Editing Quick Hit: How Many Sentences to a Paragraph?

What I tell you next is going to make some English teachers hate me, but it will make you a better writer, so I’m willing to risk it: You’re doing paragraphs wrong.

In third grade, you were probably taught that a paragraph was required to be three to five sentences long. If your paragraphs were NOT sufficiently long–or, heaven forbid!–were longer than five sentences, no smiley face stamp for you!

And then the internet came along and writers started chucking paragraphs right out the window. In fact, it’s practically blogging 101: keep it short, stupid. (Even me! Look at all these paragraphs! So short!)

Between these two influences, some writers have given up on having paragraphs at all, cleaving to just one or two sentences jammed together.

And it’s deplorable.

Look, blogging is one thing, but a blog is not a book, nor should it be (if I can get the exact same information out of reading one blog that I can get out of reading your whole multi-chapter book, the world doesn’t need your book).

Paragraphs are there to help the reader decipher your text. The line breaks make it easier to read. (Ease of reading is exactly why bloggers are told to keep it short. The sans-serif typeface used on most internet sites is a bit harder to read when grouped together, plus you’ve got the backlighting on the screen adding strain, too.)

But paragraphs are also a tool used to show what parts go together.

Let me give an example, with every sentence given its own line:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers.

Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors.

He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm.

His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on.

But he could have been paying more attention.

While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

That kind of reads like a poem, doesn’t it? Which is great, if that’s what you’re going for. But if you’re writing prose, it is more commonly formatted like this:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers. Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors. He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm. His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on. But he could have been paying more attention. While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

A punchy little narrative, perhaps a fable, in six sentences.  But there are other ways to format it, too, which may be even more powerful:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers. Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors. He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm. His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on. But he could have been paying more attention.

While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

The separation between the paragraph and the surprise ending in the last line gives the reader a moment of pause, and can heighten the zing.

So–how long should your paragraphs be?

As long as they need to be.

I know, radical! Throw out the rulebooks and use your well-honed subjective judgement–but be prepared to defend your reasoning if someone challenges you. Why do you want it that way? If you don’t know, or are falling back on old rules, you may want to rethink your formatting.

**Special note: In my opinion, you get less opportunity to be loosey-goosey about paragraphs when it’s in dialogue, but I think the misunderstanding comes from the same place. Here’s the rule for dialogue: If it is all being spoken at once, by the same speaker, 9/10 you need it to be all in the same paragraph. If someone is giving a speech, it’s perfectly fine to create a big ol’ text wall. Breaking it into chunks, particularly in a back-and-forth conversation, can create gads of confusion for the reader.

(If you really want to break it into chunks, the natural place would be whenever commentary is added, such as “he shuffled his feet awkwardly” or “she giggled” or “The cat did not care an ounce for the story, but tolerated it nonetheless.” In other words, stuff that’s related to the dialogue but isn’t actually being said aloud.)

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Editing

2 responses to “Editing Quick Hit: How Many Sentences to a Paragraph?

  1. I taught English for a while there and just want to say, this is exactly what I taught my kids (or tried to at least), as that is also what I was taught (or picked up through constant reading, but I was blessed to have a long line of excellent language teachers throughout my school career, so I’m glad to give them the credit). The five-sentence rule works well for people who are only just starting to learn to write longer texts, but gosh darn-it, at some point one has to realise it’s actually possible to play around with language, and that means seeing the rules more as guidelines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s