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The Habit Blog is the archive of The Habit Weekly. It is a trove of insight, wisdom, and practical advice on a variety of writing topics.

When to hit the enter key: On paragraph breaks

Aaron Nelson, a member of The Habit, recently asked an excellent question about paragraphs:

Many years ago in an undergraduate English class, a professor told me that he did not like my paragraphing choices. It’s still not clear to me exactly what he meant. I struggle with knowing when to hit the enter key when writing both dialogue and non-dialogue alike. I’m not even sure how paragraphs are supposed to function, especially in fiction.

Remember the five-paragraph essays you wrote in school? It gives us a pretty good place to start talking about paragraphs. In a five-paragraph essay, you express a big idea (a thesis statement) in Paragraph 1. In Paragraphs 2-4, the “body” of the essay, you make three points in support of your thesis (one point per paragraph). Then, in Paragraph 5, you summarize and restate what you just said in the previous four paragraphs.

I endorse the five-paragraph essay formula, but I endorse it in the same way I endorse training wheels. It’s a way for a novice to learn some of the fundamental skills of persuasive writing, but five-paragraph essays are rarely persuasive. Nevertheless, they illustrate how paragraphs are supposed to work.

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S2 Ep19: Malcolm Guite

Poet-priest Malcolm Guite has become one of the most important Christian poets of our time. In this episode, Jonathan and Malcolm discuss the “salvaging of the mistakenly abased gift of imagination,” the vital distinction between what things are and what they are made of, how Malcolm inherited the gift of poetry from his mother, and the invention of writing as the gateway both to remembering and forgetting.

“You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her.” On concrete specifics.

The Turnpike Troubadours, a (possibly defunct?) country band, have a song called “Unrung” in which the narrator admonishes an older friend about a relationship with a much younger woman. The song begins,

I could tell you she’s a bad idea,
For all the good it would do.
You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her–
Hell, you bought it new.

I want to look at those four lines for a minute in order to point out a few things about the use of concrete specifics, both in storytelling and in persuasive writing.

Good persuasive writing typically moves from claims (or opinions) to facts. It is helpful to know the difference, especially in a cultural climate that seems to be post-factual. Some things actually are verifiable facts whether you like them or not–also, whether you wish to believe them or not. Not everything is an opinion. It seems bizarre to be living in a world where one has to point these things out, but there we are.

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You probably don’t have a time-management problem.

Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I’m bad enough. I recently read an article from the BBC titled Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time. As author Christian Jarrett points out, we have traditionally thought of procrastination in terms of bad time management: if procrastinators were just better at prioritizing their time, if they better understood how much time tasks are going to take, if they paid better attention to how much time they’re wasting, they would stop procrastinating and get productive. 

But the truth is, any procrastinator worth his salt is fully aware of how much time he’s wasting. He may or may not fully understand how long a task is going to take but that’s not why he hasn’t started yet. And nobody’s priorities are so confused that he actually values cat videos over productivity.

The issue for the procrastinator is not time management, but mood management. The task in front of you makes you feel bad. It’s boring or hard. It stirs up fears of failure. It arouses self-pity.

John Prine Loved Meatloaf.

As you have probably heard, songwriter John Prine died last week, of COVID-19. He was a Nashville treasure–the kind of songwriters whom other songwriters revere. 

I was listening to John Prine’s Tiny Desk concert a few days ago, and he said something that revealed a lot about his approach to writing and to the world. Speaking of his frequent songwriting partner Pat McLaughlin, he said,

We usually write on Tuesdays in Nashville, because that’s the day they make meatloaf. And I love meatloaf. So it’s kind of our carrot on the end of the stick. We get together early in the morning, try to write a song before they start serving the meatloaf. Then, after lunch, we come back and record the song.

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Talk to Strangers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.

For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.

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