Whenever I tried to help my daughter with papers she was assigned in college, she always felt uncomfortable with my tendency for shorter paragraphs. I usually compromised with her, but with a reminder: In English class we’re subjected to rules that don’t always translate to writing for publication.
Writing Tip for Today: Is there an ideal paragraph length? Here are a few writing-for-publication tips:
Like with Like
Most of the ideas around narrative paragraph length center on limiting a paragraph to sentences that expound on the first or topic sentence. Writers are to keep “like with like,” that is, we don’t switch topics or just randomly start writing about something other than the paragraph’s topic. If we do, it’s wise to begin a new paragraph for a new topic.
If we write, “She wasn’t going to let her daughter down like last year, when on Christmas morning, she’d had to endure the disappointed look on six-year-old Dena’s face. The Cutsey Wootsey doll was all the rage, and just because she hated Black Friday shopping, she failed to bring home Dena’s most wished-for gift. Unlike last summer, when Dena’s birthday involved presents piled on the dining table, and shopping at Target was a breeze. In August, Dena had asked for a Macaroni Pony—a much less expensive prize. Target’s shelves overflowed with ponies in every shape and color. She hoped Dena would remember the thrill of a hot must-have toy like Macaroni Pony, but these days, every other word from her child’s mouth was Cutsey.”
In the paragraph above, we could say that the entire bit is about Dena’s wants and the pressure on parents to provide those wants. Yet if we break the paragraph at “Unlike last summer,” we give readers a definite time/place and some white space to liven the page.
In old novels—even some from late twentieth-century—paragraphs tended to be longer. But back then, reading wasn’t competing with a digital world. Keeping your paragraphs shorter helps readers focus. Our twenty-first century eyes covet smaller bits of reading surrounded by white space. While some may bemoan readers’ shorter attention spans, if you want to compete for those attention spans, be aware of your average paragraph lengths. Be willing to break up longer paragraphs, especially when the topic shifts some. I think three or five sentences is a nice number to keep readers reading your paragraphs. Large blocks of text seem to make today’s readers’ eyes glaze over.
Get Dialogue Down
Paragraph confusion seems to be more prevalent around dialogue. Every new speaker gets a new paragraph. If you add a sentence or more of narrative, description or action, you’ll probably want to keep those paragraphs shorter even when longer would be technically grammatically correct. Examine a page of mostly dialogue (a good example can be found at the start of Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven) and then look at a page of dense narration. Which is your eye drawn to? As long as readers understand who is speaking and when and where they are, white space is one good way to keep your readers interested and turning pages.