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ASK DR. EDITOR

Strategic paragraph structuring

Be conscious and deliberate with how you occupy the landscape of your writing.

By LETITIA HENVILLE | NOV 13 2018

Question, submitted via email:

I chose my academic field – modernist literature – because I love the language that the best novelists use. I’ve heard, though, that I shouldn’t close my paragraphs with a quotation. I want to, because a well-turned phrase can often crystallize my overarching argument. What do you say?

– Anon

Dr. Editor’s Answer:

Don’t end your paragraphs with a quotation. Similarly, don’t use someone else’s words to end the sections within a chapter or article. The beginnings and endings of paragraphs and sections are prime real estate. Deploy content in those spaces strategically.

I’m referring to the body paragraphs in your chapter or article – the paragraphs other than the introduction and conclusion, and thus the paragraphs that form in the bulk of your argument. If you were in the sciences, I would tell you that you should especially watch for this pattern when you review others’ studies, as it is in your lit review that you have the ability to construct the critical landscape in which you are forging new frontiers.

Let’s hold off discussing quotations from interview subjects or focus group participants for just a few moments, and focus specifically on quotations from written primary and secondary sources, rather than from data you’ve collected.

I encourage you to place your own words in your paragraph’s prime real estate – its opening and its ending – because, as an editor, I care more about your writing than the words of some long-dead novelists. You may publish in academic journals because you want to get your ideas into the world, because you want to enrich or complicate our understanding of literary works. I want you to publish so that you can be read, understood, cited, and – ultimately – tenured or promoted. I want your voice to dominate in your academic writing, and for your reputation as a scholar to grow. I want more people to engage with your ideas, not the ideas of dead people. For that to be the case, I need you to get the last word.

And why is this last word so important?

I describe the beginnings and endings of paragraphs as “prime real estate” because they are surrounded by white space. Like a big boss’s corner office, these parts of your paragraph aren’t hemmed in by other obstructive or distracting words. Give your big boss arguments the corner office of your paragraphs. Use the beginnings and endings of paragraphs to show the connection between, on the one hand, the evidence you’re unpacking in your paragraph and, on the other, either your overarching argument or the big picture claims you’re making about the significance of your topic.

First and last words stand out to audiences. They stand out in our short-term working memory much more than the content in the middle of a list of options. If you’ve ever designed a survey, you’ll know about the effect that the primacy and recency bias can have on survey respondents. When reading a survey, respondents tend to select the first reasonable option that is presented to them (primacy bias), while in telephone and face-to-face interviews, respondents will often remember and select the most recently presented acceptable option as their choice (recency bias). In survey design, you have to mitigate or account for these biases; in designing your argument, however, you can use them to your advantage. Put your own key ideas in these key spaces.

A second reason to not end your paragraphs with a quotation: as a literary scholar, dear letter-writer, you know that two readers may approach a passage in two very different ways. The neoformalist won’t be looking at what the post-postmodernist cares about. An artistic work is not a self-evident thing. Your reader is depending on you to point to what is important in that quotation in the context of the argument you are presenting. The same is true for the words of focus group or survey respondents: do not assume that your reader sees in a quotation the same thing that you see. Instead, provide that interpretive lens for them. Focus their attention on the aspects of your quotation that matter the most.

Here’s what deploying content strategically in a paragraph might look like in practice:

What I love about @EmmaSHutson’s strategy in her paragraph shuffle are the big white (or, in this case, purple) spaces that surround each paragraph. These spaces give her the room to add additional details, as we can see in the closest paragraph, yet they also reinforce the physicality of the written word, amplifying the impact of that prime real estate. And if you zoom in on the photo, you can see that her block quotations are always surrounded by interpretive analysis, never at the end of the page, giving her voice primacy in the conversation she is having with these other writers. She cedes no ground. Neither should you.

As with the ends of paragraphs, don’t open your paragraph with a quotation from another scholar. It’ll make it look like the whole point of your paragraph is to retrod someone else’s terrain. Give your analysis primacy, perhaps by pointing to an overarching trend in the research literature, or some pattern in others’ readings of your primary source. Begin and end with your words, and your voice will resonate the loudest among all the speakers in your text.

Finally, on the topic of privileging scholarly voices: in addition to quoting strategically, cite conscientiously. Cite women. Cite people of colour. Track and analyze your sources. Find experts who have been systematically marginalized in scholarly conversations through implicit or explicit bias by using tools like diversesources.org and 500womenscientists.org. Because as important as it is for you to prioritize your own voice in your own work, it is also incumbent upon all of us to be cognizant of, and work to undo, problematic citation practices in our own writing. And so I (strategically! Deliberately!) break my own rule and conclude both this paragraph and this piece by emphasizing another person’s voice in the conversation about when and who to quote:

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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