TEXT review

The secret life of paragraphs

review by Amber Gwynne


Iain McGee
Understanding the Paragraph and Paragraphing
Equinox Publishing, Sheffield UK S0114 / Bristol CT 06010-06011
ISBN: 9781781792872
Pb 438pp £60.00 / $75.00


Anyone familiar with the vagaries of teaching university-level writing will be no stranger to the sometimes baffling conundrum of ‘effective’ paragraphing. Even if we no longer expound the virtues of the five-paragraph essay or expect students to apply paragraph-writing formulae – such as the well-known PETER (point-evidence-technique-explain-reflect) or the more simply but unfortunately named PEE (point-evidence-explain) – in our writing curricula and assessment, we nonetheless assume that a ‘paragraph’ means something more than merely a series of sentences. Assessment rubrics frequently contain criteria relating to paragraph structure, development, and unity; in critical writing tasks, we encourage students to strive for coherence and cohesion at the paragraph level.

As Iain McGee points out, however, these implicit assumptions may do more to hinder than to help learner writers. In the introduction to his recently published monograph, Understanding the Paragraph and Paragraphing, McGee poses a series of provocative questions: Does our pervasive insistence upon the paragraph as a unified unit accurately capture the form and function of paragraphing in contemporary writing? Or has pigeonholing the paragraph led to prescriptivist writing pedagogies that ultimately evade rather than emphasise the paragraph’s potential as an aid to writing and reading?

McGee is head of the Faculty of English Language Studies at Majan University College in Muscat. Motivated by his own ‘curiosity to understand the paragraph and paragraphing’, a ‘frustration in teaching paragraphing’, and a ‘dissatisfaction with the educational materials he was using’ (ix), his extensive literature review condenses centuries of research into the nature and purpose of the paragraph into one comprehensive volume, seeking to problematise accepted definitions of the paragraph and to explore its form and function as both product and process.

Having established the focus and intention of the text in Chapter 1, McGee strives in the following three chapters to cast light on the history of paragraphing as a convention closely tied to changing modes of writing and reading, from its genesis in Greek and Latin texts to commentary and education in the late 19th century through to the 1960s – and beyond. By introducing readers to the central early theorists in the field, including Alexander Bain and Barrett Wendell, McGee effectively accounts for the enduring legacy of several competing models of the paragraph. He suggests that these shifting conceptualisations of the paragraph – whether as ‘a flexible authorial interpretational tool’ (53) in medieval writing, or its more persistent formulation as a discrete unit of text that can be theorised – have remained largely insensitive to natural variation both across genres and within individual texts of a genre, the expectations and activities of various readers, and the implications of discourse awareness.

In the second half of the book, McGee collates and critiques research relating to paragraphing as ‘a discourse-managing tool’ (Chapter 5), cohesion and the paragraph (Chapter 6), and the psychological effects of paragraphing on readers and writers (Chapters 7 and 8). This material, drawn from diverse research approaches including text-segmenting tasks and keystroke and eye-movement studies, makes clear that paragraph organisation and breaking decisions represent a complex negotiation between a variety of aesthetic, prosodic, formal, semantic, and pragmatic considerations. While other written units are more easily structurally defined – an independent clause, for example, comprises a subject and a predicate – paragraphs ‘refuse to be straitjacketed’ (344). Instead, McGee offers three complementary definitions of the paragraph: the text-oriented definition focuses on the paragraph as a cohesive textual unit, both within and across other paragraphs in a text; the reader-oriented definition is sensitive to, and mediated by, the reader’s expectations of paragraph structure and indentation decisions (strongly dependent on genre); and, lastly, the writer-oriented definition more fully accounts for paragraphing in the writing process, as a trace of provisional drafting decisions and more deliberate structural and rhetorical goals. This revised taxonomy is intended to capture the paragraph’s nuanced and unpredictable potential rather than a static or definitive product.

Although McGee foregrounds the pedagogical focus of the text in the preface and preliminary chapters, a sustained reading reveals a stronger reliance on, and implications for, corpus and computational linguistics. In fact, while McGee also stresses that his text should be taken as a whole and read systematically from beginning to end, it is only in this second half that writing educators may find more relevant takeaways to apply to their own writing and editing processes and the ways that they talk about and teach paragraphing, particularly to school leavers. Chapter 6 (‘Cohesion and the Paragraph’) includes a section explicitly entitled ‘Educational Issues’, and Chapter 7 a section entitled ‘Pedagogical Applications’, which suggests that focusing on the formal entity of the paragraph, and insisting on its ‘tight organization’, may have ‘an unfortunate, unforeseen side-effect in drawing student writers’ attention away from working through the semantic dimensions and richness of their writing – the actual content and the message to be conveyed’ (292). Chapter 9, ‘Wrapping up the Paragraph’, culminates in an extended summary in which the author proposes ‘a descriptivist pedagogy of paragraphing’. Rather than perpetuating a pedagogy that students may resent for revolving around ‘highly predictable and possibly redundantly transparent textual organization’ (292), McGee urges educators to highlight seven key areas in the writing classroom. These include genre sensitivity when discussing paragraphing and attention to a specific paragraph’s existence, purpose, or role within a wider text. As McGee explains, ‘the importance of locating the paragraph and paragraphing within genre convention and discourse-community norm and purposes of designing, signposting, and organizing text cannot be overstated’ (354).

I should mention, if it is not already obvious, that Understanding the Paragraph and Paragraphing is a predominantly and unapologetically descriptivist text: McGee openly questions scholars and educators who make value judgments about prototypically ‘effective’ or ‘sophisticated’ paragraphs and makes little reference to the ways in which inexperienced or struggling writers should go about structuring and segmenting paragraphs in their own writing. The absence of more prescriptive content may seem a frustrating omission to readers expecting something else, but it is due, in large part, to the breadth and limitations of the literature review and the author’s deliberate emphasis on significant variation across genres and text types. For the same reason – few studies considered in the review have focused on creative or narrative texts – creative writing educators may struggle to locate useful practical advice for the students in their cohorts.

McGee has ultimately achieved his aim of writing a book that might ‘help writing instructors discuss paragraphs and paragraphing intelligently with their students’ (ix) by encouraging readers and writers alike to hold traditional models of the paragraph lightly, focusing less on the what and how of making paragraphing decisions and more on the why. However, as a treatise that demands considerable familiarity with linguistic terminology and concepts and a significant investment of time and money, this book may hold only limited appeal for practitioners in creative writing disciplines.




Amber Gwynne is a lecturer in corporate and academic writing at The University of Queensland, where she recently completed a PhD examining how readers with a history of depression choose and use self-help books. She is particularly interested in the place and value of grammatical knowledge in writing education, also working as a developer and moderator on edX’s popular Write101x MOOC.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker