by Gerald Grow, PhD
Division of Journalism
Florida A&M University
In their pursuit of clear, concise writing, journalism students sometimes develop the habit of writing everything in short, choppy paragraphs that are unrelated to one another. Reviewing any good high school writing handbook will remind you that considerable thought has been given to how longer paragraphs can be developed into well focused presentations of single units of thought.
What follows is an (imaginary) article invented to illustrate many of the "modes of discourse"--the traditional methods by which writing is developed. In succession, the following paragraphs are narration, exposition, definition, classification, description, process analysis, and persuasion. (The process analysis paragraph has been broken into a bulleted list, in typical "how to" style.)
In most writing, these modes are mixed in natural combinations; for example, narration frequently includes description. The following paragraphs have been devised in an attempt to emphasize the characteristics of each mode of writing. The result is somewhat artificial--you would not normally write an article containing one each of seven types of paragraphs!--but I hope it is more memorable than a series of unrelated illustrations.
Around 2 a.m. something woke Charles Hanson up. He lay in the dark listening. Something felt wrong. Outside, crickets sang, tree-frogs chirruped. Across the distant forest floated two muffled hoots from a barred owl. It was too quiet. At home in New Jersey, the nights are filled with the busy, comforting sounds of traffic. You always have the comforting knowledge that other people are all around you. And light: At home he can read in bed by the glow of the streetlight. It was too quiet. And much too dark. Even starlight failed to penetrate the 80-foot canopy of trees the camper was parked beneath. It was the darkest dark he had ever seen. He felt for the flashlight beside his bunk. It was gone. He found where his pants were hanging and, as he felt the pockets for a box of matches, something rustled in the leaves right outside the window, inches from his face. He heard his wife, Wanda, hold her breath; she was awake, too. Then, whatever, was outside in the darkness also breathed, and the huge silence of the night seemed to come inside the camper, stifling them. It was then he decided to pack up and move to a motel.
Comments on narration:
1. Normally chronological (though sometimes uses flashbacks) 2. A sequential presentation of the events that add up to a story. 3. A narrative differs from a mere listing of events. Narration usually contains characters, a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. Time and place and person are normally established. In this paragraph, the "story" components are: a protagonist (Hanson), a setting (the park), a goal (to camp), an obstacle (nature), a climax (his panic), and a resolution (leaving). 4. Specific details always help a story, but so does interpretive language. You don't just lay the words on the page; you point them in the direction of a story. 5. This narrative serves as the opening anecdote that illustrates the topic of the story
This family was a victim of a problem they could have avoided-a problem that, according to Florida park rangers, hundreds of visitors suffer each year. "Several times a month," ranger Rod Torres of O'Leno State Park said, "people get scared and leave the park in the middle of the night." Those people picked the wrong kind of park to visit. Not that there was anything wrong with the park: The hikers camped next to them loved the wild isolation of it. But it just wasn't the kind of place the couple from New Jersey had in mind when they decided to camp out on this trip through Florida. If they had known about the different kinds of parks in Florida, they...