There are plenty of opinions out there regarding the ideal length of a paragraph. You might have heard suggestions like 5 sentences, 200 words, or some other measure.
While your fifth grade Language Arts teacher surely had good intentions, in the real world, it’s actually quite rare to find paragraphs that perfectly match the topic sentence-three supporting statements-conclusion model.
The truth is, paragraphs can finish once they’ve done their job. That is, once they’ve satisfactorily developed the idea they introduced.
How Many Sentences Is a Paragraph?
It is possible, however, for a paragraph to be too long or too short. You don’t want to pack an essay’s worth of information into a single paragraph; rather, each paragraph should focus on a concise idea, following that thought from start to finish, but closing before it bleeds into something else.
That being said, while there aren’t specific rules regarding how long or short a paragraph must be, there are some general guidelines to consider for various types of writing.
In general, the reason that K-12 educators teach such a rigid structure for paragraphs it because it promotes discipline in writing.
Regardless of the genre, good writing must be focused and clear. Through the typical 5- or 7-sentence structure, students learn how to introduce a topic, develop/defend it, and transition to the next one, all in a relatively concise matter.
The structure usually looks something like this:
- Topic/ “hook” sentence
- 3-5 sentences of support
- Concluding sentence
While this might work well enough in basic academic and persuasive writing, it’s often not the most effective way to present ideas, especially once you start writing essays that extend past five paragraphs.
Could you imagine writing a 20-page research paper with the same cookie-cutter paragraph, over and over and over again?
Once you’ve learned to be disciplined in your writing, you can try ditching that old basic formula and focus instead on conveying your ideas in the most concise, effective way.
In academic writing, that usually means providing adequate support for any claims you make, and adding value with your own original insight. If you do this, your paragraphs can be as long or as short as is necessary.
What’s important is that you don’t ramble on or introduce new ideas in the same paragraph.
When it comes to creative writing, there really aren’t rules for the ideal paragraph length.
Paragraphs can be as short as one sentence, or even one word; sometimes, the shorter they are, the more impact they make.
Descriptive or expository paragraphs—paragraphs that set the scene or provide background information—might be longer and more detailed, while scenes with dialogue tend to contain multiple short paragraphs (one for every time the speaker changes or is interrupted).
Too many consecutive short paragraphs, however, can start to feel choppy and distracting, especially if they lack dialogue.
A good rule of thumb for fiction is to use lengths that feel natural to the overall storytelling. Unless it serves a purpose, you don’t want to close an idea abruptly, but you also don’t want to let it go on forever and risk losing the reader’s interest.
News and Blog Paragraphs
In nonfiction writing, particularly that which is published digitally, shorter paragraphs tend to be more effective and appealing to readers.
Readers of blogs and online journals tend to have little patience for long paragraphs, for 2 main reasons:
Large chunks of texts are more difficult to read on a screen.
Consumers of digital media want instant gratification; they expect to be given the facts quickly and easily, without having to scan unnecessarily long paragraphs.
Therefore, if you’re writing for the web, it’s usually best to err on the side of too little, rather than too much, in your paragraphs.
And the easier you can make it for readers to scan the information (by including bullets, lists, graphics, etc.), the better.
How to Write a Great Paragraph
Below are some general tips for writing a solid paragraph, regardless of the genre or medium:
- Keep your ideas limited to one per paragraph. If you introduce a new idea or concept, start a new paragraph.
- Bring your thought to completion. Don’t leave readers to wonder where you were going with that thought; tie up loose ends before starting a new paragraph.
- Look for transitions where you can start new paragraphs. Key indicators of this are words and phrases like “on the other hand,” “meanwhile,” “in conclusion,” “moreover,” and others.
Improve Your Writing with Outlines
Whether you’re writing a research paper or the next best-selling romance novel, a good outline can be your best friend when it comes to planning out your writing.
You can get a bird’s-eye view of your text by outlining your big ideas first, then zooming in to each individual paragraph and its details.
It helps to know where you’re going, because that way you won’t have to worry about paragraphs accidentally rambling on or coming to an abrupt halt.
More Resources for Better Writing
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