A. Here’s the problem:
Occasionally I read paragraphs that leave one promising idea behind to move to another without finishing the first. Paragraphs like this frustrate me; I feel as though a rug has been pulled from under my feet. Usually, I don’t think the writer is even aware of what has happened. The second idea occurred to the writer in the course of explaining the first and neither at the time of drafting nor during revision did the writer notice that the material should be presented in different paragraphs.
B. What to do:
Outlining either before or after writing the draft can help identify paragraphs that move from one focus to another. Also, the stronger and more specific the topic sentence, the less likely the problem will occur. If you discover during revision a paragraph that goes in two directions at once, separate it in two and look at each to see if its main idea is sufficiently developed.
C. Example: Elizabeth goes to the Netherfield Ball with the expressed purpose of finding Mr. Wickham, but instead she encounters Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth’s displeasure with Darcy “is sharpened by the immediate disappointment” of Wickham’s absence. . .Initially Elizabeth is polite to Darcy and effectively uses roles of social formality . . .to limit the extent of conversation between the two of them. Eventually. . . tension between Darcy and Elizabeth ensues until Sir William interrupts them. . .Elizabeth’s abrasive encounter with Darcy demonstrates the strength in Elizabeth to defy men that manifests itself when Mr. Collins proposes to her. Elizabeth’s sense of pride and her exercise of prejudice contrast her with Charlotte who accepts Mr. Collins’ proposal, an acceptance that Elizabeth sees as self-degrading to Charlotte. The difference between Elizabeth and Charlotte is in their ideals. (also see 3.1, 3.2 & 3.7)
Improved version: (to be done as in-class exercise)
1. What are the problems of focus in this paragraph?
2. How could the focus be improved?
3. What is the main idea of the paragraph?
4. If you were the peer editor of the essay what would you suggest (short of scrapping the paragraph)?
5. What two topic sentences might be used if the paragraph were to be split in two?
D. Now you try—answer the questions above with regard to the following passage.
In the beginning of The Age of Innocence, Archer is thoroughly concerned with matters of “taste” and “form.” He criticizes Ellen for her untimely arrival and her “foreign” conduct. . .Yet early on. . .he boldly states, “I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.” This hypocrisy is central to the theme of the novel. Wharton shows it in two affairs, Archer’s with Mrs. Rushworth and Madame Olenska with the secretary. In both cases, the blame clearly falls on the woman, not on the man. Archer sees that marriages were becoming nothing but a “dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.” He sees this hypocrisy in May, his wife. She is a woman caught in the steadfast conventions of society. Archer sees her as a “terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything.” Archer later recognizes her as “generous, faithful unwearied; but so lacking in imagination, so incapable of growth, that the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change.” Society had molded her, and had created a product that would put back into society what it had taken out.