Does your writing feel like an uncontrolled stream of consciousness? Do you formulate your journalistic, academic, or creative writing into bite-sized “ideas” that further the plot, news story, or argument? If you do, you’re already using paragraphs.
Are your paragraphs too long? Are you using too many sentences? Is there anything wrong with writing in short paragraphs?
This article is all about the art of writing paragraphs. We’ll explore the structure of a paragraph and answer some of the FAQs our editors get asked from our writers.
Ready? Let’s go!
What is a standard paragraph length?
To a certain extent, this is a bit like the proverbial “how long is a piece of string” question.
The short answer is: a paragraph is as long as it needs to be.
Shorter paragraphs can work. But so can longer paragraphs. There are no specific rules.
But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?
What makes a good paragraph?
Think about a paragraph as an idea. And explore that paragraph’s main idea in that section of your text.
If you’re writing a novel, your paragraph is a moment in time – call it an action. It’s someone walking into the room and interrupting something. Or a character’s thoughts as they meet their nemesis.
But, again, that’s not very specific, is it? How many sentences per paragraph?
Your high-school teacher probably suggested a paragraph should be three to five sentences.
But are single-sentence paragraphs ever OK?
What we really need to understand is how to structure a paragraph. We need a magic formula.
How do you structure a paragraph?
While there are no hard and fast rules for paragraph length, we can refer to the academic writing rules of paragraph writing.
When you write an academic paragraph, you structure it like this:
- Topic sentence – introducing the new idea
- Supporting evidence – reinforcing the idea
- Concluding sentence – drawing the concept into a natural conclusion
Remember, academic pieces are longer papers that try to answer BIG questions around one topic. So, if each paragraph is an “idea,” each paragraph should be an accumulation of the overall argument.
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Here, we have the topic sentence, introducing the argument; two sentences that support the argument; and a concluding sentence.
But did you find that paragraph readable? Did it get to the point quickly enough? Are the sentences too long?
Did you lose the will to live halfway through?
How long is too long for a body paragraph?
A body paragraph comes between the introduction and the conclusion of a chapter. It could be the next paragraph after the opener, or it could lead to the final sentence in the chapter.
And we can probably all agree that academic writing permits LONG paragraphs.
But if you’re writing a novel, it’s generally better to stick to the three to five sentences rule. Sure, some paragraphs are longer, but the longer the paragraph, the harder it becomes to follow the words on the page.
You could consider paragraphs as little structural guides for the eye. One way of maintaining a reader’s attention is to keep your paragraphs relatively short – that way, they feel like they’re making progress.
Try to get at least three paragraphs on each printed page.
Overlong paragraphs can be intimidating for a reader – consider how a reader will “consume” your writing.
Should the paragraph length be different for online writing?
News writers and bloggers tend to write short paragraphs with few sentences. Often, you’ll find one-sentence paragraphs.
Dividing online writing into short paragraphs helps the reader scan the text. So, we adopt a fairly fluid approach to writing to maintain a reader’s attention.
When writing online content, one paragraph could be one sentence.
It could be a single word.
Look at how this section is spaced across the page. Each paragraph is part of the main ideas of the subsection.
I’m using bucket brigades.
What is a bucket brigade?
A bucket brigade could be single-word sentences or short, snappy phrases.
A colon typically follows a bucket brigade, and the reader recognizes that something important or valuable is coming next.
A bucket brigade is a bit like a subheading. It’s introducing a new point, helping draw us to one main idea on the page.
Do you get bucket brigades in novelistic writing?
In short. No. Not often. Most authors avoid single-sentence paragraphs.
Although in more modern literature, anything goes.
So, are smaller paragraphs better?
We probably acknowledge that there’s no ideal length; no hard and fast rule.
We can recognize that shorter paragraphs are good for readers.
A single paragraph can change everything. An idea crystalized into a few words can be more impactful than a lengthy sentence of colossal proportions.
So make your paragraph concise. Make your paragraph serve a purpose. Don’t worry so much about how many words in a sentence and how many sentences in a paragraph.
Think about how you can make your writing comfortable for the reader’s eye.
How long is the perfect sentence?
There’s the old urban myth of the college student who sat down in the exam hall for his final philosophy paper, turned the page, and stared at the question:
That was all they gave him. The question was simply, “Why?”
Now, a lesser philosophy student would have written pages and pages of argument, laying out their justification for Why.
But he sat there for a while (so the story goes). And a moment of inspiration struck.
Do you want to know what his answer was?
In that single word, he encapsulated everything the open-ended question alluded to.
So, how long is the perfect sentence? There’s no one general rule.
The written word is clay
Individual words can be potent. Mixed together, they can bring color where there’s darkness. Words on their own can be strong. As a team, they can change the world.
But creative writing is just that: creative.
As long as your writing is readable and can hold a reader’s attention, it has as much chance of finding success as any other piece of text.
Start with an opening sentence
Don’t let the worry of getting it wrong hold you back. Start with an opening sentence. Don’t worry about the sentence length – just try to crystallize one idea in each sentence.
Don’t worry so much about how long is a paragraph. One word can be one thought. Aim to explain your next idea in as few words as you can.
And remember, no writer worth their salt ever hits the ball on the head in the first draft.
The craft of writing paragraphs
Sometimes a first draft is just about getting that idea out of your head. Your first draft is going to be messy. It’s unlikely that you’ll get directly from A to B.
You’ll probably go from A to G to C to Y to Z to F to T before you find your path back to B.
But that first draft is just material to craft into perfectly formed sentences that build striking images and actions. Don’t let fear of getting it wrong block you.
Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending Innocence, The Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas.
Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.
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