Category Archives: Paragraphing

Paragraphing

Paragraphing is not a glamorous subject and rarely seems critical, but it’s as important to the structure of our writing as is the sentence.

First, both in fiction and non-fiction the purpose is similar: both sentence and paragraph are organizational tools. The former encapsulates a single idea. The latter collects sentences pertaining to a single idea.

Still, the act of collecting sentences isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. For example, all the sentences in this article relate to paragraphing. Should they, therefore, form one gigantic paragraph?

Technically an author would not be wrong to throw them all into one unbroken stream. However, the “organization” in that case would look much like a garage used as a junk room: all things not needed in the house regularly get stashed together. Even when each item has its own place, to the visitor, sorting through all the items will take much longer than if they are broken up and stored in separate cabinets and drawers.

Besides helping with organization, paragraphing also can enhance pace. The shorter the paragraphs, the faster the pace.

Longer, more leisurely paragraphs work against action scenes. Instead, shorter sentences and paragraphs convey a feeling of things happening quickly. Those that are longer don’t carry the same sense of urgency.

It’s interesting to note that in most newspaper stories, paragraphs are routinely only several sentences long. (For an example, check out this recent Los Angeles Times story). Generally, readers of a daily want quick, pithy facts, not lengthy, carefully constructed arguments. Short paragraphs create the kind of organization that allows a reader to move quickly through an article, from most important facts to least important.

Paragraphing contributes to writing in still a third way. It helps formulate style. As I wrote the above paragraph about newspapers, I couldn’t help but think that not all utilize the two-sentences-per-paragraph rule. Although I haven’t actually counted sentences, I suspect that the articles in the Wall Street Journal, for example, have paragraphs that are considerably longer than the L A Times. The issue is style. The WSJ, by its structure, conveys that its articles are attempting to do more than give a brief set of facts — they aim to look at their topics in more depth.

A second aspect of style, especially for writers interested in artistic expression, is variety. In the same way that using the same words over and over can become tiresome, using the same sentence structure or the same paragraph length can become monotonous.

A part of good writing in any genre is giving readers something that will hold their interest. Varying paragraph length is one way to do that.

To close, I’ll give an example of writing and let you judge (you don’t even have to read it 😉 ): is there enough variation in paragraph length? Does the structure entice you to read or does it appear too fast or too slow? From JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, book two of The Lore of Efrathah:

    Jim sprawled onto a pile of drying grass and stared at the strange night sky. Back in his world the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, and a handful of lesser-known constellations, were as familiar as the outdoor basketball court near his childhood home. But here in Efrathah the stars puncturing the blackness were larger, scattered, sparse.
    A lump formed in his throat. He pulled his blanket from his pack and rolled to his side, pillowing his head on his arm. After days on the run, he needed to sleep, not to think about this strange world. Better if he blocked out his surroundings — the canyon walls sailing by, the River Pegah churning toward Mithlimar, the two-tiered raft he lay on, Remalín at the helm, the rest of the trek team sprawled atop the woven mat. And those strange stars.
    He closed his eyes, listening to the water sloshing against the logs, to the wind whispers gusting through the canyon and the rhythmic breathing of his companions. To Bilg’s gentle snoring.
    His heartbeat slowed. He snuggled deeper into the pile of soft grasses covering the mat and drifted toward sleep. The image of a Vacant One formed. At the command of a malicious black knight, the soldier of death stalked toward Jim’s sleeping companions. Behind the knight, Vildoth-sadín — the faceless usurper — lurked in the shadows. Jim’s body tensed, and he snapped awake.
    Exhaling a long breath, he sat up.
    “Trouble sleeping?” Jonathan propped himself on his elbow, his walnut-brown hair more tousled than usual by the wind blowing through the river draw.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

Eight days, and counting. 😀

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Filed under Pace, Paragraphing, Writing Style