Writers on Writing: The Art of Paragraphing

How to Compose an Effective Paragraph

paragraphing
Richard M. Coe, Toward a Grammar of Passages (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988). (Getty Images)

Paragraphing, says William Zinsser, is "a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books—a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas" (On Writing Well, 2006). If you're prepared to go beyond conventional formulas for dividing a text into paragraphs, consider these observations by experienced authors, editors, and teachers.

  • Enlightening Readers
    The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation have to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.
    (Isaac Babel, quoted by Konstantin Paustovsky in The Story of a Life: Years of Hope. Pantheon, 1968)
     
  • Experimenting
    Paragraphing is often taught in English classes with the same sort of false dictums that poisons much of writing instruction. . . . [Encourage] students to experiment with paragraphing in their own essays, looking to see how paragraphing develops their intended rhythm and tone.
    (Paul Lee Thomas, Reading, Learning, Teaching Kurt Vonnegut. Peter Lang, 2006)
     
  • Following Instinct
    A clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style but one—the paragraphing. Diction and syntax may be determined and controlled by rational processes in full consciousness, but paragraphing—the decision whether to take short hops or long ones, whether to hop in the middle of a thought or action or finish it first—that comes from instinct, from the depths of personality.
    (Rex Stout, Plot It Yourself. Viking, 1959)
     
  • Practicing the Art
    [P]aragraphing is ultimately an art. Its good practice depends on "feel," voice and instinct rather than on any formula or techniques that can be dutifully learnt.
    (Richard Palmer, Write in Style: A Guide to Good English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)
     
  • Editing by Ear
    We think of paragraphing as an organizational skill and may teach it in conjunction with the prewriting or planning stages of writing. I have found, however, that young writers understand more about paragraphing and cohesive paragraphs when they learn about them in conjunction with editing. When developing writers know the reasons for paragraphing, they more readily apply them in the editing stage than in drafting.

    Just as students can be trained to hear end punctuation, they can also learn to hear where new paragraphs start and when sentences are off the topic.
    (Marcia S. Freeman, Building a Writing Community: A Practical Guide, rev. ed. Maupin House, 2003)
     
  • Punctuating Prose
    We must stop asking what a paragraph is and start asking what paragraphing (i.e., the initiation of a new paragraph) signals to readers; we must think of paragraphing as a kind of macro-punctuation mark that guides readers' interpretation of passages much as commas guide readers' interpretation of sentences.
    (Richard M. Coe, Toward a Grammar of Passages. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988)
     
  • Taking Breaths
    In general, I would suggest, the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended—in some cases very extended—breath. Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale again at the start of the next.
    (Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HarperCollins, 2006)
     
  • Using Common Sense
    Effective paragraphing is based on common sense. Most readers don't prefer reading extremely long paragraphs or strings of very short paragraphs. Neither helps them to get the most out of what they are reading.
    (Thomas Tyner, Writing Voyage: A Process Approach to Writing, 8th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)
     
  • Catching the Eye
    Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has the chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read. . . .

    But don't go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that's too long.
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well. Collins, 2006)
     
  • Catching a Rest
    The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: 'Have you got that? If so, I'll go on to the next point.' There can be no general rule about the most suitable length for a paragraph . . .. The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length.
    (H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, revised by Ernest Gowers. Oxford University Press, 1965)

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