On Writing: Paragraph Length

When I was in school, a long time ago, I hated to write the dreaded five paragraph theme in English class. Not that I was not a good writer, it was the constraint. Five paragraphs. Each paragraph had to have a minimum of three sentences. It was so formulaic and boring. 

Today I was reading a novel on a ereader, which is more and more common in our digital world. I have a Kindle, which has a fairly small screen and also I read Kindle books on an Ipad, which gives me a bigger screen size. Because the screen size is much smaller than the typical paperback book, the 9 inch by 6 inch favored by publishers, there are many more 'pages' on your reading device than in a hand held book. 

With this in mind, I was reading a book which had really, really long paragraphs. Some were more than fifteen sentences. Now, I'm not passing judgment on the writing. The point is not to assess the quality of the prose but how I interacted with the words on the pages. What I saw on my Kindle was a solid wall of words. No breaks, no white space, just line after line. 

I plowed ahead and read it, but it made me pause and think, not so much about the quality of the writing but the quality of my reading experience. I love to read, I'll read almost anything. Most of the books I own are non-fiction. I love big words, bold concepts, tricky text; I just don't love long paragraphs. And I think most readers would agree with me. 

I queried a group of authors on Twitter and their response was overwhelming. Short paragraphs work best. Of course, each line of dialogue, by a separate person is its own paragraph. But the average number of sentences in prose, most authors agreed, was 5-6. Your paragraphs should definitely be less than 10 sentences. 

Did you know that a single sentence can be a paragraph? 

Bloggers and web writers understand this more than anyone. To capture and hold the attention of web-surfers your writing has to be tight, concise and broken into bite size easy to digest chunks. People are busy and highly distracted, they want to consume on the go; in a car on the bus, at dinner! When faced with a wall of endless sentences, they are gonna pass on your page and look for a more palatable website. 

Today's writer needs to take all this into consideration. This doesn't mean you need to dumb down your writing, it just means you need to consider the reader and the possibility that they might be reading your novel on their cell phone with a tiny screen. We, as writers, want the reader to dive into our story, get lost in our prose, not groan at what appears to be an endless stream of words. 


Popular Posts