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Posted, Feb. 2, 2005
Updated, Feb. 2, 2005


QuickLink: A77213

Writing Tool #42: Paragraphs
Go short or long, depending upon your purpose.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Vary the length of paragraphs.

In a book review, critic David Lipsky tears into an author for including, in a book of 207 pages, "more than 400 single-sentence paragraphs -- a well-established distress signal, recognized by book readers and term-paper graders alike."

But a distress signal for what? The answer is most likely: confusion. The big parts of a story should fit together, but the small parts need some stick as well. When the big parts fit, we call that good feeling "coherence"; when sentences connect, we call it "cohesion."

"The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length," argues British grammarian H.W. Fowler. That implies that all sentences in a paragraph should be about the same thing and move in a sequence. It also means that writers can break up long, long paragraphs into parts. They should not, however, create confusion by pasting together paragraphs that are short and disconnected.

Is there, then, an ideal length for a paragraph?

Let's look at an example. Sports reporter Joanne Korth wrote this summary lead about a dramatic football game decided in overtime:

The rookie quarterback played like a rookie. The beloved running back fumbled the ball away. And the top-seeded Steelers nearly suffered another gut-wrenching home playoff loss.

Nearly.

So can a single word be a paragraph? An adverb, no less?

I found the answers in "Modern English Usage," the irreplaceable dictionary compiled by Fowler in 1926. With typical common sense he begins by telling us what the paragraph is for:

The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: 'Have you got that? If so, I'll go on to the next point.'

But how much rest does a reader need? Does it depend upon subject matter? Genre or medium? The voice of the author? "There can be no general rule about the most suitable length for a paragraph," writes Fowler, "A succession of very short ones is as irritating as very long ones are wearisome."

In a long paragraph, the writer can develop an argument or build part of a narrative using lots of related examples. In "Ex Libris" by Anne Fadiman, the typical paragraph is more than a hundred words long, with some longer than a full book page. Such length gives Fadiman the space to develop interesting, quirky ideas:

When I read about food, sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a chain reaction of associative memories. I am like the shoe fetishist who, in order to become aroused, no longer needs to see the object of his desire; merely glimpsing the phrase "spectator pump, size 6 1/2" is sufficient. Whenever I encounter the French word plein, which means "full," I am instantly transported back to age 15, when, after eating a very large portion of poulet à l'estragon, I told my Parisian hosts that I was "pleine," an adjective that I later learned is reserved for pregnant women and cows in need of milking. The word ptarmigan catapults me back 10 years to an expedition I accompanied to the Canadian Arctic, during which a polar-bear biologist, tired of canned beans, shot a half dozen ptarmigans. We plucked them, fried them, and gnawed the bones with such ravening carnivorism that I knew on the spot I could never, ever become a vegetarian. Sometimes just the contiguous letters pt are enough to call up in me a nostalgic rush of guilt and greed. I may thus be the only person in the world who salivates when she reads the words "ptomaine poisoning."

The writer can use the short paragraph, especially after a long one, to bring the reader to a sudden, dramatic stop. Consider this passage from Jim Dwyer, in which a group of men struggle to escape from a stalled elevator in the World Trade Center, using only a window-washer's squeegee as a tool.

They did not know their lives would depend on a simple tool.

After 10 minutes, a live voice delivered a blunt message over the intercom. There had been an explosion. Then the intercom went silent. Smoke seeped into the elevator cabin. One man cursed skyscrapers. Mr. Phoenix, the tallest, a Port Authority engineer, poked for a ceiling hatch. Others pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden handle of Mr. Demczur's squeegee.

There was no exit.

This technique -- a four-word paragraph after one of 64-words -- can be abused with overuse. To surprise, it packs a strong punch. Here's another example from David Brooks in The New York Times:

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book about the power of first impressions, and every review, including this one, is going to begin with the reviewer's first impression of the book.

Mine was: Boffo.

Writers and editors adjust paragraph length to conform to column width. Book authors write longer paragraphs without having to give the reader a rest. But a book paragraph cemented into a newspaper column creates a tombstone of gray type. On the flipside, a series of telegraphic newspaper paragraphs, transplanted into a book, seems snowed in by white space.

"Paragraphing is also a matter of the eye," writes Fowler. "A reader will address himself more readily to his task if he sees from the start that he will have breathing-spaces from time to time than if what is before him looks like a marathon course."

Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workbench:

1. Read the paragraph above by Anne Fadiman, which contains 202 words. Could you, if necessary, divide it into two or three paragraphs? Discuss your choices with a friend.

2. Check some examples of your recent work. Look for strings of long paragraphs or short ones. Can you take some of the long paragraphs and break them into smaller units? Are the one-sentence paragraphs related enough so they can be joined?

3. In your reading of journalism and literature, pay attention to paragraph length. Look for paragraphs that are either very long or very short. Imagine the author's purpose in each case.

4. In your reading, pay attention to the ventilating effects of white space, especially surrounding the ends of paragraphs. Does the writer use that location as a point of emphasis?


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