The Paragraph Project (1)

For the past 17 years or so, I have worried a lot about writing good sentences. To some extent, my college training reinforced that obsession. Not so much in my writing classes themselves — which were mainly fiction and long-form journalism workshops, and taught me to think rigorously about big-picture structural issues like characterization and the shape of a narrative, although there was also some focus on sentence- and even word-level decisions. But in college English classes, when you’re reading Fitzgerald or Shakespeare, what you’re blinded by, what signals “genius writing,” are the sparkling sentences. 

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been reading Gordon Wood this week, but I’m starting to come around to the belief that my focus on sentences has been misplaced. For expository writing to shine, it needs good paragraphs. Paragraphs, not sentences, are the lily pads that carry readers from one side of a pond to the other. It’s an extra treat if a paragraph has a little poem embedded within it, but a blur of little poems does not an explanation make. Now, Gordon Wood also writes near-perfect sentences so maybe what I’m saying is just that good writing is good on every level, but I do think there’s something uniquely masterful about the way he constructs a paragraph, particularly since a lot of, say, Creation of the American Republic is assemblage of sentences lifted from his sources. It’s in the paragraphing that Wood makes those sentences his own.

With that in mind, I think I’m going to begin a project of collecting model paragraphs. So, as an inaugural entry, here’s a paragraph I quite liked from Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker piece on Bush v. Gore:

The Court is now led, of course, by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., who was appointed by Bush in 2005 (and who, in 2000, travelled to Florida as a private lawyer working on Bush’s behalf). Under Roberts, the Court has continued to use the equal-protection clause as a vehicle to protect white people. In 2007, in Roberts’s first major opinion as Chief, he struck down the voluntary school-integration plans of Seattle and Louisville, which had been challenged by some white parents. Likewise, under Roberts the conservatives have abandoned their traditional concern with states’ rights if, for example, the state is trying to protect the environment. In another 2007 case, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (who replaced O’Connor), argued in dissent that states had no right to force the Environmental Protection Agency to address the issue of global warming.
What I like about this paragraph is its nesting-doll quality. The first sentence announces the overarching topic of the paragraph: the Roberts Court. Then there are really two mini-paragraphs, like two columns holding up the same architrave: two sentences on equal protection (generalization + specific example), and two on states’ rights (generalization + specific example). It’s an elegant and efficient way of quickly summarizing a lot of information, leaving the reader with a clear impression of the Roberts Court in just five nicely symmetrical sentences.

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