For my latest mentor text discussion, I am going to study how authors create paragraphs. Based on my recent posts on writing (Fear & Formulas) and discussions with friends and colleagues, I wanted to explore the idea of what a paragraph looks like in various nonfiction texts.
- The Art of Coaching by Elena Aguilar
On page 55 Aguilar begins a new section with a short paragraph:
“Understanding adult learning is essential to effective coaching. Many of the ways in which adults and children learn are similar, but there are also some critical ways in which we learn differently, and the conditions for our learning need to be modified in order to support us.”
This is a two-sentence paragraph. It is followed by a paragraph with eight very long sentences. Aguilar is a writer who enjoys commas and long, descriptive, full sentences. But the length of a paragraph depends on the context. She writes in a conversational tone as though she is giving advice over coffee.
2. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison
When I opened up this book to page 8, my current book mark, I looked at the first paragraph of the new section entitled “Beyond memorization, work, and activity”. I’m not even going to copy out this paragraph- it is huge! There are eight sentences in this paragraph, along with three citations and two acronyms. These authors, in this dense, academic text, pack a lot of information into each paragraph. The context is about building historical understanding and background knowledge to make the points that will follow clear and meaningful.
However, what they also do, to break up these paragraphs, is insert large quotes and bulleted lists. These not only physically break up the text, but give the reader an anchor on which to rest, to reflect, while reading.
3. “Rough Forecasts” by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
For another text, I decided to move away from my bookcase/ comfort zone and look outside of education. This article is from a regular writer for the Comment section of The New Yorker. There are a total of eight paragraphs in her entire article. What fascinates me the most are the first and last paragraph. The first paragraph is long and includes some very specific details, yet clearly sets up the context of the article. The last paragraph is short- two sentences- and is a clear conclusion to the topic at hand. Each paragraph in between adds historical and relevant details to inform the reader about the topic. The writer’s voice is evident throughout the piece.
What I love about this text is how real it is. This is both a summary and a review of a book, told through quotes and pictures and words. The writer of the text, Popova, uses one-sentence paragraphs as well as longer paragraphs (such as the first one) filled with dashes.
When I think about writing paragraphs in nonfiction texts, I come back to purpose. The context of your writing should determine the structure you, as a writer, create to tell your story.
In no way could I put each of these examples into one common structure; nor if I followed one formula would I end up with anything similar to these diverse texts.
As I continue to reflect on the teaching of writing, as an art, not a formula, I think of how valuable this activity could be for teachers. Just as mentor texts can be used to help students find new ways to explore their use of language, they can also be used to redefine our definitions and expectations.