What's the Rule About Paragraph Length?

Different instructors have different ideas about rules for average paragraph length. I investigate what experts and real-life writers have to say about it.

Mignon Fogarty,
December 19, 2014
Episode #447

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Average Paragraph Length;


Recently, I saw a comment on Facebook about professors who are teaching college students to make all their paragraphs the same length. The woman wrote, "There are professors at my school who deduct points, sometimes even letter grades, if paragraphs aren't the same exact length throughout a paper. Because writing should be 'balanced' and it can only achieve 'balance' if all paragraphs are equal in length."

Since this is one of the most preposterous things I’ve ever heard, I thought I must have misunderstood, but I asked for clarification and learned that the “uniform paragraph length rule” is so pervasive at this university that one professor uses a ruler to measure physical paragraph length in an introductory English class. Those poor students!

What Is the Purpose of a Paragraph?

Paragraphs represent ideas, and ideas come in many sizes. The most important point should be at the beginning of a paragraph—often, that point is called a topic sentence—and you use the rest of the paragraph to develop the point further.

How Long Should a Paragraph Be?

Both the Yahoo! Style Guide and the popular college handbook A Writer’s Reference (originally written by Diana  Hacker, and often referred to as simply Hacker) recommends an average paragraph length of 100 to 200 words, but both also note that good writers treat this as a suggestion and not a hard-and-fast rule. For example, Hacker notes that in essays, introductory and concluding paragraphs are often shorter than other paragraphs, and that in scholarly works, paragraphs are often longer, suggesting “seriousness and depth.” 

It’s also important to mix up your paragraph length for the same reason you mix up your sentence structure: to keep your reader’s eyes from glazing over. Hacker notes that the reasons behind paragraph length aren’t always logical or tied to the “one idea, one paragraph” concept. Besides signaling a shift to a new idea, writers can use paragraph breaks to emphasize a point, to indicate a shift in time or place, or simply to break up text that looks too dense. 


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