I ranted a bit about overly prescriptive methods for teaching students about paragraphs in my last post. Some things get my dander up, and that’s one of them. So how should we teach paragraphs?
What I was taught to do as a graduate student in my program, and what I have found effective as a teacher, is to focus on the writer’s rhetorical goals for a paragraph, considering the needs of the reader at each step of the way. Now, getting this idea across to students in a clear, simple, memorable way could be a problem.
That’s where PIE comes in.
Not that kind of pie, sadly, though you are welcome to bring some as long as you bring enough for all of us to share.
PIE stands for:
When we as writers want to do the kind of communicative work we’re often called upon to do — discuss, explain, analyze, compare, contrast, or argue — these are the jobs we’re going to need to do in our paragraphs. We need to make points, illustrate those points (with metaphors, examples drawn from observation, quotes, figures, etc.), and we need to provide the explanation the reader needs to understand how the illustration supports the point. There is no firm quota on how many sentences a writer needs to spend on each part of PIE: these are just the basic things we do when we communicate effectively in expository writing, and in short-form essay writing the likes of which is frequently assigned in school, we tend to do all three of these things in each and every body paragraph.
For example, I noticed that this 2103 Atlantic article, “The Coming Revolution in Public Education,” writer John Tierney has organized each bullet point paragraph along these lines; the bullet points and boldface text add visual emphasis that would almost certainly be unnecessary in a printed essay (for a couple of reasons: one, it’s easier to read text in print than on a screen, and two, the Atlantic is competing to draw eyeballs and clicks to generate revenue in a way that a student writing for a class assignment is decidedly not). Nonetheless, it’s a good example of PIE paragraphs in the wild.
PIE focuses on how writers try to genuinely communicate with readers. In contrast, prescriptive paragraph templates like the deformed hamburger or the Schaffer paragraph tend to ignore purpose in favor of categorizing sentence types (Topic sentence! Concrete detail! Commentary! Concluding sentence!). Students who read a lot may have absorbed lessons from so many real-life models that they can write decent paragraphs in spite of, not because of, templates like the Schaffer paragraph. But students who aren’t big readers will take these lessons much more to heart, and will end up writing the kind of wooden, stilted, rhetorically unconnected paragraphs I described in my previous post.
Talking about paragraphs in terms of PIE keeps things grounded in the communicative purpose of writing. What point do you want to make? How can you “show” your reader what you mean? What explanation might the reader need to understand your point/your illustration/the connection between them? Thinking about paragraphs in terms of PIE reminds the writer that the reader exists, and that a strong paragraph will actually communicate something to that reader — not just tick off a list of sentence types.
Note that this kind of teaching also accommodates another reality of paragraph writing: the fact that you aren’t limited to a specific number of sentences per paragraph in any reasonable approximation of the real world, and the facts that a single sentence may do more than one job in a paragraph, and an important point might need to be developed across multiple paragraphs. A good writer might, for example, set up a little metaphor or provide a striking figure in the first clause of a sentence, then may more concretely state his or her point in a second clause. Illustrations may even constitute the whole opening of a paragraph, “showing” the point before stating it directly. For example, take a look at this paragraph from Susan Sontag’s essay “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?”:
A beautiful woman, we say in English. But a handsome man. “Handsome” is the masculine equivalent of — and refusal of — a compliment which has accumulated certain demeaning overtones, by being reserved for women only. That one can call a man “beautiful” in French and Italian suggests that Catholic countries — unlike those countries shaped by the Protestant version on Christianity — still retain some vestiges of the pagan admiration for beauty. But the difference, if one exists, is of degree only. In every modern country that is Christian or post-Christian, women are the beautiful sex — to the detriment of the notion of beauty as well as of women.
The essay as a whole argues that beauty, a classical virtue, became morally suspect under the influence of Christianity, and “further on the defensive” by being culturally constructed as a feminine trait. Note how illustration and explanation are interwoven in this paragraph as Sontag develops her point — it’s more subtle than the Atlantic article I linked above, but that article was intended to make a punchy argument about an issue of the day, whereas Sontag’s essay is more meditative and larger in historical scope. Also note that “A beautiful woman, we say in English” would never fly as a Topic Sentence in a Schaffer or deformed hamburger paragraph — and yet we would be no better off as readers if Sontag had tortured her paragraph until it fit one of those formats.
One thing I try to emphasize for students is that illustrations — in the form of anecdotes, careful overview of relevant facts, or extended metaphors — may even be the substance of whole paragraphs in more extended pieces of writing, or in a shorter piece of writing if it’s simply that important to the argument. Rebecca Solnit’s classic essay “Men Explain Things To Me” deploys vivid anecdotes serving as hilariously infuriating illustrations of her central point, and you’ll note that in many cases, a whole paragraph at a time will be spent drawing a picture for the reader. The old adage “show, don’t tell” doesn’t just apply to creative writing — it’s what makes analytical writing incisive, criticism cutting, and persuasive writing persuasive.