but a reading strategy too. The list below gives a small sample of the kinds of work I see writers putting to paragraphs.
- 1st Move. Introduce my topic through a work of art.
- 2nd Move. Describe the central problem I want to explore.
- 3rd Move. Make a case that this topic’s worth discussing
And so on. Through an essay may be complex in structure and ideas, the work given to a single paragraph is often more modest and focused than I expect to find. Far from a matter of license and rule-breaking, paragraphs become collections of sentences that work together toward a specific goal (rather than sentences that merely share a common topic).
For novice writers who approach form as a matter of correctness, this way of understanding paragraphs (which asks them to follow a method rather than a formula) may be effective as a kind of “transitional object” as these writers making the move from a “formulaic” orientation to writing toward a “rhetorical” one, founded on anticipating the needs and expecations of readers.
Published March 9, 2015