Should You Be Writing Shorter Paragraphs?

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There’s so much to think about when you’re writing – and the exact place you break your paragraphs might seem pretty insignificant. After all, the words are what matters, right?

Well … mostly. But the way you use paragraphs gives your work meaning and effect.

In school, you may well have learnt that each paragraph should explain one idea or point, and that a paragraph should consist of several sentences. That’s a good rule of thumb for academic writing. In less formal fiction and non-fiction, though, paragraphs are often much shorter.

I’m going to run through a couple of great reasons to use short paragraphs: readability and dramatic effect.

#1: Short Paragraphs for Readability (Especially Online)

Shorter paragraphs make it easier for your reader to take in your words – so you’ll find lots of blogs making use of them.

Copyblogger almost always has short, snappy paragraphs, even from their guest posters:

Every writer has a certain time of day that allows for peak creativity.

Some writers love that first cup of Joe in the early morning when everything is quiet and they can focus. Others love late nights when their body is a little tired, but not too tired.

You have a hot-spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it.

Notice when you are most productive and creative throughout the day. Don’t “try” to make time during this period, make time.

(From 6 Ways to Supercharge Your Writing by Karl Staib on Copyblogger)

This is how that passage would look if Karl ran the sentences together into two paragraphs (I’d say that each of these deal with a single idea, though you might disagree):

Every writer has a certain time of day that allows for peak creativity. Some writers love that first cup of Joe in the early morning when everything is quiet and they can focus. Others love late nights when their body is a little tired, but not too tired.

You have a hot-spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it. Notice when you are most productive and creative throughout the day. Don’t “try” to make time during this period, make time.

What difference does that make? How does it “feel” to you to look at the two-paragraph version instead of the four-paragraph version?

I find my eyes getting a bit lost in the packed sentences of the second version, and it’s harder to see the key point, “You have a hot spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it.”

#2: Short Paragraphs for Dramatic Effect

In both fiction and non-fiction, short paragraphs can be used for dramatic effect.

Here’s an example – it’s from a non-fiction piece, but if you didn’t know the context, it could equally well be fiction.

Halfway through class, after practicing numerous holds and releases, we ground fight in partners. I hold back, unaware both of my strength and where my limbs are. Eventually, our instructor, an nth degree blackbelt who competed for Canada at the Olympics, invites me to ground fight.

I’m no longer hesitant; I can’t hurt him.

I wriggle out of holds, attack, writhe, wrestle.

I sweat. Grunt.

I’m not pretty.

And I don’t care.

(Leanne Shirtliffe, On Being a Farm Girl and a Younger Sister, on Ironic Mom)

Two of the paragraphs here are just three words long. They’re punchy and powerful, and they give us a sense of the fast-moving fight that’s taking place. The first paragraph of this section is much longer, and has complex sentences with several clauses.

How would the emphasis change if Leanne had written the piece like this?

Halfway through class, after practicing numerous holds and releases, we ground fight in partners.

I hold back, unaware both of my strength and where my limbs are.

Eventually, our instructor, an nth degree blackbelt who competed for Canada at the Olympics, invites me to ground fight.

I’m no longer hesitant; I can’t hurt him. I wriggle out of holds, attack, writhe, wrestle. I sweat. Grunt. I’m not pretty. And I don’t care.

The focus now (to me, at least) seems to be on the thought process going on initially – the ground fighting with partners, and Leanne’s hesitation.

The “punch” of the story gets lost in the final paragraph, which comes across as rather breathless now that the sentences have all been jammed up together.

Can You Go Too Far with Short Paragraphs?

Yes.

😉

A whole post of one-line paragraphs, or a whole scene in a novel that consists of snappy dialogue, is going to become irritating to read.

Here’s an example of a post that uses short paragraphs effectively.

Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves – but it is the most necessary question in professional writing.

And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.

Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice: write. Just write. Keep writing.

I know. I give that advice myself.

(Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally? Taylor Lindstrom, on Men with Pens)

And here’s what it would look like if Taylor had gone a bit too far:

Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves.

But it is the most necessary question in professional writing.

And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.

Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice:

Write.

Just write.

Keep writing.

I know.

I give that advice myself.

 

As you can see, to shorten the first paragraph, I had to break it into two sentences – and it doesn’t quite work.

“Write. Just Write. Keep writing.” works okay as three separate paragraphs, but given that this isn’t a core part of Taylor’s point, dividing it up gives it too much focus.

The final two paragraphs don’t really work when they’re split up. “I know” is suddenly orphaned from its context. The whole piece feels choppy.

 

Over to You

So … your turn to play with paragraphs.

Take a piece of your own writing, and copy it into a new document. Try splitting the paragraphs at different points. What effect do you get if you break one paragraph into five? What happens if you merge three paragraphs into one?

If you’d like to take this further, consider how paragraphs work as part of your unique voice and style. Some writers use a lot of short, snappy paragraphs; others write much longer paragraphs that take time to fully explore a particular idea. Which would suit you?

 

Update: I’ve now written a follow-up to this post, Should You Be Writing Shorter Sentences? 

 

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44 thoughts on “Should You Be Writing Shorter Paragraphs?

  1. Ali, “back in the day” when my high school English teacher (whom I was blessed to have – the same outstanding one – all four years of high school) would talk about Paragraphs, with such wisdom as keeping “on topic,” putting the most important sentence first (unless we wanted to build suspense), and “Always indent. Always indent” to start a paragraph —

    I was surreptitously (put that one in a spelling bee) writing my nightly diary entries in a “stream of consciousness” (thank you, James Joyce) style with no indentions, no thought to sentence order. I rather like the result which I have been recording in my blog (first daily, now nightly) 50 years to the night after I wrote them, beginning with my January 1, 1960 (January 1, 2010) entry. The current name of my blog is A Summer of 1961 Diary.

    • Wow … that’s an impressive diary! I’m not a huge fan of stream-of-consciousness (had too much Joyce and Woolf at uni!) myself, but it works for a lot of people, and it’s definitely a great way to get into a piece of writing.

  2. Ali, I’m a strong proponent of shorter paragraphs in just about all writing. As you point out, it’s especially important online and in e-books and other documents people read on computer screens.

    I read lots of college textbooks in my work as a freelance writer, and I really wish those textbooks had shorter paragraphs. Some run on for several hundred words.
    John Soares’s last blog post ..Freelance Writer’s Guide to Landing and Scheduling an Interview with a VIP

    • It seems that textbook/academic writers sometimes think that long paragraphs and complicated words make them sound more intelligent … rather than just less intelligible!

        • Good point about the difference; I suppose I was thinking about academic in the sense of writing aimed at undergraduates (so, not necessarily research in journals).

          It’s interesting that textbook writers continue to use long paragraphs in a competitive market, though; I wonder why? Perhaps it’s just seen as “the way it’s done”…

  3. Ali, I recently attended a legal seminar in which there was a presentation on legal writing in the digital age. The speaker referred to a study that tracked the eye path of people as they read on a computer screen. The finding was that readers in the digital age now read differently than they used to. Their eyes scan down the left side of the page and ignore most of the content on the right hand side especially as they read farther down the page. So your suggestion about short paragraphs fits perfectly with this new way of reading. Apparently this reading style is the result of Google searches where people scan the page to find a quick hit that answers their query. So the short para deal isn’t just a matter of comfort and ease, it is also the way the Internet has modified the brain in regard to reading.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks, Stephen — that’s interesting to hear. I’ve read a few articles about how we read online, but nothing that addressed left-side skimming specifically.

  4. Thanks a lot for the post! As often, I find myself agreeing with most of your points.

    I’m currently writing a piece of what I dare to call experimental fiction, and part of my experimentations involve using different rules for formatting (there are whole paragraphs in italics, for instance). Paragraphing definitely gets its share of Frankensteining – you could say I’m trying to find this fiction’s writing voice!

    Cheers!

    • Good luck finding your voice, Kalista! Experimentation is a great idea, especially in (what I’m assuming is) shorter fiction.

        • Kalista, I think everyone who is writing these days is experimenting with style and word count re eBooks. I have been following a lot of blogs, etc., on this topic and must say that I don’t see any consensus yet. My personal view is that style and word count should be separated, i.e., you can write shorter paras, but don’t have to truncate the word count. I buy a lot of books for ereaders and feel cheated if I download one that purports to be a novel, if it comes in under 60,000 to 70,000 words. That word count has been a standard for many years and I think readers expect a novel or a narrative non-fiction work to hit that mark otherwise they create the impression that the writer was more interested in finishing a story with the fewest words possible instead of filling out the plot and characters. But that’s just me talking. And I’m just an old fat lawyer from the sticks.

          • I’d say 50,000 words is a novella (and actually, I take novellas for ebook-publication in my side-biz, http://www.espressobooks.com … we keep them cheap, though, and make the length clear when marketing them). Like you, I feel cheated if I buy a book for the Kindle and it turns out to be a 40,000 word “novel”.

            Kalista — depending on how experimental your writing is, 50K words could work just fine! Especially if the characterisation is strong (sounds like it is :-)). I personally feel that some very unusual styles simply don’t work in longer pieces, though — e.g. writing in the second person. (And don’t get me started on James Joyce ;-))

            • Ali, I agree about the novellas. The only thing that bothers me in the current eBook climate is that sometimes the reader doesn’t know what he is getting when he purchases a book until it is delivered and it turns out to be less than he thought it would be. I think it will help everyone’s chances in the marketplace if there is full disclosure about the length of a work upfront. I only say this because I recently purchased a $2.99 eBook about ePublishing, etc., only to find that it was about 20 pages long on my Kindle and was very thin on substance. That makes me suspicious about future purchases.

              Thanks for all of your insight.

              • Stephen (1st comment) > I totally agree with the “doesn’t mean you have to truncate the word count” part. Word count isn’t bound by or even to style. Doesn’t mean every word count will necessarily work with every style, but there aren’t any hard rules (as always when talking about writing).
                In my case, I’m aiming at 50k (for now, at least – I reserve the right to expand if need be) because I’m a relatively slow writer (I’m barely above 3k right now for my current project ^^”) who tries to better her “style efficiency”. Basically, using fewer words to tell more, through suggestion. I don’t feel that’s comparable to laziness. Rather, it’s an actual goal. I do intend to be pretty clear about my word count when it’ll come to selling, though.
                Then again, I am not completely alone with my text. I intend to illustrate a little (art student ftw!). I have no idea how many illustrations I’ll produce (if I do, that is – I’m susceptible to change), but I intend to try, and to make it so that pictures aren’t just here as a bonus, but an integral part of the narrative (you won’t understand *everything* from just the text, you’ll need to look at the pictures too if you want a really complete grasp of what is being said – probably adding value to re-reading too. The ultimate goal is to make these illustration’s important nonobvious – to make these full-of-clues pictures look like they’re just ordinary illustrations. I’m aiming for Fridge Brilliance – probably a pretentious aim, but I’m okay with feeling that way for now).
                Basically, I wanna be able to say “I’m not “just writing” or “just drawing”, I’m doing something much greater than that”.

                Ali > Espressobooks… That might interest me once I’m done with writing. I intentionally choose English over French (my native language) to make my texts easier to publish, but I never realized there were actual e-book publishing businesses, and this could make things even easier than planned for me…
                I think I’ll try to send you guys something at some point.
                I don’t feel length is that relevant in my writing process. At least, it isn’t yet. I have a rough outline of my plot, I write to advance it, but the word count I aim at is more of a personal challenge than an actual marketing / size decision. Could very well end up with a 70k-long novel 😛
                My only rule regarding length for this text is that once I get bored with a scene (and I mean bored, not just blocked by a lack of inspiration), I stop lengthening it. I can still edit it, but usually, I won’t add much (perhaps just a few lines for stylistic effects, but that’s usually it). That’s actually one of these experimental features I talked about.
                The good thing about this rule is that it creates an enigmatic, puzzling narration – you’re never completely sure what happened between two scenes. Did they kiss? Your call. It’s also useful to generate mind screw, and to keep the reader guessing. I think.
                James Joyce… Don’t know this name yet. Guess I’ll have to try it :).

                Stephen (2nd comment) > I’ve never bought eBooks before, but I get your point and I do agree. I’d actually find it pretty offensive to sell a book without telling its size (after all, you do know how big a paper print is before buying it).

  5. Interesting idea to play around with the same passage and different paragraph links. I do make use of short paragraphs for my blog posts and flash fiction. In fiction, the short paragraph can definitely increase tension or highlight something. I’ve probably gone overboard a few times though. I get excited about the shorter paragraphs. I’ll have to keep the balance in mind.
    Sonia G Medeiros’s last blog post ..Moon Dance (a 500-word story)

    • It can be tough to find a balance. Often, I skim through a post after writing it and either merge or break up paragraphs where I feel that the balance is off…

  6. The power of paragraphing is amazing. It’s so important that Rennie Browne & Dave King spend a whole chapter on it in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (I recently read this entire book in less than 36 hours. I highly recommend it).

    Browne & King say that long paragraphs can make a reader feel lectured to, whereas white space is visually inviting, and the examples you’ve given above prove their point perfectly.

    Thanks for another great post, Ali.
    Cally Jackson’s last blog post ..Ian Wynne in the HOT SEAT

    • Thanks Cally — and thank you for the book recommendation, too; I’ll definitely check it out.

      I agree that white space is visually inviting (I’m the sort of reader who flips through books in the store, looking for a fair percentage of dialogue)!

    • Some people’s style (and way of thinking) suits longer paragraphs and more exploratory text; I think that’s fine! But it’s often worth seeing whether things can be split up a little more for online purposes (you might get away with longer paragraphs in, say, an ebook).

  7. Thanks Ali – we don’t realize how much the stuff we love to read is made up of small paragraphs. Being aware as I’m writing is the trick to condensing thoughts and keeping my paragraphs smaller. and why the editing process is so important.

  8. Thanks, Ali! This post made me review my writing style =). I’m actually quite fond of using long paragraphs because that’s what I have gotten used to, based on conventional ways of writing. Online writing has dramatically changed the writing styles that were taught in school, it’s like getting away from those stiff handbooks. I did try breaking the paragraphs from one of my articles and I enjoyed it a lot! It’s like giving the article a new tone and emphasis. I liked the results, readability and dramatic effect =). I’m going to use this style in more of my articles.

    • Glad to help — and glad that you tried this out for yourself! I agree that (good) online writing is very very different from what we were often taught in school. (Actually, some of what I was taught in school has turned out to be just plain wrong in almost every context!)

  9. hey Ali
    thanks for the great post 🙂
    i now write short paragraphs and i noticed that readability improved a lot
    the longest paragraph i write is about 4-5 lines but most of them are between 3 and 4 lines

  10. I actually became obsessed with Direct-Response Copywriting and sales letters online before non-fiction and fiction and have been writing short snappy sentences and paragraphs ever since. It’s definitely easier to read on a computer screen. Maybe that’s why I find it tough to read books digitally as PDF’s at home or on my Iphone.

    If I’m reading long descriptive paragraphs I’d rather read them in a printed book. I once bought a printed book by Internet Maketing Guru Mark Joyner called ‘The Irresistible Offer’ by Mark Joyner, this entire book was writing in short snappy sentences. Have I read it? No. the short sentences and lack of paragraphs turned me off to the material.

    I believe you can say a lot without writing long winded paragraphs. I like short paragraphs. I’ve read things where people haven’t broke the writing into short paragraphs, it’s annoying, but I can also appreciate a long paragraph if it’s well written.
    Zac’s last blog post ..A New Direction For Turning Point Motivation Blog, Plus Bonus Preview Links!

    • Too many short paragraphs/sentences can be a real pain. For me, it’s about finding a balance — using both short and long paragraphs effectively (but with a bit of a trend towards shorter!)

  11. This is very funny!
    Before coming to your blog, I read and commented on a guest article you posted on ProBlogger.net, “Six Ways to Get Feedback On Your Posts and Pages (And Why You Need To).”
    While I was writing my comment for that post my blogging buddy commented that I needed to write shorter paragraphs.
    It feels like I am being ganged up on.
    Namaste,
    Tim Stanforth
    PS Both articles are fantastic and can be applied practically. It did not escape my notice how many comments you are showing for each.
    Tim Stanforth’s last blog post ..Ewen Chia’s Internet Marketer – Review

    • Hehe! Sorry to make you feel ganged up on 😉 Glad you enjoyed the articles, though! And good luck with those shorter paragraphs…

  12. Shorter paragraphs are agreat idea.

    They emphasise.

    They’re easier to read.

    But if there are too many, the readers can get irritated by them. So I think the most important point you make; and you make it very well; is that short paragraphs are perfect when they are used by design. Because they can elevate the words used to new and better meanings.

    OK?

    Good.
    Christopher Wills’s last blog post ..Scene Design using Mind Maps 3 – Types of Scene

  13. I personally find this really annoying. When I’m reading an article that has a new paragraph for just about every sentence, I get distracted with “goddamnit lay off the return key FFS! That was only one sentence!” I’m probably a bit young to still expect justified text with little whitespace, but it’s very much what I’m used to from newspapers and novels.

  14. Also, I find that a lack of cohesive sentences makes it more likely that I’ll just stop reading and do something else. *read one sentence* look, I finished a paragraph! *click to other tab in browser* *return half hour later* *repeat*

    • I guess, in the end, it comes down to personal preference! I agree that lots of one-sentence paragraphs are distracting and irritating … but huge blocks of grey text are equally off-putting, for me.

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