A speaking engagement has popped up recently and represents, I think, an opportunity to pause and consider what some of my work on style has been pointing toward.
Over the last few years since I wrote about paragraphs in College English, I’ve been working on sequels, you might say, that build upon those initial conclusions. The idea was to write a trilogy of articles – the first on paragraphs, the second on prose rhythm, and the third on topic sentences – and these three pieces together would try to answer a larger, multi-part question that is both difficult to ask and answer – namely, what makes writing good and how knowledge of that can help instruction. I chose these subjects – paragraphs, prose rhythm, and topic sentences –as they seemed the most obscure and mysterious aspects of writing that I could think of. They were three terms that tried to simplify complex phenomenon that are not easily understandable.
My thesis in the first piece on paragraphs was that composition as a field had largely, though not completely, abandoned paragraphing as a major subject of inquiry. I thought that was odd given that a great deal of energy in the field is expended in, well, teaching paragraphing. Furthermore, I thought a reasonable course of action would to be reestablish or reconceptualize, if you prefer, structural and stylistic features such as paragraphing as topics of inquiry and to approach them as the flexible, organic entities that they tend to be rather than try to simplify them further. I didn’t want to create a typology of paragraphs or sets of rules or a grand unifying theory; rather, I wanted to question what the word meant and how what it purported to describe could be better understood.
With this thesis in mind I moved on to prose rhythm, thinking I would gain another piece of the grand puzzle of good writing from yet another mysterious, semi-abandoned corner of composition. And I did; the main problem with prose rhythm, I discovered, is that it is generally conceived of as an oral phenomenon rather than the written and read one that it is in practice. The problem, in other words, was one of genre. This conclusion tied nicely into what I had noticed with paragraphing, as the key, again, was reconceptualizing a term that carried a great deal of theoretical baggage.
My third self-assigned challenge was to reconceptualize the topic sentence, what I have long thought is the most dangerous of the three terms because it consistently enjoys the assumption of prior existence. I tried to redefine it as a /perceived/ expression of the subject and thesis of a paragraph in a sentence, rather than a prexisting or necessary feature. Subject and thesis-hunting is a highly subjective experience. Topic sentences are created when read as much as they are composed when written. Furthermore, perceived or composed, they are not necessary as long as the thesis is implied. I talked about this in a 4Cs presentation, but never wrote up an article (other projects took precedence); still the common thread of reconceptualization remained.
The main lesson that I have learned is that that terms we use to describe some of composition’s main features are extremely controlling and limiting. You could call it a terminology problem, though I would prefer these days to call it a problem of conceptualization. In our quest to make composition more easily understandable and teachable, by necessity we constrain it into bounds that practice does not recognize. What is the solution, you might ask? To leave the terms fuzzy, I think. To allow composition to be an inexact art. To reinforce in our students the analog and organic nature of writing that does not admit the certainty of, say, math. Not easy to do, certainly, and possibly, though not necessarily, at odds with genre-based approaches to teaching writing where there are certain quantitative markers.
One of the special topics of composition studies, and perhaps its biggest flaw as a field, is the assumption that our knowledge of writing and teaching writing will continue to increase. To be quite frank, I haven’t seen that. I see individual instructors gaining experience and coming up to par through exploration, but I see no huge breakthroughs, no cutting-edge areas. Comp linguistics continues to tease apart the mysteries of structure, but at such a microlevel to be useless practically. We continue to look at the same elephant with different angles and instruments, but have not learned much beyond that we are looking at an elephant. In short, we may never know more collectively about teaching writing than we do now. All we can do is push each other toward competing schools of thought, with me favoring an organic mixture of style and genre.