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Simplify and Clarify: The Beauty of the Paragraph

Can you imagine reading without paragraphs?  It’s impossible isn’t it, and painful to think about the effort we’d have to put in to try and extract the meaning.  Paragraph breaks are there to help the reader work out what’s going on, signposts that help us navigate the text.  It’s important to bear that in mind when you think about how long (or short) your paragraphs should be.

The paragraph from the point of view of grammar is a group of sentences on the same topic.  The ‘Really Simple Grammar Essentials’ tells us that

a paragraph is simply a sequence of sentences with a common theme that runs through the whole passage.  When deciding where to stop and start your paragraphs, the rule is simple: just start a new paragraph for each new point.

So far, so good.  The only problem is you need to be a pretty skillful or compelling writer to get away with either a very short paragraph (one sentence) to make a point  or to keep your readers’ attention through a very long paragraph.

That brings us back to another point of the paragraph.  Paragraphs are a way of breaking up the text - so there’s a visual impact as well as grammatical meaning.  ‘How Not to Write’ offers a rule of thumb of five to six sentences to a paragraph, together with a visual guide:

There’s nothing more intimidating to readers than great slabs of unbroken text.  Make sure your paragraphs are always wider than they are deep.

Bear in mind too that the visual impact will vary according to the medium you’re writing for.  If you’re writing on-line, your paragraphs will need be shorter.  (There’s a useful post on this at Business Writing: Write Today, including a link to recent research on eye tracking patterns when we read on-line.)

If you’re an auditory or kinaesthetic person you might try thinking about the sound, the pattern, and rhythm of the paragraph, or the feel of it in your hand.  Edward Gibbon (18th century historian) reckoned that:

It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.

(I don’t know many people that can construct a paragraph without writing it, but you’ll get the idea.)

The last word goes to Mark Twain who gives us the idea of the paragraph as a container that we need to compress our ideas and words into.  Get it right and your paragraphs will glitter.  Yet another reminder of the value of being concise…

Anybody can have ideas-the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.

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  1. Manage Your Writing says:

    The purpose of paragraphing

    Joanna Young, at Confident Writing, has posted a good inventory of the purposes of paragraphs-and tactics for making paragraphs more effective. I can do nothing better than just say, Check it out.

  2. David Bowman says:

    Our rule: one paragraph = one idea. The paragraph is the basic unit for expressing an idea.

  3. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Hi David, just wondering what you thought about the auditory, kinaesthetic and visual dimensions too?


  4. Matt Hayward says:

    Oooh! I love this post.

    And yeah, I feel that you got everything pretty much to a ‘T.’ Including the kinaesthetic and visual elements.

    Working a lot, in my roleplaying, with younger people, I feel that this article, now added to my ‘Quick Reference’ bookmarks folder, will be a useful tool when helping them improve. Which is something I try to help the younger generation of writers to do on a regular basis, and with some passion.

    Thank you.

  5. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Matt, I’m glad you found it useful, and thanks for reminding me of it. Rereading it I was stuck in particular by the auditory elements. Maybe that’s because I’m interested in the sound of words (in our own heads) just now. Just another of my little pursuits…