The External View of Paragraphing

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Let’s consider the external view of paragraphing. A printed page or computer screen has its own body language that sends signals to readers before they ever read a word and paragraphs length strongly affects the impression readers get. Think about your response when you face a page of solid, unbroken print, whether in a book, in an article or online. Don’t the unbroken paragraphs look hard to read and discourage you before you ever get started although you may have to read the material any way? You’re not going to be happy about the task. If the writer had crafted shorter paragraphs and been careful to leave good margins and ample white space around the print, almost certainly you would have been more captive to his or her message.

Of course, the term long and short paragraphs are relative, but as a rule of thumb, let’s say a short paragraph is from three to six sentences of medium length and doesn’t take up more than one third of a regular page. A paragraph of eight to ten medium – length sentences that takes up two thirds or more of a page is definitely long and you should look for places where you could break it. We’ll give you some guidelines for finding such places in the next section.

Professional writers who have a strong sense of their audience also make paragraphing decisions on the basis of what they know about their readers. If they’re writing for a broad audience of casual readers who usually read quickly – say the readers of Parade magazine – they will write shorter paragraphs than they would do for a smaller audience of skilled readers such as the readers of scientific America. They will also write shorter epigraphs when they’re writing for your reader or for a news paper where the writing will appear in columns, so think about whom your readers are when you decide how long your paragraphs should be.

Some Guidelines for Breaking Paragraphs :

You may not want to worry about paragraph length until you’re revising and thinking how your document is going to look. That’s fine - concerns about appearance can wait. But we think it’s useful to develop awareness about length as you draft your paragraphs and to get into the habit of looking for logical places to break them.

The conventional wisdom about paragraphing is that each paragraph develops a single idea, so you start a new paragraph when you come to a new idea. That plan works well when you’re making a series of points and can develop each point as a paragraph. But it’s not always easy to put the one-idea - one-paragraph rule into practice. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you come to a new idea and sometimes an idea is too complex to be developed in a single paragraph. Thus it’s useful to know some natural dividing places you can use for breaking up paragraphs.

Here are some clues:

Natural Division Points for Breaking Paragraphs :

A shift in time : Look for sentences being inning with words like first, next, formerly, or at that time .

A shift in place : Look for sentences beginning with words like elsewhere or in the meantime.

A shift showing contrast : Look for sentences beginning with words like however, on the other hands, or nevertheless.

A shift in emphasis : Look for sentences beginning with terms like if that happens, in spite of another possibility, or not only.

A shift signaling additional information : Look for sentences that begin with terms like moreover, in addition, or besides.

There are no firm rules on these matters. You just have to use your judgment and ask yourself “Should I break up this piece of writing and if so, how should I do it?

Let’s look at two examples of paragraphs that are readable but that we think could be broken into more manageable chunks and still be unified. We’ve marked our proposed division by double slashes. If the first quotation, notice that we divided the paragraph before for instance and again when we came to a new example introduced by also.

There is a tendency to exaggerate the rate at which our lives will be changed by technology. We still have a whole year to go before 2001, but I doubt that Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of commercial flights to the moon is going to come true by then. Individual technologies reach plateaus beyond which further improvement is not worthwhile. // For instance, the experience of riding in commercial aircraft has not materially changed since the introduction of the Boeing 707 more than forty years ago. (The Concorde is an exception that proves the rule. It has never paid for the cost of its development.) Computer technology has not yet reached its plateau. But it will – probably when the miniaturization of the solid – state devise runs into the limits imposed by the state of the finite size of invaluable atoms.// Successful technologies also tend to be self – limiting once they become available to the general population. I doubt that it is possible to cross Manhattan from the east river to the Hudson River faster by automobile to day than it was by horse-drawn streetcar a century ago. The Internet is already beginning to show the effects of overcrowding. I tremble at the thought of two billion air conditioners in a future China and India, each adding its exhaust heat to the earth’s atmosphere. (
Steven Weinberg : Five and a Half Utopias - January 2000)

In the next example, we suggest that the author could have created new paragraphs at places where she introduced new examples to illustrate her main idea.

Arranged marriage looks somewhat different from the point of view of the bride and her family. Arranged marriages continue to be preferred even among the more educated, Westernized sections of the Indian population. Many young women from these families still go along, more or less willingly, with the practice and also with the specific choices of their families. Young women do get excited about the prospects of their marriage, but there is an ambivalence and increasing uncertainty, as the bride contemplates leaving the comfort and familiarity of her own home where as a temporary guest she has often been indulged to live among strangers. // Even in the best situation she now comes under the increased scrutiny of her husband’s family. How she dresses, how she behaves, how she gets along with other, where she goes, how she spends her time, her domestic abilities – all of this and much more – will be observed and commented on by a whole new set of relations. Her interaction with her family of birth will be monitored and curtailed considerably. // Not only will she leave their home, but with increasing geographic mobility, she may also live very far from them, perhaps even on another continent. Too much expression of her fondness for her family or her desire to visit them may be interpreted as an inability to adjust to her new family and may become a source of conflict. In an arranged marriage, the burden of adjustment is clearly heavier for a woman than for a man. And that is the best of circumstances. (
Serna Nanda : Arranging a marriage In India)

Remember, however, that you shouldn’t chop up paragraphs arbitrarily just for the sake of appearance. By definition, paragraphs should state an idea and develop it, so you need as many sentences as it takes to do that. Occasionally you may write on sentence paragraphs for emphasis, but use them sparingly and only when you have a specific reason for doing so.

Here’s an effective example.

At the Senior Ball, teenagers in the ballroom of the Beverly Hills hotel, beautiful teenagers in black tie and gowns, try very hard not to look like teenagers. But on the other hand, it is very important not to look like one’s parents.

The balancing act trick of America adolescence is to stand in between – to be neither a child nor an adult. (
Richard Rodriguez : Growing Up In Los Angeles)

Other Pages in This Section :

  • The Internal View of Paragraphing

  • Crafting Opening Paragraphs

  • Wrestling With Closing Paragraphs

  • Successful Writing Index

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