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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.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #447

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 minuscule 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 (“Protesters Occupy Bangkok’s Central Business District”) and immediately found a one-sentence paragraph between longer paragraphs (“We will fight until we win,” he said), which appeared to be set apart for emphasis or spacing since it was a continuation of comments from the same speaker in the previous paragraph. 

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 e-mail, “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 recently finished, 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.

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