Saturday, August 20, 2011

Advice to a Young Would-Be Patent Law Scholar - 03 (PARAGRAPHS)

Item 1 of my Advice to a Young Would-Be Patent Law Scholar - 01, referred to PARAGRAPHS without much explanation. That was for two reasons. First, the basis of the post was a message to a young scholar to whom I had previously written extensively on the subject of paragraphing.  Second, I assumed that readers of this blog would know what a paragraph should be, even if they didn't always apply that knowledge to their own legal writing.

Here, for completeness, is a somewhat revised version of what I had written to that student back when I first gave nerfeedback on nis writing.

1. A paragraph should have one central idea, just one, and that idea should be new to someone reading your paper from the first word to the last. That is how I read. I call people like me "linear readers". We do not skip around and we do not do word search. We place ourselves in the author's hands, trusting ner to have thought through the subject so that it is presented in the best possible way. We do, however, skim -- especially if we begin to feel that our trust is misplaced -- and that is precisely the reason you, as an author, need to use paragraphs properly.

2. If you find that your paragraph has two ideas, break up that paragraph.

Wait, you say. What about a summary or an introductory paragraph? OK. Such paragraphs may list a series of ideas, but then the central idea of the paragraph is to summarize or introduce. The substantive content in the list is not the paragraph's central idea. I should add that I am not a fan of summary or introductory paragraphs with lists. As a linear skimmer, I prefer a table of contents, aka outline, at the top of the article, so that I can see the ideas; in the body of the article, I prefer headings. I think a table of contents and headings are also helpful for non-linear readers, especially word-searchers. But for now, if the one-idea-rule troubles you, please read item 2 to mean "other than an introductory or summary paragraph."

3. If you find that a paragraph repeats an idea that you presented earlier, incorporate whatever is worth saying into the earlier paragraph, or revise what you say in the later paragraph so that it does not seem redundant to the linear reader. And yes, this is harder than it sounds. It takes some deep thinking. You will have to ask yourself why you did not include these ideas earlier, and why you want to have them at this later point. Maybe you will have to do some serious restructuring. Do it. And of course, use the TALK METHOD to decide what you want to say, that is, to WRITE.

4. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. My high school English teachers said the topic sentence did not necessarily have to be first; it could be in the middle of the paragraph or even at the end. That may be fine for fiction, but in legal writing, where your serious readers will likely be linear skimmers, never put the topic sentence anywhere but at the beginning.
If you can point to a good paragraph in a law review article that violates this rule, please tell me, and give me the text of that paragraph so I can form my own opinion.
5. Avoid long paragraphs. (See items 1 and 2 above to understand how easy that is when you are writing well.) In law review article format, a page should have 2 or 3 paragraphs. I count paragraphs by where they start. A carryover paragraph does not count as the first paragraph of that page. It is zero.
(See the Advice post about NUMBERS for the reason I chose to write 2 or 3 as numerals in the first sentence of item 5, but then wrote zero as a word zero in the last sentence.  See the Advice post concerning rules for writing that begin "Never" or "Always" for my views about the value of those rules.)
A page without any break, that is, one that has a paragraph that began on a previous page and ends on a subsequent one, is never acceptable. A page with a carryover and then only one new paragraph needs is not, either. More than three paragraphs on a page probably (though not always) means your writing is choppy and you are not synthesizing enough. If you have a good reason for writing short paragraphs or your paragraphs are actually bullet points, that may be fine. Maybe.
After you have a first draft, check every page and paragraph to make sure they meet these requirements. Soon, your paragraphs will naturally have the right length, and each one will be unified and will introduce a new idea, if not in your first draft, then in your second or third.

[last rev 9/12/11 - rjm]

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