Keep an Eye on Paragraph Length: Lesson #4 from Student Writing

This is post #4 in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.

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“I had some students who thought that a paragraph had to be a certain number of sentences. Others took their freedom too liberally after I told them, ‘A paragraph is everything you have to say on one specific idea or thought.’ I started seeing paragraphs that were a full page long juxtaposed with ones that were a single sentence. The long paragraphs were focused on specific sub-points of the papers, but they shared multiple ideas about those points and should have been broken up into multiple paragraphs. The single-sentence paragraphs were certainly not off-topic, but there was no information to support or expand the ideas they contained. Fiction is more fluid when it comes to what makes up a paragraph, but consider starting a new paragraph when you switch character actions, locations, etc. Whatever you do, make sure that your paragraphs are consistent, logical, and easy-to-follow.” –Original post

Student Problem #1: Not breaking up sub-points

Some of my students only switched to a new paragraph when they hit a new point or sub-point from their outlines. In a shorter paper, like a five-paragraph essay, that was okay. When it happened in a research paper, though, they often wound up with page-long paragraphs that could have been divided into another level of sub-points. If there are multiple ideas within a block of text, each one probably belongs in its own paragraph. Even if everything in a paragraph is supporting a single concept, it’s still a good idea to break those examples or explanations up if the block of text is getting too long. This goes for any kind of book or written content! Watch out that you don’t give too much information without stopping to take a breath.

Student Problem #2: Not developing thoughts

On the other end of the scale were the students who knew they should have a new paragraph for each idea but didn’t have much to say on that idea. That left some sub-points hanging as a single sentence. This is a problem! While certain forms of writing, like magazine articles or blog posts, can have one-sentence “paragraphs,” those single sentences can’t be considered sufficient information to support a point. If you’re going to introduce an idea to your writing, whether academic or creative, don’t just drop it there. Elaborate, explain, or give examples.

Author Problem #1: Not using paragraph breaks

I’ve seen fiction drafts that don’t use paragraph breaks at all. The story flows on and on, breaking only for the beginning of a new chapter. As a general rule, don’t do this! Some authors can get away with fairly long paragraphs, but this requires quite a bit of talent and understanding of story flow and pacing. Think about it—what’s easier to read? A solid page of text with no breaks or one that has been broken down into smaller units? Pace your story carefully and give your readers’ eyes a break.

Author Problem #2: Using too many breaks

I’ve also seen fiction drafts that never flesh out a whole paragraph—the author starts a new line every sentence or two. In some cases, I think this is caused by authors who know the academic writing rules of starting a new paragraph for every new thought and worry that each of their sentences is a thought that must follow this rule. In other cases, I see authors beginning new lines for every action the way they’re supposed to for every new dialogue line. Be careful to only begin a new line when it’s time for the reader’s focus to shift. If you don’t, they’ll be left with a choppy reading experience that makes them constantly move their focus back and forth.

Fix #1: Think of a paragraph as a unit.

In order to use them well, both students and fiction writers need to remember that paragraphs can be units in and of themselves. In academic writing, they’re not absolutely tied to a certain tier of the outline. In fiction, they’re not just something you throw in whenever you want to stop for breath or when it seems like a good idea just in case. Use them with purpose! Know where the focus of your scenes, summaries, and descriptions is at all times. Whenever there is a key change in focus, start a new paragraph. This often looks like a shift in location, time, acting character, POV character’s thought train, or dialogue speaker. Use your best judgment and ask your beta readers or editor to comment on paragraph structure if you need a second opinion.

Fix #2: Remember that balance is key.

You probably learned at some point that varying your sentence length and structure makes your writing style more engaging to follow. It also affects the flow of your writing: long sentences and little punctuation make the text flow more quickly, as the reader goes longer without pausing. Short sentences and an abundance of punctuation slow the reader down. Using an intentional mix of the two can have powerful results. The same goes for paragraphs. Longer paragraphs will keep the reader’s eye moving more smoothly over a descriptive or narrative paragraph that is flowing quickly (as long as it’s not too long—then your reader will perceive the paragraph as too dragged-out). Shorter paragraphs break up that flow, and single-sentence lines practically shout, “Stop! Pay attention!” You can use paragraph length to your advantage, balancing swiftly-flowing longer paragraphs with shorter paragraphs and lines that grab the reader’s attention in a different way. Too much of either creates monotony, so remember to balance both in your writing!

Fix #3: Stay consistent.

Some writers intentionally use many long paragraphs to create their intended style and voice. Others use a plethora of short paragraphs to produce a different tone with fewer words per page. Every author is different, and every book is different. Figure out what type of paragraph feels most natural to the story you’re telling and then stick with it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use a variety of long and short paragraphs; rather, it means that you should stick to a single set of rules about what dictates paragraph length in this particular work. This way, you can make sure that your style and voice stay consistent from cover to cover.

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