Paragraph writing

Aug 29, 2013

Paragraph writing

Aug 29, 2013


From the newsroom

Sunory Dutt

The world’s longest single paragraph in print stretches across a 120-ft long scroll of paper, courtesy of American novelist Jack Kerouac’s travelogue, On the Road, first published in 1957. I’m guessing reading the original 120,000- word manuscript must have been far more frustrating and tiring for the editor than the author’s actual experience on that fateful road trip!

At the other extreme you have the word ‘go’ which can be a sentence or a paragraph in itself.

Go figure!

Just as we need sufficient pit stops on an adventure, good writing must be segregated into paragraphs to break the monotony of a long read. Deputy Editor at an English daily, Vidya Heble, explains them best with this analogy: “Paragraphs are like the dividers on roads and the kerbs on pavements. They organise the journey your words take, help them stay on track and in the direction they want to go. And they assist the reader in following the content of your writing.”

During my years of editing leading lifestyle magazines in Singapore, and living there for over a decade, I’d often had to deal with writers who’d submit stories without text breaks or sub-heads. This was quite ironical considering Singaporeans are known for keeping their conversations short and to-the-point – sans the bells and whistles.  It’s quite a task tweaking huge chunks of writing into logical contextual breaks, and at the same time making it visually appealing on page layouts.

Paragraphs, whether denoted by a new line and an indentation or a line break, provide a structure for your writing. The end of a paragraph represents a significant pause in the flow of the writing. This pause is a signpost to the reader, indicating that the writing is about to move on to a different stage.

Paragraphs should all be of roughly similar length. On re-reading your work if you find that you have one or two paragraphs appear much longer than all the others, try splitting them but maintain the flow with connectors.

Paragraphs in web/blog writing are usually shorter as compared to general writing (usually 3 or 4 sentences per para) to break the monotony of reading on screen and helps to retain the short attention span of readers.

Sure, it’s understandable that as a writer you don’t want to break that chain of thought when inspiration strikes or you’re trying to make a point but really, the reader needs a breather. The function of paragraphs broadly is to demarcate your points, both so that it is easier for you to elaborate on them, and so that your reader can grasp and digest them better. When information is well organized and presented with the clarity of a definite introduction, body and conclusion, it gains greater traction

Here are a few pointers on how to write effective paragraphs:

–    I always tell writers to make their writing reader-friendly. Keep the language short, simple and conversational, save the jargon and verbosity for academic theses!

–    You might have a fantastic idea but the lack of proper presentation might run the risk of you losing your readers. With present day limited attention spans, large blocks of text are a sure put off. Readers will definitely dismiss it as TMI (too much information) and move on to something that’s easier on the eye, especially on a web page.

–    Usually a paragraph should consist of not more than four to five short-to-medium sentences. However it’s not uncommon to find single sentence paragraphs in blogs and magazine articles. That’s fine, if the tone and style of the writing allows for that brevity, and of course if the effect is achieved with that terseness.

–    So how do you know when paragraphs have to ‘happen’? Usually, they will form themselves as you write, because our thoughts do have a way of pausing and resuming, on their own. If not, Vidya offers this tip – “After you have gone some 10 or so lines down the page, stop and read what you’ve written. If it sounds a little breathless, or sounds as if you’re rambling, it is time to hit a paragraph.”

–    You may not necessarily have to start a new point in another paragraph; it could be a continuation of what you were saying in the previous one – perhaps adding to it, or providing some tangential or supplementary information. This way, it’s easier for the mind and eyes to process and ensures your work is read.

–       As I mentioned earlier, use subheadings. They serve as forerunners of what’s to come, and readers can maybe even skip to the parts of the text that interest them. Also paragraphs help readers keep their place in the story – both in terms of where they literally are on the page, and where they are in terms of the action. Note the example of a subhead in the following para:


Its important to link sentences between paragraphs so readers can follow your thoughts or ideas through the entire article. A highly effective way of maintaining the flow of an article is to use transitions or connectors. A few examples of connectors are – however, accordingly, furthermore, for example, similarly, therefore, etc. Here’s a comprehensive list of transitions.

–    Last but not the least, eyeball your writing. If it conjures up images of Kerouac’ scroll, chances are you need to take a break, and add those kerbs and dividers.

It’s always good to have a trusted reference book to fall back on when in doubt. Reaching out for any one of these often helps:

–    The Scott Forsman Book for Writers by Ruszkiewicz, Friend, Seward & Hairston

–    The New St. Martins Handbook by Andrea Lunsford & Robert Connors.

–    A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker

Here are some useful links on using paragraphs effectively:

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