Know the Best Practices for the Most Effective Use of Paragraphs

11 Writers and Grammarians Share Their Observations and Best Practices

Effective Paragraph Criteria

ThoughtCo

The definition of a paragraph: It's a group of closely related sentences that develops a central idea, conventionally beginning on a new line, which is sometimes indented.

The paragraph has been variously defined as a "subdivision in a longer written passage," a "group of sentences (or sometimes just one sentence) about a specific topic," and a "grammatical unit typically consisting of multiple sentences that together express a complete thought."

In his 2006 book "A Dash of Style," Noah Lukeman describes the "paragraph break" as "one of the most crucial marks in the punctuation world."

Etymology: Paragraph is from the Greek word which means "to write beside."

Observations

"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."

(Babel, Isaac interviewed by Konstantin Paustovsky in Isaac Babel Talks About Writing, The Nation, March 31, 1969.)

10 Effective Paragraph Criteria

Lois Laase and Joan Clemmons offer the following list of 10 helpful suggestions for writing paragraphs. This is adapted from their book, "Helping Students Write... The Best Research Reports Ever: Easy Mini-Lessons, Strategies, and Creative Formats to Make Research Manageable and Fun."

  1. Keep the paragraph on one topic.
  2. Include a topic sentence.
  3. Use supporting sentences that give ​details or facts about the topic.
  4. Include vivid words.
  5. Make sure it does not have run-on sentences.
  6. Include sentences that make sense and stick to the topic.
  7. Sentences should be in order and make sense.
  8. Write sentences that begin in different ways.
  9. Make sure the sentences flow.
  10. Be sure sentences are mechanically correct — spelling, punctuation, capitalization, indentation.

Topic Sentences in Paragraphs

"Although the topic sentence is often the first sentence of the paragraph, it does not have to be. Furthermore, the topic sentence is sometimes restated or echoed at the end of the paragraph, although again it does not have to be. However, a well-phrased concluding sentence can emphasize the central idea of the paragraph as well as provide a nice balance and ending."

"A paragraph is not a constraining formula; in fact, it has variations. In some instances, for example, the topic sentence is not found in a single sentence. It may be the combination of two sentences, or it may be an easily understood but unwritten underlying idea that unifies the paragraph. Nevertheless, the paragraph in most college writing contains discussion supporting a stated topic sentence...."

(Brandon, Lee. At a Glance: Paragraphs, 5th ed., Wadsworth, 2012.)

Rules of Paragraphing

"As an advanced writer, you know that rules are made to be broken. But that is not to say that these rules are useless. Sometimes it is good to avoid a one-sentence paragraph — it can sound too brisk and implies a lack of penetration and analysis. Sometimes, or perhaps most of the time, it is good to have a topic sentence. But the awful fact is that when you look closely at a professional writer's work, you will see that the topic sentence is often missing. In that case, we sometimes say it is implied, and perhaps that is true. But whether we want to call it implied or not, it is obvious that good writers can get along without topic sentences most of the time. Likewise, it is not a bad idea to develop only one idea in a paragraph, but frankly, the chance of developing several ideas often arises and sometimes doing so even characterizes the writing of professionals."

(Jacobus, Lee A. Substance, Style, and Strategy, Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Strunk and White on Paragraph Length

"In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs in two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help. But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting. Paragraph breaks used only for show read like the writing of commerce or of display advertising. Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing."

(Strunk, Jr., William and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed., Allyn & Bacon, 1995.)

Uses of One-Sentence Paragraphs

"Three situations in essay writing can occasion a one-sentence paragraph: (a) when you want to emphasize a crucial point that might otherwise be buried; (b) when you want to dramatize a transition from one stage in your argument to the next; and (c) when instinct tells you that your reader is tiring and would appreciate a mental rest. The one-sentence paragraph is a great device. You can italicize with it, vary your pace with it, lighten your voice with it, signpost your argument with it. But it’s potentially dangerous. Don’t overdo your dramatics. And be sure your sentence is strong enough to withstand the extra attention it’s bound to receive when set off by itself. Houseplants wilt in direct sun. Many sentences do as well."

(Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Prentice Hall, 2000.)

Paragraph Length in Business and Technical Writing

"A paragraph should be just long enough to deal adequately with the subject of its topic sentence. A new paragraph should begin whenever the subject changes significantly. A series of short, undeveloped paragraphs can indicate poor organization and sacrifice unity by breaking an idea into several pieces. A series of long paragraphs, however, can fail to provide the reader with manageable subdivisions of thought. Paragraph length should aid the reader's understanding of idea."

(Alred, Gerald J., Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Handbook, 10th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012.)

The Paragraph as a Device of Punctuation

"The paragraph is a device of punctuation. The indentation by which it is marked implies no more than an additional breathing space. Like the other marks of punctuation...it may be determined by logical, physical, or rhythmical needs. Logically it may be said to denote the full development of a single idea, and this indeed is the common definition of the paragraph. It is, however, in no way an adequate or helpful definition."

(Read, Herbert. English Prose Style, Beacon, 1955.)

Scott and Denny's Definition of a Paragraph

"A paragraph is a unit of discourse developing a single idea. It consists of a group or series of sentences closely related to one another and to the thought expressed by the whole group or series. Devoted, like the sentence, to the development of one topic, a good paragraph is also, like a good essay, a complete treatment in itself."

(Scott, Fred Newton, and Joseph Villiers Denny, Paragraph-Writing: A Rhetoric for Colleges, rev. ed., Allyn and Bacon, 1909.)

Development of the Paragraph in English

"The paragraph as we know it comes into something like settled shape in Sir William Temple (1628-1699). It was the product of perhaps five chief influences. First, the tradition, derived from the authors and scribes of the Middle Ages, that the paragraph-mark distinguishes a stadium of thought. Second, the Latin influence, which was rather towards disregarding the paragraph as the sign of anything but emphasis — the emphasis-tradition being also of medieval origin; the typical writers of the Latin influence are Hooker and Milton. Third, the natural genius of the Anglo-Saxon structure, favorable to the paragraph. Fourth, the beginnings of popular writing — of what may be called the oral style, or consideration for a relatively uncultivated audience. Fifth, the study of French prose, in this respect a late influence, allied in its results with the third and fourth influences."

(Lewis, Herbert Edwin. The History of the English Paragraph, 1894.)

"19c writers reduced the lengths of their paragraphs, a process that has continued in the 20c, particularly in journalism, advertisements, and publicity materials."

(McArthur, Tom. "Paragraph." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992.)