From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Styling Culture (11)—Paragraph Breaks

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.
[a] Strata RF
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during the autumn and into the winter. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter.

They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.
11. Paragraph Breaks 
Be sure to keep your paragraphs under control. Run-on paragraphs that continue for many lines, or even pages, are rarely effective.
          a. Have three well-defined paragraphs for every double-spaced page of text
              Strange as this might seem when defined as a "rule," it makes a great deal of 
              sense. You do not need three complete paragraphs on a page (that would be
              distracting). You need, rather, the end of a paragraph from a preceding page, 
              a full paragraph, and the beginning of another. Get used to this. It will change 
              your life (and your reader's). Check for this before you hand in your paper.
          b. Indent the beginnings of paragraphs. Five spaces will do the trick, but your
              software can do an even better job (please see #3, "Styles").
          c. Do not leave extra spaces between paragraphs. If you indent (see above), 
              this will create just the right "pause" for the reader. Extra spaces detract from 
              the look of your paper and distract readers. See 7k.
 ***  *** 
Well, that certainly was picky, wasn't it? 

This was precisely what I thought to myself one day in the early 1980s when one of my college professors stated his strong preference for item "a" (above). My thoughts continued in this manner: "You don't get out much, and you probably spend your time sipping coffee and thinking about neat, crisp little paragraphs on sunny afternoons."
[b] The breaks RF

Hmmm. A quarter century on, and here I am sitting on a bright, sunny afternoon, sipping coffee and thinking about paragraph placement and form. Although I am intending to go for a long mountain bike ride in thirty minutes or so, it does remind me of a few lines from Mark Twain, which I choose to paraphrase for my purposes here. "When I was young, my [college professor] really was an idiot; now that I am older, it is amazing how much the old guy has learned."

Or something like that. You see, when I was young, I only read nicely printed books and articles (with beautifully polished and elegant paragraph spacing) and my own papers. I didn't really think very much about any of them when it came to the "look" of the page. I admired the one and ignored the other, without bringing either to the level of conscious thought. 

A few days after my professor said this, I went back to one of my own papers. Yup, sure enough, there on pages 5-7 was a paragraph. I wasn't called on it, since the other professor for whom I had written it chose not to punish me. It was just about that time that I was reading a book on writing—one of the first in what became a long line of grammar, style, and method books that I sometimes suspect were as much about procrastinating from doing my own writing as learning more about it. This style guide is my penance.

In any case, this remarkable little book (careful readers might guess the one to which I refer), made me think for what seems like the first time that we write for readers. My word, I wish I had said to myself. My word...shared with others. I am writing for others. People, or at least "person" will be reading...what I have to say.

That changed everything for a fairly polite young'un raised in and around church basements (with plenty of coffee and lemonade to wash down the lutefisk) in the Red River Valley between North Dakota and Minnesota. I needed to be polite, and think of those unfortunate people who had to read what I wrote. I needed to work harder, and to make my pages, at the very least, clean and crisp. At least I could do that much, even if I might struggle with grammar, style, and even spelling. I needed to show some manners and care about my "audience."

And then the thought that led to this item in my style guide hit me. It is rude to present a sloppy text to your reader. You don't pick your teeth with the pages of your paper before turning it in (at least I sincerely hope not), and you don't put sloppy, run-on paragraphs in your papers. Not any more, at least.

Caring about our readers (even in the singular) is the least we can do as writers. And now I am off to the mountain bike think about the next entry in Styling Culture. 
[c] Breaks RF
Ineffective Sentence Starters 
If you have been frustrated by the little stuff the last few days, get ready for a series of meaty sections. There is nowhere better to begin...than the beginning. Poor sentence starters fit the bill perfectly. Hopefully, we'll learn something along the way. Ironically, we often use ineffective words to begin our written thoughts. Happily, we will get a handle on these matters!

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