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Writing — number 2 (the coach)

Wednesday 02 July 2014

I have been working with a writing coach this year to improve my writing. As I wrote in the previous post, the critical fault I need to correct is my poor discipline. That is, I do not write enough for peer audiences on an ongoing basis. The second area I wish to improve is my effectiveness (efficiency?). Certainly learning to be a better, more effective, writer will have a positive interaction effect with greater discipline – hence, more output.

The coach is Thomas Basbøll, who practices primarily from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a blog about his philosophy of writing and his methods of coaching. It is found at Research as a Second Language:

One can page through Thomas’ blog to learn more. I will not be so presumptuous to give a précis here. Nor will I evaluate his blog; it suffices that I have read nearly all his posts from the last four years and that I am in the midst of executing a contract for personal coaching. I will note in my posts particular elements of the coaching as they arise in the coming months with respect to my writing project.

But I do wish to note here the centerpiece of Thomas’ method that informs my second area of improvement. He treats the paragraph as the central unit for composing and writing scientific papers. (See, for example, this.)

Thomas trains us that a scientific paper (yes, social science counts…) is a 40-paragraph argument/exposition. The 40 paragraphs of a journal article have a structure and each paragraph has a structure. I remember from elementary school the lessons about the paragraph having a Topic Sentence. I am shuddering at the apparition of Miss Becker before me, brandishing the grammar book and a lethal yardstick. I haven’t paid much attention to those lessons as an adult, but Thomas insists that each paragraph contains one well-articulated claim which is declared in one sentence – the key sentence in his lexicon – and which is supported by the other five sentences. The way the forty claims-as-paragraphs are arrayed creates the scientific argument.

If you look at Research as a Second Language, you will see some exercises about writing 18 of the 40 paragraphs as a “challenge” and some specific advice about treating the writing of each paragraph as a 30-minute task. I did this challenge with Thomas over the first half of the year along with a co-author. The point was to find a way for the two of us to conceive and execute the same paper by agreeing on the 40 claims that we jointly made. Do not gloss over the previous sentence! If you have ever co-authored a paper with someone who has different training or perspective than yours, you will appreciate the substance of that particular challenge. Next week I will write about this co-author challenge. On Friday, I will produce a short version of a challenge: a six paragraph exercise to see if I can structure each paragraph well and put some structure to the six paragraphs as a proto-argument.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. beckmill permalink
    Sunday 13 July 2014 06:27

    Let me be sure I’m clear here, Randy: Your coach is saying that a research paper should have forty paragraphs, each with six sentences. Do I have that right?

    • Sunday 13 July 2014 08:05

      @beckmill: I have been going forward with my writing by using the 40 paragraph design as a target. The coach says that this is not a concrete rule for a given paper, but a way to organize the “storyline” in a way that is complete, but not overly stuffed with material that will detract from the argument. The six sentence paragraph follows much the same logic. He suggests building the paragraph from the key claim alone to the key sentence plus a couple supporting sentences. Then see what needs to be added or elaborated so the paragraph makes a single, well-articulated claim. I think that there will be some three sentence paragraphs when the claim is simple and clear from prior writings. I think there will be some eight sentence paragraphs when the claim is complex or subtle.

      • beckmill permalink
        Sunday 13 July 2014 08:15

        Thanks for your speedy reply. I agree with having a target and with writing within a structure. And goodness knows I’m for shorter, more-readable papers. Besides reading my own writing-of-publication aloud and then listening to it being read by Adobe Acrobat, I also use the ‘Fog Index’ and try to keep it at more than 10. Anyone who thinks that’s easy hasn’t tried it.

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