Sentences and paragraphs make up the bread and butter of your writing. It’s what your readers will encounter over and over again. Sentence and paragraph length often hallmark writers and become the first thing that stands out about their writing. When you’ve written enough, you’ll tend to find certain structures comfortable. Today we’ll go under the hood and explore why paragraph size and sentence length might matter more than you realize.
Paragraph Size and Sentence Length—Why does it Matter?
Aren’t they simply units of measurement? Why would it matter? When you’ve read a hundred books and never paid attention to it, why would it be worth considering?
The best writers dig deep. This requires considering every aspect of what stays on the page and what goes. When a skill is mastered—whether a trade skill or in the arts—the appearance of work disappears. A house is full of hidden electrical wiring that only a skilled electrician can understand. Thousands of components operate a car engine. As writers we must examine the invisible, taken-for-granted side of writing.
Most writers, particularly writers young in their craft, create prose similar to books they’ve absorbed. The writing they enjoyed now becomes the writing they try to create. Since our path is to write paragraphs and sentences that grab a reader’s imagination, we’ve got to take the next step in examining what our paragraphs and sentences are doing.
A Short History Lesson
Why do sentence length and paragraph size even exist?
The first written documents, almost regardless of language, used no spaces between thoughts or what we now call ‘sentences’. In fact, since punctuation itself emerged much later than handwritten texts, both sentences and paragraphs are recent arrivals. Writing and copying manuscripts was expensive and time-consuming. The expense of writing materials made using every inch of papyrus, clay tablet, or sheep’s skin a must. In a world of expensive, handcrafted documents empty space was a luxury. Every inch got used.
Today, however, paper doesn’t carry this restriction. Electronic documents have no material restrictions at all. The current problem with text is ensuring that a program can resize text to fit screens of all sizes. How far the internet and texting will permanently change written texts remains to be seen. Despite paragraphs and sentences making up a fundamental level of prose, they’re both newcomers.
Why the history lesson?
When reading your favorite books, you likely ignore paragraph size and sentence length. It’s a part of prose construction invisible to readers—when handled skillfully. One part of transitioning from reader to writer is knowing that such imperceptible things can’t be taken for granted. A skilled writer chooses everything for a reason, and we will have to countless choices to make. So what, again, are our paragraphs and sentences there for?
Back to Basics—What is a Paragraph or Sentence of Fiction Trying to Accomplish?
One way to describe a paragraph is as a unit of meaning composed of multiple sentences. Generally, a paragraph in fiction will cover a single, unified topic—location description, character overview, or an account of action. If a paragraph incorporates multiple dissimilar elements, it can potentially confuse the reader.
Longer sentences were common in writing in previous centuries where communicating with accepted decorum was the norm. In the past hundred years there has been a push for shorter sentences in fiction under the assumption that longer sentences confuse or include fluff. Our goal with sentences is to craft ones that sing and empower the reader’s imagination.
The Pros and Cons
To consider whether it’s all personal preference, we’re going to discuss pros and cons. Extremes are easy to identify, so that’s where we’re headed. What are the pros and cons of certain lengths?
Pros for Long Sentences
-Good writing feels ‘complete’ no matter how long the sentence is. The best long sentences feel incapable of being shortened. They work perfectly despite their length.
-Complex topics need long sentences. It’s why academic writing uses longer sentences. Long sentences shows the irreducibility of intricate things. There’s no need to apologize. It’s long because it’s complicated.
-Complex grammar structures can be rewarding to writers and readers when used well. When the sentences never exceed ten words, a whole range of grammar developed in English to handle longer thoughts goes unused. There’s a skill to it and some enjoy reading skillful, long-sentenced prose.
Cons for Long Sentences
-Long sentences often hide a better, shorter sentence. This is the number one reason why longer sentences weaken prose. They would simply be better sentences if they said the same thing in fewer words.
-Long sentences, if handled clumsily, create confusion. Long sentences may introduce multiple subjects or change focus mid-sentence which can confuse readers. Longer sentences which are poorly constructed can leave readers confused.
-Your prose turns monotone. Pauses in speaking regulate human speech. A human speaker stops to take a breath and refill their lungs before continuing. Many schools of sentence construction, particularly public speaking, take this phenomenon into account. When a sentences runs on and on, it violates this rule. Readers can feel an unnatural reality lurking underneath.
-Your readers find relief when the sentence ends. Sentences over one hundred words long aren’t common, but they demonstrate how relieving it can be to reach their end. While giving your readers a regular reward is a good idea, they shouldn’t find your prose burdensome.
Pros for Long Paragraphs
-Long paragraphs can potentially make more immersive texts. With no breaks to interrupt the flow, the rush of words continues unabated. When there’s no break, there’s no natural pause to the rhythm and flow which can be a great tool show characters and situations that don’t know how to stop. If things are out of control, the prose can aid this instability by breaking or ignoring conventions such a paragraph breaks.
-Long paragraphs, while blocky to look at, don’t look as cluttered on the page as dialogue. A reader’s eye isn’t required to bounced back and forth. It can feel to a reader more like a textbook or non-fiction work. It appears ‘cleaner’ to the eye despite the pile up of words.
-This may sound strange but to some readers they will feel like they are getting their money’s worth. That is, page after page of margin-to margin text is worth the investment of their time. These readers value content and the more they see, the happier they are.
Cons for Long Paragraphs
-Long paragraphs can create possible reader fatigue. A wall of text doesn’t look inviting to some readers who seek entertainment. It looks like work, like something academic. Something that takes time and effort on their part to understand. Paragraphs, like chapters, create a pause. Without pauses a reader can get worn out. When leveraged well, these pauses build tension and interest.
-Long paragraphs can increase reader confusion. Long paragraphs are likely to change subjects multiple times. Readers can lose locations and the passage of time. This is a great tool if intended, but it can easily be the result of sloppy writing.
The Long and Short of It—Trouble Shooting
Help! I can’t write in short sentences!
Some writers swear by lengthy sentences. They claim that their imaginations can’t work in smaller chunks of prose. If that’s you, then you probably already know it. Writing can be frustrating enough that trying to measure word counts in your own sentences does more harm to your creative process than good. We highly recommend at least being aware of what kind of writing you favor and knowing why. Thinking about your writing on this level is a part of maturing and improving as a writer.
Initial drafts of your work will often have longer sentences. Your thoughts ramble across the page. This is normal. However, cutting out adverbs, needless modifiers, and tightening your writing will help you grab and keep a reader’s attention. It takes work and practice, but it should be a part of your writing journey.
How do I know when my paragraph is too long?
A good rule of thumb is that a paragraph shouldn’t take up more than half of a printed page. This length is difficult to determine during the manuscript phase. A 200-word paragraph is a good starting point if you have no idea how long to make paragraphs. From that starting point you can shorten or length your paragraphs as you find them either getting filled with fluff to hit 200 words or simply find you can’t cram everything you need to say possible in 200 words.
What trouble? I’m going to ignore all this anyway
Writers often gain notoriety for doing unique and unusual things. Ignoring grammar, using no punctuation, or writing an entire novel from one sentence are a few of the ways to raise eyebrows and gain attention. However, if there’s a unique way to write, it’s already been done before. Novelty doesn’t replace good writing for very long.
On the flip side, novelty fueled by artistic intent and a coherent vision can change the world. The kind of writer who refuses to uses paragraph breaks but can discuss the history of the paragraph, what it was meant to solve, and why it’s not needed anymore will be respected—even by disgruntled critics. Someone too lazy to hit enter on a keyboard will not.
Final Verdict—Is it all Personal Preference?
Yes and No. Yes, it’s your writing and your story and you can choose whatever sentence length you want. Any element of your writing comes down to your personal preference and inclination as author.
However, the guideposts included here can sharpen your writing. The goal is not the best writing someone else can write—it’s the best writing you can write. Accomplishing this involves asking yourself if your paragraphs and sentences weaken your storytelling without you even noticing.