Paragraphs and Pointlessness: A Request
One of the only things I have going for me as a teacher is the idea that I know more than my students. I say “idea” because although I know I know more than my students, they sometimes aren’t so sure. If I contradict a lesson they’ve been taught previously, then they have to decide which one to believe, and the burden of proof is on me, because I’m the one presenting the challenge. Often, the logic I use to prove my point is subverted by the student’s trust in and adoration of, the previous teacher whose lesson they must now disavow. I hate it any time my students have to unlearn a lesson; it goes against everything we’re supposed to be doing.
I teach high-schoolers who cling fast to the notion that a paragraph is nothing more than a collection of five sentences. No more, no less. You write five sentences, and then you must move on. What’s a paragraph? Five sentences. Any five sentences. What’s the important thing we need to know about paragraphs? That they consist of five sentences.
When I assign any piece of writing, their first question is “how many sentences?” (The more recalcitrant ask “how many words?”) My answer: “as many as necessary.” “How do I know how many that’s supposed to be?” they wail. I want to say, “you’re in high school! Figure it out!” but I can’t. I’m a nice teacher. So I say “excuse me, you’re right.: as many as you feel you need to write in order to adequately — or even masterfully — complete the assignment, thank you.”
This doesn’t help.
I fight the five-sentence paragraph every year, and I’m feeling beat-up. Why is this still being taught?
OK, I know that elementary and middle school teachers need to teach students that a paragraph ought to perform a task, and that these tasks are clear when broken down into parts, and let’s just treat these parts like a mini-five-paragraph essay with an introduction: three content elements and a conclusion, but that adds up in a student’s mind to five. All I have to write is five sentences, and then I can go to recess. Once sentence for each finger on my hand.
But isn’t it more valuable to teach students what a paragraph really is?
Para = beside + graph = describe, or write.
The word paragraph referred first to the glyph which appeared next to text in medieval manuscripts, indicating breaks in sense, or topic. It’s that lovely backwards ¶ called a pilcrow, and it’s one of the oldest forms of punctuation we have.
Nowadays, we simply indent a line or drop it to indicate that break in sense, or shift in topic. White space. A paragraph is only part of a larger description; it cannot exist alone. A student of mine once described it as “sentences bunched together,” as if lines of text were so many AV cables kicked under a desk.
Once you’ve given students a history of the paragraph, and they know how it came about, it’s easy to move on to the difficult part, which is figuring out how much sense is enough to get your point across.
If you’re an exceptionally concise writer, that might indeed be five sentences. But it might also be many, many more. You don’t want to belabor a point; a point, after all, with too much honing, disappears altogether.
Perhaps this is a better model: the point.
What is the point of your paragraph? What is the job of a point, of a pointer? To show the way; the make an impression. Has what you’ve said done that? Have you made your point too sharply, so that it punctures the page entirely, or not enough, so that it leaves your reader in the dark?
A point, or punctus, is also the original name and purpose of a period — the mark that divides thoughts, or clauses. Without them, there’d be chaos. Your words would be pointless.
A well-written paragraph is a thing of beauty. It’s a brick that slots seamlessly into the wall. A paragraph is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than five fingers held up like a stop sign. Talk to the hand.
Show me: point the way.