The paragraph is the primary unit of English composition. It represents the whole of its parts, which include sentences with phrases and clauses formed by letters and words.
When composing a paragraph, we might ask ourselves how long it should be. The web and social media have greatly altered our approaches to answers.
In his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner wrote 1,288 words in a single sentence, establishing a revolution in form at the time. In 2001, Jonathan Coe composed a staggering 13,955-word sentence in The Rotters’ Club. Though innovative in printed-book literature, neither statement would likely be welcome as a sentence or a paragraph online today.
As The Careful Writer’s T.M. Bernstein points out, “paragraphing is a visual device to show separations of subjects and to facilitate reading.” He also explains that a new paragraph is a greater break in thought than that between successive sentences.
So How Long Should a Paragraph Be?
The answer to how long a paragraph should be is that it can be of any duration that coheres in expressing its main idea. Depending on style and intent, a paragraph might be one short sentence or a much lengthier passage.
With that in mind, we can still identify factors that will often shape our paragraph lengths. Two such aspects are subject and audience. A personal blog about relationships might have many short, conversational paragraphs of a few lines. A scientific study of northern hemisphere climates may have larger blocks of content.
Format can be a factor as well. For example, paragraphs in newspapers are often shorter because of narrower columns and the need to keep large amounts of information more scannable. Conversely, paragraphs in novels and textbooks will often be longer.
A guideline for paragraph composition can be to begin each one with a new thought or development in a point being made or to indicate a transition from one point to another. Then support that statement with only as many sentences as are needed to be persuasive and clear.
How Long Should a Paragraph Be on the Web?
When we are writing online, where so much of today’s content resides, shorter is better, as long paragraphs can often repel readers navigating infinite content choices. Ideally, we will write online paragraphs that are pleasing to view as they inform. One approach might be paragraphs that alternate between one to three lines and four to six lines.
Research into paragraph length outside of online writing suggests agreement that a standard paragraph typically contains at least two sentences. A short paragraph might include fifty words or fewer, and a long one might contain 150 to 200 words. Beyond 200 words, the writer might consider how to break the longer paragraph.
In sum, no hard rules exist for how long a paragraph should be: Our style, intent, format, and audience will be our guides. At the same time, as precise and eloquent writers, we can aim to write in compositional units that engage and inform without drawing attention to the size of our thoughts and ideas.
(Note: This article’s average paragraph length is 45 words.)
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