Shelly at UFO recently raised some really interesting points about length and form and how we manage/regulate information and attention in texts. As powerful a template as the five-paragraph theme may be, Shelly suggests that it’s only useful up to a certain length, and I’m inclined to agree. As a template for writers, the five-paragraph theme makes the question of form-as-organization one less thing a struggling writer has to worry about. But for readers, once you get up over 800 or 900 words, the five paragraph theme no longer offers much help navigating the essay’s form-as-coherence.
A couple days later, Spencer pointed out a discussion of the relation between coherence, the form of the five-paragraph theme, and students’ attention to other aspects of writing. And again, the implicit argument in the passage Spencer points to seems to be that the five-paragraph theme is a tool for managing the resources of attention. For me, seeing Shelly’s and Spencer’s posts within the space of two days was an interesting bit of synchronicity that got even more interesting when I read Peter Elbow’s latest (June 2006) CCC essay on “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing” in conjunction with the preface to Richard Lanham’s 2006 The Economics of Attention. For one thing, you’ve got to love Peter’s reference to the five-paragraph theme as “a kind of ‘slam bam thank you ma’am’ organization” (632). But to be a bit more serious: in The Economics of Attention, Richard Lanham begins with the assertion that “information is not in short supply in the new information economy” (xi). Rather, “what we lack is the human attention to make sense of it all” (xi). We don’t have enough time to devote to all this information and sort it out. Like our students, we as teachers “are short of time” (Elbow 631). And time and attention are central concerns for Elbow.
Now: one more connection to add to the pile. According to Elbow, “the most common way that writers bind words and pull readers through a text” is in narrative (634).
In 2001, I wrote a review essay called “The Ends of Narrative Inquiry” for a methods seminar and wound up being entirely too proud of myself for what I saw as my own stylistic
Here’s the first paragraph of the essay, which follows an epigraph from Hofstadter about Schr