Paragraphs: A Little Rant

Maybe it’s my short attention span or maybe it’s the high school AP English teacher trapped in my skull saying, “Guess what? You were lied to: all paragraphs do NOT have to be five sentences. In fact they better NOT all be the same length OR ELSE!” but I take issue with long paragraphs.

Now, you’re probably wondering what defines a long paragraph. Is it five sentences? Ten? Thirteen? TWENTY-FIVE?

With exception of that last one (because I pray you never write a paragraph with twenty-five sentences), I’d actually say that depends. Yes, yes I know, diplomatic answer, but hear me out.

If you write a paragraph with three ridiculously long sentences (as in thirty or—God help you—more words), then guess what? You have yourself a long paragraph.

If, on the other hand, you write a paragraph with five or six telegraphic sentences (one without any embellishments such as “The cat meowed.”), then my long paragraph alarm will probably remain silent.

The best and easiest way to tell if your paragraph is too long is simply by looking at it. Does it look like a brick sitting on the page? Yes? Then it’s probably just that—a brick on your page.

Now, that’s not to say that all long paragraphs are evil. I won’t completely discriminate here, I know the value of having a long paragraph or two, especially if the pace has slowed down and you’re giving the reader a bit of a breather. In that case yes, longer paragraphs are acceptable. Necessary, even.

But just as I would advise against having a page full of uniform short paragraphs, I strongly advise against the same with long ones.

Now again, I’m not claiming to be any expert because I’m not. But I’ve found that varying paragraph (and sentence) length not only helps set the pace and create a nice flow, but adds a little extra dynamic element to the writing. 

It might be a subconscious thing, or it might just be the all-too common ADD nature of readers like me nowadays, but when I see paragraph after paragraph of the same length (albeit long or short), my eyes tend to glaze over. It becomes monotonous. The voice in my head goes dull and flat and—zzz….

Varying paragraph and sentence length helps fight against that. Rather than a steady, flat reading experience a long paragraph followed by a short paragraph breaks up the page and harmonizes with each other. It acts like a chord in a song rather than the same single note over and over again.

It works. And it keeps us interested.

So what do you think? Does paragraph length make that much of a difference, or am I just crazy? J

9 comments:

dcmcmillen said...

I hate never ending paragraphs. When I have written an extra long paragraph, and I am not sure where to break it up, I do turn to the old five-sentence rule from grade school. I look at the first five sentences and try to sum/break up my thought somewhere around there before continuing on to the next paragraph. Of course, this is probably wrong wrong wrong but it works for me (I hope).

Ava Jae said...

@dcmcmillen

I don't like to say anything is right or wrong as far as writing goes, after all, maybe your paragraph should end after five sentences, who am I to say otherwise?

I've found that rather than breaking up paragraphs by length, I try to do it on feel. If a paragraph is too long, I'll re-read it and try to see where the break feels best. This sometimes requires reading it aloud or looking over it multiple times, but it helps me, at least.

Thanks for commenting!

Uva Be Dolezal said...

There's a five sentence rule? uh oh. Oh well :) I like rhythm - my editors are always breaking up my long sentences.

This blog post has a very nice rhythm to it. Yes, it does hold our interest, move our eyes down the page. The sentence length and the paragraphs like word music. Cool.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Very timely.

I'm in the midst of editing a project that (IMHO) is not yet ready for a beta reader, let alone an editor.

Exhibit 1: the first paragraph runs 2 1/2 PAGES!

Exhibit 2: the 104-word sentence that I'm currently splitting apart with my Sledge Hammer O' Grammar and separating into smaller, more manageable, bite-sized chunks of text. ~sigh~

I wish all new authors would spend as much time studying their craft and honing their understanding of language as they do fantasizing about how they're going to spend their advance.

Ava Jae said...

@Uva

Five sentence rule was a school thing...I try to avoid it now. I'm glad you felt I was able to successfully create a rhythm with my paragraph length on this post. Would have been an unfortunate note of bad irony otherwise...heh.

Thanks for commenting!

Ava Jae said...

@Ami

Ouch. Your exhibits made me cringe. Good luck with your project! I'm sure said author will be extremely grateful for the slam of your Sledge Hammer O'Grammar. Or at least they will be after they get over the sting.

As always, thanks for commenting! :)

Linda Poitevin said...

I'm with you. I don't know if it's a shorter attention span as I get older or what, but when I see page after page of solid print, I tend to put the book down and back away quietly. :)

Joseph Eastwood said...

I've never really worried about paragraphs in this way before, I've always just thought that a paragraph would come and go with each time I tapped the tab button, but now you've got me paranoid.

I shall look for these long winded paragraphs and break them up! However, I'm not sure I have them because I write what I want to read and I most certainly HATE blocks... I just saw something about having a short attention span up there, yeah, I'm with you on that one :)

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