Instructors have different ideas about how many words should be in a good paragraph. We review what experts and real-life writers have to say about it.
A while ago, 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) recommend 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.
Your Audience May Determine What Your Paragraph Length Should Be
You should also keep in mind how and where your audience will read your writing. For example, journalistic writing has traditionally favored short paragraphs because print newspaper columns are narrow, which can make even short paragraphs seem long. Commenting on the tiny amount of time an online reader spends before deciding whether to read an article (or not), the Yahoo! Style Guide adds, “Keep paragraphs short. Two to three sentences is often enough.” You don’t want to get the dreaded “tl;dr” comment on your blog posts (“too long; didn’t read”).
A short, one-line paragraph will instantly grab your reader’s attention.
If you’re just scanning the article, you’re more likely to absorb a one-line paragraph than you are the longer paragraphs. Although you shouldn’t overuse them, one-sentence paragraphs are not uncommon. I randomly picked an article from The New York Times (“‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This’: Chaos Strikes Global Shipping”) and immediately found a one-sentence paragraph between longer paragraphs (“At the center of the storm is the shipping container, the workhorse of globalization.”). That paragraph is near the beginning of the article and sets up the idea of the shipping container being important—the main thrust of the article—after we’ve read a few introductory anecdotes.
Fiction Writers Use Long and Short Paragraphs
Varying sentence length is also common in fiction. Christopher Coake, a friend and associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, says by email, “In creative writing classes, I generally talk to the students about dynamism—about how paragraph length is one tool (among many) that a creative writer can use to speed up/slow down a reader's path through a piece of fiction.”
In fiction, because you start a new paragraph every time you change speakers, it’s also common to find one-line paragraphs. Further, it’s not just dialogue that leads to short paragraphs in fiction.
Again, I randomly turned to the last page of a novel I had nearby, Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig, and the last three paragraphs of the book are each one-sentence paragraphs following a long paragraph. Again, when you’re going for drama (ending the book strong), one-sentence paragraphs can help.
Cael begins to push—slowly at first, but then he picks up speed, running behind it. He lets go and runs alongside, as fast as he can. Lane and Rigo grab his arms and haul him aboard.
The raft slides along the track, silent and swift.
With the moon above and the wind in his hair, Cael can’t help but think, I’m flying.
Toward what, he cannot say.
Alternatively, according to Coake, long paragraphs in fiction “often show us a narrator obsessing, focusing inward, moving from outward observation to memory or close examination or even stream of consciousness.”
The Bottom Line
Although in fiction and nonfiction it’s often good to keep average paragraphs in the 100- to 200-word range and stick to the concept that one paragraph represents one idea, don’t be afraid to vary your paragraph length as necessary to keep your readers interested, add emphasis, and achieve your desired pace and flow. There’s no rule against it.
This article original appeared in OfficePro Magazine, a publication of the International Association of Administrative Professionals.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.