The Power of Paragraphs: Thinking
From time to time, the 30-Second Editor ponders paragraphs. Paragraphs are great for some things:
- forcing writers to clarify logical connections between ideas
- helping readers understand the thinking behind complex information
- summarizing background or context for recommendations
- inviting readers to think about a topic in new ways
Did you notice what I did there? I wrote a list about the power of paragraphs.
This is one of life’s small ironies. We learn to think by writing sentences and paragraphs, but we communicate our ideas by breaking paragraphs and sentences into smaller pieces.
Perhaps you are a reader who enjoys reading whole paragraphs and following the thread of an argument. If you are still reading this paragraph, perhaps you are already thinking of other good uses for paragraphs. After all, paragraphs invite thinking by offering an example of how ideas hold together. Writing them not only helps writers see their own complex ideas more clearly. The same is true for those of us who read them. Readers use paragraphs to think.
Perhaps you are a non-reader, hoping I’ll get to the point. If so, this paragraph is for you.
The point of paragraphs: for writers
Paragraphs are the complex carbs of workplace and academic writing. Their value is precisely in the fact that they are not easy to write. Writing a paragraph requires writers to put some effort into thinking through the logic of what they need to say.
Contrary to what you thought your English teacher was saying, paragraphs are not an exercise in stringing sentences together.
Paragraphs are an exercise in thinking. We learn how to write paragraphs by struggling to write a few hundred of them for ourselves. The struggle to write paragraphs was the exercise that helped us learn how to think for ourselves in junior high, perhaps for the first time. Some of us didn’t quite get the point of that struggle.
Paragraphs were hard work then. They still are and always will be. That’s why I call my workshops Writing @ Work.
The point of paragraphs: for readers
Although paragraphs are the complex carbs of writing, they should be a more easily digested treat for readers. Not junk food, of course. But clear writers will think through their paragraphs so that readers don’t have to work as hard as the writer did.
That’s especially true for writing that’s intended to persuade readers or develop a complex argument to support a thesis. Paragraphs are a great way to reveal the writer’s thinking so that readers can follow their logic. That’s why paragraphs are still the backbone of good academic writing.
Clear paragraphs set the stage for the reader’s own clear thinking. Truly great paragraphs give readers the advantage of using the writer’s clear idea to think beyond what’s already on the page. They make readers feel smart because the thinking is already obvious. Writers who deliver that kind of clarity will earn the reader’s trust.
Truly great writing helps readers think through and even beyond what the writer was thinking.
Why we wrestle with paragraphs
Most workplace writers spend years in school learning how to write paragraphs that keep teachers happy. Those of us who see writing as an exercise in frustration become engineers or accountants. Or software developers. Or editors or librarians.
And then we discover that our chosen career requires us to show our thinking in paragraphs. Lots and lots of them. The very thing we had hoped to avoid.
Eventually engineers discover they are also professional writers. They get work by writing proposals filled with paragraphs describing the work they plan to do. They get paid by writing reports filled with paragraphs describing the work they did.
And let’s not forget accountants who become systems auditors, trying to figure out how the government keeps track of whether taxpayers are receiving value for the money spent. Auditors are writers who write about what the government’s civil servants have written to think about the best ways to manage money and measure results. The systems auditor’s job is to figure out where the numbers don’t work because the thinking doesn’t work.
Paragraphs are a great way to think something through. They are also a way to lose track of ideas, to become lost in a forest that has no path to follow. If you pay attention, your first draft paragraphs will help you see that you haven’t finished thinking through the idea you will eventually want to communicate with the reader.
Workplace Writing: The Next Step
The writer’s thinking is only the first step. It’s the point of the first draft. And perhaps even the third or fourth draft. Most of my 30-second edits focus on taking final steps with readers in mind.
If you have been following my blog posts this summer, you might be wondering why I’m focusing on paragraphs here, given my previous emphasis on using point-form lists or tables.
Lists and tables are advanced stages of writing that rely on a foundation of clear thinking. They only work if the writer already has a clear idea of the main points and the relationships between them.
Don’t worry. I’m saving a few lower-carb treats for future blog posts on how to think about lists.