Scientific Writing

Writing Is an Act and a State of Being, Part 1

When you write, you are doing something — you act. However, it is equally true to say that, when you write, you are being somebody — you are.

In this and the next blogpost, I will describe these two seemingly opposing views on this same thing, writing. Here, in this post, I will cover writing as an act, and in the next, I will cover writing as a state of being.

Alright then, let me ask you, have you ever wondered what makes a good paragraph good? Or perhaps, more philosophically, have you ever pondered the essence of the paragraph — What is it? I mean, it seems like a straightforward matter, right? A paragraph is easily recognizable in published text: it is a sequence of lines, either with the first line indented or with noticeable space left both before and after. The paragraph, in this view, is just text design — that's really it. And as design often goes, anyone might design the same text differently, cutting it up into fewer or into more paragraphs, according to preference.

But, if like me, you too have wanted actually to know the true character and description of the paragraph, then you will also have been disappointed by this view of the paragraph as a mere product of text design or formatting conventions. However, you can now, with me, beat this disappointment by looking and seeing that there is more to the paragraph than just spacing.

The paragraph is, like so much else in writing, an act. The paragraph is something you do writing. It is an act, as are all the other acts you do writing, like, for example, the act which is each word, the act which is every part of a sentence, the act which is all the sentences of a text as well as the whole arrangement of these into shape and order. The paragraph is just the same as any word or sentence or span of text, because the paragraph too does something. The paragraph performs, and the paragraph functions.

It is because of the functioning and the performance of the paragraph that it often proves unhelpful to ask of any paragraph you are in the process of constructing whether it is too long or too short, or whether it has a topic sentence or not, or as well, if all the sentences which make it actually hang together. The helpful way of putting questions to your paragraphs is to ask about the function the particular paragraph is serving or could serve. Basically, what does the paragraph function as? You might ask:

Does it function as a transition between other larger parts of your text (like the introductory paragraphs at the heads of sections and subsections)?

Does the paragraph function as a description of the problem which you will then delineate and also attempt to offer solutions to (like the paragraphs which typically follow on the introductory sort of paragraphs)?

Or is the paragraph there to explain just one single mechanism or process because at precisely that moment in the textual discourse an explanation is needed?

See how that works? Do you see how paragraphs function as content-units of whichever matter you are handling there? The paragraphs do those things — they introduce, they set up, they explain, they do whatever can be done in text, which truly is a lot. I mean, just think, when text is taken to be the published record of science (i.e., the literature) — and that is, in fact, just what the text of science is most often taken to be — well then, where the known science is known through text, in that case it is accurate to say that all of science is done through text; and this means a whole lot of that text-science is done in the paragraphs of the texts of research.

But there is more.

All I have said thus far about functions covers only the relations between text and the subject matter, but these relations do not exhaust what is going on relationally in any text of the research.

For example, there is the relation — or better said, the relations — between the text and each and every reader of that text. It is all those relations — between a text and a reader and the next reader and the next and so on — that the notion of functions and functioning kinda breaks down and stops describing well what's actually happening. Because wherever actual people are involved — as readers are in text — there the act going on will more closely resemble not the completion of some task, but the performance of some act. So, for example, a reader reading a paragraph is actually doing something by that paragraph: they might be skimming for content, they might be orienting themself in the argumentation, they might simply be trying to understand, they might be searching for the writer's intent, and so on.

Again, you can see, the paragraph is doing things, but in this case, the paragraph is actually doing the things indirectly, because really it is the readers who are performing those things, carrying them out, so to speak. And this is a performance which is not so much a cause of readers' behavior, but rather the means by which readers behave that way. In short, readers read as they do not because of the paragraph they are reading, but by means of it. Every paragraph affords a reader some action — it is one of the many avenues by which readers perform all those little acts of reading which go into that one big act of reading which helps them know the research in a paper.

I'm gonna let you in on a secret.

It is a deception — merely a trick of appearances — that text impresses us as being something that's in place and stationary, because in truth, it is not. No, in truth, text is the act of argumentation and text is a stage upon which every reader can do the things that researcher-readers do, like think and disagree and doubt and wonder and take on suggestions and come up with solutions and think again.

So, to return to our example here of the paragraph, the questions to be posing any one paragraph in your own writing should be questions about actions, so this means, questions like these:

Which sorts of act does this paragraph invite or encourage in my argumentation?

Which acts will the paragraph make be the most plausible in my results?

Which acts will this paragraph make seem organic here at this place in the text, after the previous paragraph and before the next?

These are just a sampling, because there are many such further questions you can put to the affordances of your paragraphs.

Moreover, you will want to ask what any paragraph makes feasible or doable for all your potential readers. Therefore, I recommend you get in the habit of asking yourself what any paragraph allows a reader to do for themself — what does it enable?

These are the questions posed by writers who recognize the action in their writing — who acknowledge their writing as many acts in one. This action-view of the writing shows the base-criteria for deciding, for example, on the content and the structure of your paragraphs. Here you will find that formatting preferences are no help, because what you really need to see in your paragraphs are the functions of your content and the performance by your potential readers. Then you will know how to write a paragraph, not to mention choose a word, complete a sentence, and round off a section or an entire paper.

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