paragraphing (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Paragraphing is a kindness to your readers because it divides your thinking into manageable bites" (D. Rosenwasser and J. Stephen, Writing Analytically, 2009). ( Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images)


Paragraphing is the practice of dividing a text into paragraphs. The purpose of paragraphing is to signal shifts in thinking and give readers a rest. 

Paragraphing is "a way of making visible to the reader the stages in the writer's thinking" (J. Ostrom, 1978). Although conventions about the length of paragraphs vary from one form of writing to another, most style guides recommend adapting paragraph length to your medium, subject, and audience.

Ultimately, paragraphing should be determined by the rhetorical situation.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "Paragraphing is not such a difficult skill, but it is an important one. Dividing up your writing into paragraphs shows that you are organised, and makes an essay easier to read. When we read an essay we want to see how the argument is progressing from one point to the next.

    "Unlike this book, and unlike reports, essays don't use headings. This makes them look less 'reader friendly,' so it is important to use paragraphs regularly, to break up the mass of words and to signal the making of a new point. . . . An unparagraphed page gives the reader the feeling of hacking a way through a thick jungle without a track in sight—not very enjoyable, and very hard work. A neat series of paragraphs acts like stepping stones that can be followed pleasurably across the river."
    (Stephen McLaren, Essay Writing Made Easy, 2nd ed. Pascal Press, 2001)
  • Paragraphing Basics
    "The following principles should guide the way paragraphs are written for undergraduate assignments:
    1. Every paragraph should contain a single developed idea. . . .
    2. The key idea of the paragraph should be stated in the opening sentence of the paragraph. . . .
    3. Use a variety of methods to develop your topic sentences. . . .
    4. Finally, use connectives between and within paragraphs to unify your writing. . . ."
    (Lisa Emerson, Writing Guidelines for Social Science Students, 2nd ed. Thomson/Dunmore Press, 2005)

  • Structuring Paragraphs
    "Long paragraphs are daunting—rather like mountains—and they are easy to get lost in, for both readers and writers. When writers try to do too much in a single paragraph, they often lose the focus and lose contact with the larger purpose or point that got them into the paragraph in the first place. Remember that old high school rule about one idea to a paragraph? Well, it's not a bad rule, though it isn't exactly right because sometimes you need more space than a single paragraph can provide to lay out a complicated phase of your overall argument. In that case, just break wherever it seems reasonable to do so in order to keep your paragraphs from becoming ungainly.

    "When you draft, start a new paragraph whenever you feel yourself getting stuck—it's the promise of a fresh start. When you revise, use paragraphs as a way of cleaning up your thinking, dividing it into its most logical parts."
    (David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, Writing Analytically, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009)

  • Paragraphing and the Rhetorical Situation
    "The form, length, style, and positioning of paragraphs will vary, depending on the nature and conventions of the medium (print or digital), the interface (size and type of paper, screen resolution and size), and the genre. For example, paragraphs in a newspaper are quite a bit shorter, typically, than paragraphs in a college essay because of the newspaper's narrow columns. On a website, paragraphs on the opening page may consist of more signposts than would be typical in a printed work, allowing readers to select which direction to track via hyperlink. Paragraphs in a work of creative nonfiction will likely include transitional words and sentence structures not often found in lab reports.

    "In short, the rhetorical situation should always guide your use of paragraphing. When you understand paragraph conventions, your audience and purpose, your rhetorical situation, and your writing's subject matter, you will be in the best position to decide how to use paragraphs strategically and effectively to teach, delight, or persuade with your writing."
    (David Blakesley and Jeffrey Hoogeveen, The Thomson Handbook. Thomson Learning, 2008)

  • Editing by Ear for Paragraphs
    "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)