Whether you are writing for school or for work or for leisure, you will face constant decisions about paragraph lengths. How many sentences are in a paragraph? Should paragraphs be one sentence long or eight sentences? Should they be 50 words long, or 500 words long?
If you are asking yourself these questions, you are thinking like a writer! Writers care about paragraph length because paragraphs are crucial to how readers will understand your work. Think about a time that you read a really dense book and came across a paragraph that took up most of the page. It may have made the paragraph more difficult to understand. But when written with skill, a long paragraph can also effectively convey a stream of consciousness – as in William Faulkner’s 1,288-word whopper of a paragraph from Absalom, Absalom!
Now think of a time when you read a book with a series of short paragraphs, maybe just 1-2 sentences. Sometimes short paragraphs can be more effective at conveying a sense of building suspense.
When you hit the sweet spot of paragraph length, you can transform the reader’s experience. Bite-size paragraphs of just the right length can make your writing un-putdownable. As a reader, you think, “Just one more paragraph!” and before you know it you have finished a chapter – or three.
How to Write a Paragraph People Want to Read
Here are some tips for thinking about paragraph length in your next essay, story, or novel. There is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to deciding how many sentences or words a paragraph should contain, but the following guidelines will empower you to make bold and well-reasoned choices.
How can I make a paragraph stronger?
You may have heard the advice that you should aim for one idea per paragraph. This may sound easier said than done! How do you know what counts as a single idea? How do you decide where to stop one paragraph and start the next one?
Deciding how to structure your paragraphs is a process that will take lots of trial and error. This is why editing and re-editing your writing is crucial for getting the paragraph lengths exactly right.
How do I edit my paragraphs?
When you are writing a first draft, focus on getting your ideas out on paper. In your first draft, it is quite natural to have paragraphs that touch on several different ideas, images, and actions that may not seem connected to one another. That’s OK! Just remember that your organization will change significantly as you edit. When you edit your work, you will see how you make each paragraph clearer and stronger by focusing on a single idea. You may decide that a single 500-word paragraph works better as two 250-word paragraphs. Or you may decide that a single-sentence paragraph needs to be expanded with more description or analysis.
What should go in a paragraph?
Different genres of writing often come with different conventions about how long a paragraph should be, as well as what elements a paragraph should include.
If you are writing a persuasive essay, then you may have heard the rule of thumb that a paragraph should contain a topic sentence, 2-3 sentences of analysis expanding on the idea, and a concluding sentence. You may average 100-120 words, or 5-6 sentences, per paragraph. But what is a topic sentence, and why does it matter?
What is a topic sentence?
A topic sentence is like a thesis for the paragraph. It offers a preview of the ideas that will be developed further in that paragraph. It also acts as connective tissue between the ideas that came in the previous paragraph. A topic sentence is therefore a key element in many forms of persuasive writing. (Note: Can you see how this paragraph enacts the purpose of a topic sentence?)
If you are writing a narrative work, you probably do not need declarative topic sentences that are intended to persuade. But paragraph breaks are no less important in narrative works. You may use a new paragraph to introduce a new image, action, event, idea, or character perspective.
Ask yourself: Are you writing a persuasive work or a narrative work, or a mix of both? Are you writing fiction, nonfiction, or something else entirely? Remember that context and audience are everything!
How do I vary paragraph length?
Good writers know how to vary their paragraph lengths for maximum impact. You will want a mix of longer paragraphs (6-8 sentences and above; 150-200 words and above) and shorter paragraphs (50 words and under).
Why a mix? Remember that a series of long paragraphs can visually turn off a reader, especially if the paragraphs are not well-organized (see above: Aim for one idea per paragraph). Short paragraphs – of a single sentence, or even a single word – can build suspense. If you overuse them, however, they lose their impact.
You should always aim to understand genre conventions about paragraph length, so that you can best experiment with them. A few genres of writing may require that your paragraphs remain more or less the same length throughout (this is true of some academic writing, for instance). In general, though, you should feel free to experiment with long and short paragraphs in your writing. Just remember that less is more. Think about whether that paragraph really needs to be 500 words long or if it can be broken up into smaller chunks. Think about whether you really need five consecutive 2-sentence paragraphs, or whether the punchy paragraph is best used sparingly.
How do I choose the right paragraph length?
Your decisions about varying paragraph length will ultimately depend on the length of the piece as a whole. Think about whether you are writing a 1000-word blog post or a 70,000-word novel.
If you are writing a 1000-word piece, then your longest paragraph may not be more than 3-4 sentences long, and your longest and your shortest paragraphs may not be so different in length. On the other hand, if you are writing a book-length work, you may vary your paragraph lengths much more within a chapter and throughout the work.
You may also be thinking about how your writing will be read. Longer paragraphs may be harder to read on a website, whereas shorter paragraphs may not have the visual impact you desire if your work is printed in narrow columns, say, in a newspaper.
What are the rules about paragraph length?
You may realize by now that there are few steadfast rules when it comes to paragraph length. However, this section will help you navigate some common situations:
Do I need to start a quotation in a new paragraph?
Yes. You should always start a new paragraph when introducing a quotation, even if the previous paragraph is only a sentence long.
Do I need to start a new paragraph after a quotation?
Yes. After a quotation, you should start a new paragraph again.
Do I need to start a new paragraph after a bullet point list?
Not necessarily. Usually, you should resume the paragraph on a new line, but you do not need to start a new paragraph.
Can I start a new paragraph with an indent? Can I start a new paragraph using a line break?
Yes and yes! You can start a new paragraph either with an indent (using the “Tab” key on most computers) or with a line break (by pressing “Enter” twice). Just choose one, though – you do not need an indent and a line break. Your teacher, editor, or boss may have specific conventions in mind, and it is best to ask them.
Paragraph Length: Final Thoughts
Paragraph construction is an art, not a science. The guidelines above will help you hone your instincts and your critical skills. As with anything related to writing, however, there is no substitute for practice! So try it out, and see what works for you.