Basic Writing Principle #1: 4 Reasons to Pay Attention to Your Paragraphs

I try not to be too judgmental with writers. Grammar can be tricky, commas are confusing, and I can’t say I don’t ever misspell a word. But there are a few basic principles that even the most English-illiterate person should know. This post is part 1 of a new Tuesday grammar series I’ve titled: basic writing principles. These are things you should know, things that are a dead giveaway to anyone looking at your work for the first time. Or even the second or third time.

Basic Writing Principle #1: Paragraph Breaks Are Necessary 

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the worse things is editing a book where there are no paragraph breaks. And before you say that’s impossible, I should tell you that I even edited a book once with no chapter breaks. The first thing you must understand if you’re going to write–be it a blog post, a novel, an autobiography, or a science textbook–is that paragraph breaks are essential.

1) Paragraph breaks make reading easier. They give readers a place to stop and take a break, rest their eyes, and collect their thoughts (or even go to the bathroom). That’s not saying a reader is going to stop at every single paragraph break, but the use of white space in the layout of your article gives readers something to land on.

2) Paragraph breaks make reading go faster. A page with many paragraph breaks is, on average, going to take less time to read than a page with little or no paragraph breaks. The reader is jumping from paragraph to paragraph, the eye moving quickly down the page, and usually books with more dialogue and shorter paragraphs are more eye appealing to readers.

3) Paragraph breaks are a literary device through which you can speed up or slow down the pace of the story. Through a careful use of paragraph breaks, you can affect the pace of the writing. A long paragraph will tend to slow down, whereas short, choppy paragraphs will speed up the reading (see point #2). If, for example, two characters are having a heated argument, there will most likely be quick, short sentences and lots of paragraph jumps. If you’re describing a leisurely walk around town, you might have a longer paragraph full of imagery.

4) Paragraph breaks help tell your story. One helpful use of paragraph breaks is that you can set apart the most useful or necessary information within a specific paragraph. This helps out the readers who tend to skim. That is to say, they aren’t reading every single word. If you hide information within a lengthy paragraph, a reader who’s not being careful could miss something important. You might be wondering why we should bother catering to skimmers, but the truth is that no one (besides your editor and maybe your mom) is going to read every single word. Properly utilizing paragraph breaks to set aside information will help your story come together and ultimately be more accessible to readers.

There are exceptions to this, of course, but a general rule is to place a paragraph break every 3-5 sentences. (This, of course, depends on how long the sentences are.) Keep in mind that you can have too many paragraph breaks. You wouldn’t want to read, say, an entire book full of individual sentences unless you were reading a children’s book, so there is a balance to keep in mind. Length of paragraphs depends on what you’re writing. As previously mentioned, a young adult or children’s book is going to have a great deal more breaks than a book for adult readers. Textbooks tend to not have as many breaks, while blog posts and newspaper articles have breaks every few sentences.

The important principle to take away here is that you need to pay attention to your paragraphs breaks. They are important, so take a look at your favorite books and see what the author is doing. Try different styles and ask beta readers what they think until you’ve mastered the art of a successful break. And please, don’t give your editor or any beta reader a book with no paragraph breaks. That’s just not nice.

Do you think paragraph breaks are important?

7 thoughts on “Basic Writing Principle #1: 4 Reasons to Pay Attention to Your Paragraphs

  1. I agree. My daughter is told by her teachers to write using huge long paras (all must fit under the topic sentence). She won’t listen to me when I suggest she break it down!

    • I remember learning a similar way, and it might work for five-paragraph essays when you’re first learning writing styles. The problem is when writers don’t change this mind-set when they’re writing their novel! It’s clear readers prefer shorter paragraphs. Thanks for the comment!

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  4. Some years ago I tried reading Molloy, which has no paragraph breaks, and as I recall, no chapter breaks, and I realized within a few pages that I would have to put it down because I’d never have time to read it in one sit. That was not the only reason. Now I understand its considered a classic, in the same way Finnegan’s Wake is, and I’m sure it’s a very learned work of great interest to scholars and critics, but has anyone other that a PhD student actually trudged through the whole thing? To me, it simply modernism gone totally off the rails. Had Becket decided to spin a good yarn instead of experiment with form, one wonders what he might have written.

    • Thank you for the comment! I have tried to read books without paragraph breaks, and it is difficult to read in one sitting, like you mentioned. The older classics do have longer paragraphs, but I think we’ve moving more toward shorter paragraphs because readers have shorter attention spans. This might be considered sad by some, but writers need to be aware of this and make sure to adapt to the current marketing and writing trends.

  5. Pingback: Paragraph Breaks as Transitions are Critical to An Easily Readable Brief. | Briefly Writing

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