Measure Your Paragraphs!

by Tina Blue
January 11, 2001

          The devices and conventions of essay-writing all have one main purpose: to help your reader understand what you are saying, and to keep him from getting lost or confused at any point along the way from your introduction to your conclusion.

          There is no such thing as a paragraph in speaking. Paragraphing is an artificial device used primarily to ensure the comfort of the reader, and secondarily as a structural guide for the writer. A paragraph's length, its content, and its structure should be determined by these considerations, not by a set of mechanical rules derived from a textbook. Different writing contexts may call for different paragraphing strategies.

          For example, articles that are read from the computer screen need to have shorter paragraphs than do articles read from a printed page. It is very difficult and uncomfortable to read long blocks of print on the computer, and it may not even be possible to keep track of where you are for more than a few lines.

          Consequently, paragraphs in an article intended to be read from a computer should usually not be more than about two inches long, though an occasional three-inch paragraph might be okay.

          Are you shocked? I am suggesting not only that when writing for computer publication you should write much shorter paragraphs than you were permitted to write in school, but also that one of your primary criteria for deciding when to break for a new paragraph should be the
physical size
of the paragraph. Who ever heard of measuring a paragraph to determine when to start a new one?

          But I'd like you to try an experiment. Read a few internet articles with paragraphs longer than two inches. Then read some with most paragraphs running at about two inches, with some shorter and maybe a couple just a little bit longer.

          What do you think? Which articles did you find easier to read, the ones with short paragraphs or the ones with long paragraphs?

          In addition to writing shorter paragraphs for the computer, you should also double-space between paragraphs, which is a no-no in academic writing (though, weirdly enough, some teachers in high school and junior high require it). But it is much easier to read a paragraph on a computer screen when it is framed by white space.

          As odd as it may seem to judge a paragraph by inches, the fact is that teachers, often without even realizing it, do so all the time. Here at the University of Kansas, the English Department asks students to write in-class essays for their freshman-sophomore courses on a special very wide-ruled paper called "English Theme Pad," to make them easier to read and to leave plenty of room for the teacher to make comments and corrections.

          I have often seen teachers criticize their students for writing for an entire page (or even a page and a half or two) without breaking for a new paragraph. But if a student's handwriting is a little bit large, a one- or two-page paragraph on English Theme Pad may actually be no longer than one-third to one-half of a page if typed double-spaced--in other words, a paragraph of perfectly normal length.

          But as a reader the teacher finds it intolerable to go on for a page or more without a break, and that discomfort registers more forcefully than logic in her judgment of how well her student is using paragraphs.

          So quite apart from the content of a paragraph, you need to think about its territorial expanse. In a printed book, paragraphs average about three inches, with some shorter and occasionally some longer. Paragraphs in a double-spaced typed paper usually range between one-fourth and two-thirds of a page, with most being about one-third to one-half of a page long, or about three or four inches. Again, a few may be shorter and a few longer, but most will stay within this range.

          Go and pick up a discursive book--one that explains or argues something, not a story or a book filled with dialogue. Measure the paragraphs. Well? Now look at a double-spaced typed paper. What do you find?

          Single-spaced hand-written paragraphs should, as a rule, not run longer than two-thirds of a page on college-ruled paper, and the average range, unless the student has very large handwriting, should be about one-half page, or perhaps slightly less.  If the essay is double-spaced, of course, it would run about twice that length.

          Ironically, when I was a student such short paragraphs would have troubled most teachers and would usually have led to a lower grade on a paper. Even now, many teachers expect longer pragraphs for academic assignments. But most of today's readers, including a lot of teachers, have been mightily influenced by the formatting of information in newspapers, news magazines, and popular magazines, as well as on the computer.

          Today's readers, again including teachers, are also in a much bigger hurry and are expected to absorb a huge amount of relatively shallow information that comes toward them at top speed. We have a cultural bias against slow-paced contemplation, and few people have an attention span much longer than a gnat's.

          High-pressured executives read "executive summaries" rather than whole reports, and they want presentations to be in bulleted "power-point" form. We are a people in a hurry, and we have little time or patience for reading long, densely packed paragraphs.

          Tell the truth, now--don't you sometimes click away from a page on the computer, or put down a book or article, when you see too many long, dense paragraphs?

          If the paragraph's main purpose is to help your reader, then you need to think in terms of that reader's tolerance for long paragraphs.

          He has none.

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