Paragraphs are not just short blocks of randomly assembled sentences. A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea. That means that only one thought or speaker is featured in each paragraph.
This rule is cast in stone and is especially critical if you are writing a technical piece. I have edited work for people who are pursuing literary degrees. That is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.
In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.
The rules are simple:
- Present a single idea per paragraph.
- Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
- Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.
I have used this example of a paragraph gone wrong before, but it is a good one:
Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”
That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.
Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”
Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”
He spat, “You disgust me.”
While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.
A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed. Sometimes, this creates long paragraphs.
With that said, some considerations must be given to manuscripts intended for publication as an eBook. If you are self-publishing, I highly recommend you format at least two manuscripts for your book, three if you are planning an epub as well as a Kindle version.
One manuscript will be for the print version, which will be the version you send to Ingram Sparks, KDP, or CreateSpace. The other manuscripts will be the mobi (kindle) and epub (other ebook sellers) manuscripts. I use Draft2Digital to create both types of eBook manuscripts—it is free, and the simple instructions make it incredibly easy. You can also format your paper book there, also for free.
In a paper book, paragraph length isn’t as much of a problem as in an eBook. I’ve noticed that versions of eBook novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as page after page of an unbroken wall of words. That can be confusing, and the reader may decide to move on to a different book.
Thus, for a manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to divide long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.
In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.
One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.
These first paragraphs are where Camus shows his skill. He takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.
Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.
Credits and Attributions
Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)
Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).
The Paragraph by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Aug 30, 2017, and has been edited and updated with new material for this post.