Pause for some thought

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
I am thinking of patenting a paragraph-making machine that prints indents as a reminder to candidates taking exams and national tests. It would save me the tedious task of indicating that, occasionally, sentences do need a break.

Similarly, I am tired of signalling a sentence paragraph (the occasional use of which can be highly effective) or should I say the non-sentence paragraph, these days? I've tried just putting NS in the margin but suspect this is a meaningless hieroglyph to the majority of candidates.

I was a pupil taught by a certain generation of English teachers. They were the ones who insisted we prefaced essays with a plan - and I'm not talking of spidergraphs. The plan was a vertical listing based on a clear structure of introduction, paragraphs and conclusion. In literary essays, in particular, it taught me how to build, each "brick" contributing to the total pattern. It ensured that I thought before writing, supporting the main idea with appropriate quotations and references. It also avoided time-wasting first drafts, often page after page, before the final neat copy.

In those days, reading and planning time was not normally built into the examination, a separate quarter of an hour in which candidates can write notes on a special sheet of blank paper before starting on the "real" business. What does one find with such planning pages these days? Nothing. Masses of writing. Doodles. Reasonably impressive art work. Slogans or catch phrases. Spidergraphs. Probably anything but the old-fashioned plan as outlined above. I sometimes think that candidates look upon it as a graffiti-free space and long for an aerosol spray. . .

Does the "topic sentence" have any modern currency? Again, in the dim and distant days of another dinosaur - precis - we were taught to look for the T S and avoid long lists of examples like the plague. It drove home the message that paragraphs are essentially built on a single major idea or aspect of the subject or theme.

Writing should involve craftsmanship, the shaping of materials, of thoughts and ideas. There is a pleasure in constructing a paragraph and building it up to a climax or rounding off a particular section. There's a similar pleasure in the linking of paragraphs, the smooth transition from one aspect to another, thus welding the piece of writing into a unit.

Like other aspects of writing, paragraphing needs to be taught. It won't just happen. There is a value in insisting on the planning of answers: it might avoid the formless sprawl that typifies so much modern writing.

As part of this, maybe we should not always be so insistent on complete answers but be satisfied with a well-shaped paragraph or two, quality rather than quantity.

There would then be no need to patent a new paragraphing machine!

Peter King is a GCSE examiner involved in piloting national tests

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