Backstitching

Most of us most of the time write what is called expository prose, an expensive name for something quite common. Exposition is the presentation of facts, and expository writing, as opposed to description or argumentation, is nothing more (or less) than explaining something clearly and methodically to someone else.

One principle of expository prose is coherence: what you’re presenting and explaining must be arranged sentence by sentence in such a way that the resulting ideas in a paragraph stick together, that you allow no gaps where irrelevant notions can slip in. On this word coherence a teacher of mine in college once told us to think of how the two sides of the fabric Velcro cling together, or how a bur sticks unforgivingly to your clothes. Such should be the arrangement of sentences one to the next.

A fine illustration of this appears in the first paragraph of Richard Manning’s A Good House: Building a Life on the Land, 1993:

It is a measure of the confusion of our times that the simplest words tease out the most complicated questions. Words like “good” and “house.” What do we mean by these? A year of my life turned on this question, a year in which I built my own house.

The four sentences of this short introductory paragraph are very nicely sewn together. The first word of the second sentence, Words, refers back to the phrase the simplest words in the first sentence. The pronoun these in the third sentence refers back to good and house in the second sentence. And the phrase on this question in the last sentence refers back to the entire third sentence which is itself the question. (And notice too that the second occurrence of the word year in the last sentence refers back to the same word earlier in the same sentence, extending its meaning.)

I call this close arrangement of words and ideas backstitching, and I take the term from a particular movement of a threaded needle in the craft of sewing that reaches back to the previous stitch before it advances to the next one. If we regard a word or phrase as a stitch, then we can see in Manning’s paragraph how referring back to a related word or idea in the previous sentence is the backstitch, from which the author can now progress on to the next idea in the next sentence. Backstitching is a way to help ensure we are meeting the principle of cohesion in a paragraph sentence by sentence.

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If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

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