How Long Should a Paragraph Be?

By Mark Nichol

A paragraph should consist of six to seven sentences. No, it should be no longer than three sentences long. Actually, it should include a topic sentence, several supporting sentences, and possibly a concluding sentence. Sigh. Can I end this paragraph yet?

All three of the declarations in the previous paragraph (the first pair of which come, respectively, from sources within Purdue University and Stanford University, two of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States), and any similarly quantitative statements, are wrong. The correct answer is that a paragraph has to be long enough to reach its end.

Like this one.

A paragraph can be as long or as short as you want it to be. It can unfold for countless pages or consist of one word — even one letter.

W-

(I meant to write, “Wait!” but was interrupted.)

The determination to make in composing a given paragraph is not the number of sentences or words or letters, but the number of ideas. The rule of thumb — in nonfiction, at least — is that each paragraph should focus on one idea or concept; when you shift to a new idea, shift to a new paragraph. (In fiction, its function is more nebulous: A paragraph is a unit of writing that further develops a story through exposition.)

However, ideas, as we all know, are slippery things, difficult to package and unlikely to remain in their allotted places. How big or small is an idea? What about an idea within an idea?

Ultimately, a paragraph is complete when you decide it is.

Where, then, did the various judgments of proper paragraph length come from? They result from well-intentioned but misguided efforts of educators to help students learn the fundamentals of writing.

The topic-support-conclusion model (one variation of which is named the Schaffer paragraph, after its developer, Jane Schaffer) is valid in that it helps developing writers discipline themselves to craft effective persuasive arguments. Opinions easily dissipate if they are not backed up by facts or reasoning. But the form is only that — a mold that can (and should) be broken once a writer learns how to use it.

And dictating that a paragraph consist of a given number of sentences is an understandable but lazy approach that ensures that student writers provide details before moving on to the next idea but does not teach them why they must hit the number — much like requiring a word count for an essay or report ensures that most students will focus on grasping for quantity rather than striving for quality.

There are, of course, practical considerations in determining paragraph length. Readers of newspapers and other publications with narrow columns of text are more likely to read paragraphs that don’t extend vertically more than a couple of inches. Similarly, websites are easier to read when paragraphs are brief. Care should be taken, likewise, in book manuscripts to avoid paragraphs that extend for more than half a page.

My rule of thumb in editing is, when working in a Microsoft Word file, to break up paragraphs of more than ten lines in 12-point type with a six-inch column width for print publications and to limit online copy to five lines (as I’ve done here), though results will of course vary depending on the point size and column width of the particular text.

Don’t hesitate to adhere to or promote specific models of paragraph construction, but be sure that the teaching or learning involved emphasizes the versatility of the paragraph form.

Please.

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12 Responses to “How Long Should a Paragraph Be?”

  • Jevon

    Good stuff Mark. Since I’m a fiction writer, I generally try to keep my paragraphs to one development unit. But sometimes it’s a bit difficult to identify what defines a development unit. When I’m blogging, my paragraphs are normally 2 sentences to ease the reading just like you mentioned.

  • Laura

    Great article! Can I use this with my composition students? Thanks!

  • Widdershins

    LOL … yep, a paragraph’s as long as it needs to be … also, 42

  • Sally

    Good article, Mike.

    Style Guides can be useful, but often seem to lack common sense – your post offers a useful antidote!

  • KHAGESWAR RAO K`

    The points regarding paragraphs are approximates those I follow while writing articles and blogs writing. Now I fee I’ right to make them even shorter.

    Big paragraphs scare away readers at the first glimpse, let alone read them.

    Thanks for the informative write-up.

  • Silvia Altamirano

    Luckily, I was never told in school, or anywhere, how long a paragraph should be. It sounds crazy!

  • Vallypee

    I agree, but when teaching academic writing to non-nativespeakers, the topic-highlighting-concluding structure works well because they often do not have a feel for where a paragraph should logically come to an end.

    Academic writing needs to be very structured in order to convey complex ideas in a readable fashion. I would be much more flexible about paragraph length in business writing and narrative writing. After all, we all know the one line paragraph can have tremendous effect.

    It’s all about audience and purpose.

  • Ron

    Re: Vallypee

    It’s all about audience, media, and purpose?

  • Caitlin

    Thank you for this! Honestly, every teacher has different ideas on this subject, but my current english teacher has taught nothing on how long they feel it should be. I have a paragraph that is a page long, and was just wondering if it was too long!

  • Andreas

    I’ve actually come across someone who used too short paragraphs.

    He/she used a new paragraph almost every sentence, regardless how short.

    It didn’t make the text easier to read.

    And the paragraphs didn’t seem to have much purpose, since every sentence was a new one anyways.

  • Alexander Watkins

    I think that a paragraph should be at least 75 words or more. I am in my honors english class (9th grade honors) and I just googled how many words in a paragraph, and did not see anything, so I am just estimating and sharing.

  • C. Hinton

    I just wanted to say that this was a great, and, “very”, much needed piece. I believe everyone has diffrent questions about diffrent writing topics, due to learning from so many sources throughout our lives, that it’s very important that there not only be a frame of reference, but a clear, and concise one.

    I believe technology, (texting, spell check, the internet, etc.), have both been a blessing, and a curse, because it has made our lives so much more convenient, productive, (for most), as well as interesting, while also having the negative effect of attention span, communication, to much multitasking, and an everly increasing, negative erosion, of language. With the rise of slang, “text speech”, short hand, language barriers, and so many other things, basic writing principles have been disappearing, and or forgotten.

    I can only speak for myself, on this one, but I have found that, “spell check”, has given my spelling a terrible beating, and I often find myself having issue spelling a lot of words if not for spell check. I have actually madea practice of only using it when in a hurry, or in a bind.

    Of course I am not near the caliber of most others in these comments, (writers, teachers, etc.), or even the author of this piece, himself being an editor, but it is reassuring, and wonderful to know that these types of sites, and information, are available when in need, and as a learning tool. I did want to tip my hat to the author of this piece/site, and his ability to explain things fully, correctly, consise, and to the point without making the subject a legnthy burden to learn, or use as just a refresher, (sometimes a person comes away with more quetions, then when they began their search), but gladly this is not such a place, thank you.

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