You're here because you want to learn about craft.
How do I do X? How do I make Y?
Someone telling you "write a paragraph where you name and describe a piece of evidence for your argument" is not helping. Writing is scary. For myself, I need to know what makes a good sentence because I need the confidence that I can say one thing well. But if I can get a few good sentences, how are they weaved into a paragraph?
Moreover, let's say I create a nice paragraph. There are so many people who don't read, and of those who do read, few who read well. And of those who read well, even fewer who can appreciate what I'm trying to achieve or forgive my mistakes. How do I write with continuity? How do I write so that my reader doesn't quit reading, that I encourage myself to write more?
So here's my promise to you: I can help you put together a few sentences. You can create a solid paragraph. You'll get something you'll be happy to read aloud to someone else. What I can't guarantee is that this will automatically turn into a good essay. Tying good paragraphs together to form a beautiful essay often happens because you're thinking about a topic extensively and want to communicate what matters. It helps that you find a lot that matters. But I want to be real here. A lot of writers would gladly write trash essays with one sterling paragraph everyone remembers than write perfect, formal exercises which say nothing. —If you feel I've described "school" as a general enemy of "good writing," you're correct.—
I want to look at the first paragraph of Donald Hall's "Out the Window," which I consider perfect. I need to be clear about why we're examining this. What he's doing, to put it very roughly, is letting you see as he sees. He puts you in the chair he sits, at eighty-three years of age, encouraging you to think of what it is like being there for hours a day, weeks on end. He is not writing a thesis or producing evidence for a position, but you're not wrong if you feel as if something is powerfully argued, demolishing a reader's comfort:
Today it is January, midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window. Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches; they say we might have a foot and a half. There are three windows beside me where I sit, the middle one deep and wide. Outside is a narrow porch that provides shade in the summer, in winter a barrier against drifts. I look at the barn forty yards away, which appears to heave like a frigate in a gale. I watch birds come to my feeder, hanging from clapboard in my line of sight. All winter, juncos and chickadees take nourishment here. When snow is as thick as today, the feeder bends under the weight of a dozen birds at once. They swerve from their tree perches, peck, and fly back to bare branches. Prettily they light, snap beaks into seed, and burst away: nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, American goldfinches, sparrows.
Donald Hall did not waste a moment when he wrote poetry, and that shows in how tightly this prose is constructed. "Midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire:" he locates himself, even at the end of life, in the middle of something. This is so subtle as to be deceptive. We would typically hear "midlife crisis" and imagine men making themselves ridiculous. But Hall is really speaking about the end of his life. He's between nothing less than life and death, leaning much closer to the latter. Though he can place himself and us—"I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window"—he is lost. Loss is literal for him, as some things people would rather die than give up are simply not available any more. "I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window." I think about how fiercely some elderly people fight to keep driving. In four words, Hall allows a host of tough experiences their weight. "I no longer drive."
Even though he is fixed in his seat, he can bear witness. He sees a seasonal motion, from non-life to life. The theme is grand, but every word he uses feels earned. This occurs because he takes time and effort to describe what's happening. Some writers will marvel at how strictly he observes the rule "show, not tell," and that is in evidence throughout this paragraph. Note how he treats the snowfall:
Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches; they say we might have a foot and a half. There are three windows beside me where I sit, the middle one deep and wide. Outside is a narrow porch that provides shade in the summer, in winter a barrier against drifts. I look at the barn forty yards away, which appears to heave like a frigate in a gale.
He's not just describing snow. There's a hidden drama: the snow keeps increasing and he is powerless. The implication is that he could be, for practical purposes, buried alive. "A barrier against drifts" hints this is on his mind, but if you think the snow is only innocent, he tells you that the barn only forty yards away heaves "like a frigate in a gale." The paragraph ends with a nearly paradoxical sight, a multitude of birds, gathered at a feeder, weighing it down. You'd think life and death relate in a way that makes intuitive sense, but here, Hall gives us two distinct worlds placed side-by-side, having almost nothing to do with each other.
It is incredible Hall can write like this for pages on end. In terms of craft (and, more generally, thinking about life), he deploys details not just to remember or make a point. They're advanced in order to communicate a feeling or raise a question. It makes sense, after reading a paragraph like this, to try a strategy of this sort. Start with too many details, describe too much, and then start thinking about what groups of them might mean.
There is no finer prose than James Baldwin's "A Letter to My Nephew," a consideration of the cost of racism. In the following paragraph, note how powerfully and indelibly structural racism is identified and assessed. Baldwin does not simply argue; he illustrates what's psychically involved, how reasons are the capture of the imagination:
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
Part of arguing is understanding some problems are worth talking about more than others. Lots of people want to win arguments like it's a game or a way of passing time. They can't tell the difference between a talk show host or a scholar who has actually studied the issue. Nor can they understand that being exactly right, say, about a historical figure's middle name might not be as consequential as understanding how we calculate the poverty rate.
James Baldwin does not shy away from debates of the highest consequence. "People find it very difficult to act on what they know" is not merely an observation or a position on the ancient question of whether you only act on what you truly know. He speaks from experience. He has watched people say things that fill him with hope, and then become extremely disappointed in those very people. He has had to think hard about why they failed. "To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger."
The danger is that with a potential loss of identity, it is hard for some to imagine a ground for morality. I feel like I just wrote a good sentence, but Baldwin knows that a merely "good" sentence is not good enough in this situation. He has to explain to his nephew why people who seem to pledge their lives to a cause give up. He has to try to imagine, himself, the psychic terror of the loss of whiteness:
Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
You've believed for generations that your ancestors were simply good, advancing the human race. That they were earnest, decent people who didn't really burn women as witches. Or were monks, scribes dedicated to preserving knowledge, who didn't try to erase ancient scientific treatises. Or that they didn't tear families apart, rape those they claimed as property, write pseudo-scientific nonsense justifying their cruelty, and yet built a government which tried to be a noble exercise in liberty.
Often, people accuse anyone who actually knows any history of trying to create guilt. But the guilt has always been there. You could take away all the historians and anti-racists and anti-fascists and the guilt at what happened will echo just as loudly. The problem is what happens when one tries to build one's moral standing on a shoddy myth. "We're basically good" is a terrible myth, but it gives a lot of people false confidence and material rewards. However, it isn't enough confidence to change the system and work for the equal and just treatment of others. Or enough delusion to make the material rewards seem anything but crass.
But you'd have to want to learn what is moral all over again, if you felt the universe shake. It doesn't mean one has to condemn one's ancestors, but that possibility isn't excluded. "Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality." There's so much to do if you want genuine equality, and fear overwhelms in part from never having started this task. Every moral belief one has had comes under new scrutiny.
It is important to understand that when arguing, you should not try to convince everyone. Some people will read "the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations" and think it farfetched. They don't think about race at all, they proclaim from a neighborhood that is a result of redlining. They believe everyone can make it, just as they did, starting out with jobs that were given by family members who inherited the family business. The law is impartial, they say, as a talking head says on television that George Floyd deserved what happened to him.
You don't aim to convince everyone. You aim to be convincing, to make the point strong. To not waste your reader's time.
I've been looking over my own paragraphs. They're clumsy compared to these. I tend to jam in too many ideas. Ideas which don't illustrate the problem directly, but do illustrate other facets.
Is the clumsiness a bad thing? I'm not sure. It's okay for things to be a little awkward for a reader if they're getting something valuable. I'm staring at a paragraph right now where I connect Creon's overblown rhetoric with how we demonize the poor. It's a weird linkage, as Creon says that you only know people through power, and we go out of our way to belittle those who don't have power. So Creon, a dictator who rants in a way resembling right-wing talk radio, has a point, but it's not a point which is easy to place in a present-day context, despite its obvious relevance.
Is this valuable? It seems like a tangle of thoughts. It's incredibly valuable, of course. The society which makes itself angry in order to demonstrate its power is strangely mirrored in the dictator who says angry things to establish his power. It's the weirdness, the non-correspondence of the image, that's interesting. How we don't see ourselves when we're standing right in front of ourselves.
I can leave you with this much. Good paragraphs are a risk. They're not always going to work. They may not work for all readers. But they try. They're not a bunch of right answers for a test lumped together, or what someone else wants to hear. They're something you want to say, and for that reason—and that reason alone—they're valuable.