paragraph length (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Definition

In composition, technical writing, and online writing, the term paragraph length refers to the number of sentences in a paragraph and the number of words in those sentences.

There is no set or "correct" length for a paragraph. As discussed below, conventions about appropriate length vary from one form of writing to another and depend on various factors, including medium, topic, audience, and purpose.

SImply put, a paragraph should be as long or as short as it needs to be to develop a main idea. As Barry J. Rosenberg says, "Some paragraphs should weigh a skimpy two or three sentences, while others should weigh a robust seven or eight sentences. Both weights are equally healthy" (Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists, 2005). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "Paragraph lengths, like sentence lengths, give an essay a kind of rhythm that readers can feel but that is hard to talk about . . .. A very short paragraph can be just the right kind of pause following a long and complex one. Or a series of paragraphs of about the same length can give the reader a very satisfying feeling of balance and proportion."
    (Diana Hacker and Betty Renshaw, Writing With a Voice, 2nd ed. Scott, Foresman, 1989)
     
  • Paragraph Length in Essays
    "There is no set rule about paragraph length. They can be long or short . . ., though do note that both the shortest and the longest are rare and you should take care in their use. What works best is usually a mixture of longer and and shorter paragraphs within the middle range. Aim to vary length rather than look for a set formula. . . . [A] paragraph [that] contains . . . 150 words . . . is probably about average for what would most often be used in an essay."
    (Jacqueline Connelly and Patrick Forsyth, Essay Writing Skills: Essential Techniques to Gain Top Marks. Kogan Page Ltd., 2011)
     
  • Dividing a Long Paragraph
    "[S]ometimes you may discover that a particular point in your essay is so complex that your paragraph is growing far too long—well over a typed page, for instance. If this problem occurs, look for a logical place to divide your information and start a new paragraph. For example, you might see a convenient dividing point in a series of actions you're describing or a break in the chronology of a narrative or between explanations of arguments or examples. Just make sure you begin your next paragraph with some sort of transitional phrase or key words to let the reader know that you are still discussing the same point as before ('Still another problem caused by the computer's faulty memory circuit is . . .')."
    (Jean Wyrick, Steps to Writing Well With Additional Readings, 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)
     
  • Paragraph Length in Academic Writing
    "Paragraphs give readers a sense of where one unit ends and another begins, a sense of how the argument develops by moving from one topic to another. . . . Paragraphs let the reader digest one idea at a time without becoming overwhelmed.

    "In modern academic writing, paragraphs are usually less than a page in length. But it's rare to find many short paragraphs (of, say, less than four lines) in a row. A typical paragraph is roughly ten to twenty lines in length. But there will be variety. Short paragraphs are sometimes needed for other purposes besides laying out a component of the argument. For example, a transitional paragraph might be needed at a certain point in order to sum up all that's been established so far and to hint at where the argument will go from here.

    "And sometimes short paragraphs can simply underscore a point."
    (Matthew Parfitt, Writing in Response. Bedford/St. Martin's 2012)
     
  • Paragraph Length in Business and Technical Writing
    "Quantifying paragraph length is difficult, but in business and technical writing, paragraphs exceeding 100 to 125 words should be rare. Most paragraphs will consist of three to six sentences. If a single-spaced paragraph goes beyond one-third of a page, it is probably too long. A double-spaced paragraph should not exceed half a page in length.

    "The document's format should influence paragraph length. If a document has narrow columns (two to three to the page), then paragraphs should be shorter, perhaps on the average of no more than 50 words. If a document uses a full-page format (one column), then average paragraph length can reach 125 words.

    "Length is therefore a function of appearance and visual relief."
    (Stephen R. Covey, Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication, 5th ed. FT Press and Pearson Education, 2012)
     
  • Paragraph Length in Online Writing
    "If the statistics are to be believed, by the end of this sentence, I’ll have lost most of you. Because according to some estimates, the average time spent on a webpage is 15 seconds. . . . 

    "And so webmasters worldwide have launched an emergency austerity programme, pruning, paring, compacting everything possible in a frantic attempt to spare our readers a few precious seconds. . . .

    "The most obvious casualty of this economy drive is the venerable paragraph. . . . 

    "The internet . . . has exerted further downward pressure on paragraph length. Reading on a laptop screen or phone is slower and more fatiguing, and it’s harder to keep your place; inserting regular, clear breaks (complete lines rather than indentations) is one way to create a smoother reading experience.
     

    "None of this is in dispute. But consider this recent piece on the BBC website. With two exceptions, all the paragraphs in this story consist of precisely one sentence. . . . 

    "[O]ne reason, and one reason alone, is sufficient to justify the Save the Paragraph Campaign. Time was, when you came across a paragraph of one sentence, you knew it contained powerful stuff (in the writer’s view, at least). A short paragraph, coming after many long ones, could deliver a real punch."
    (Andy Bodle, "Breaking Point: Is the Writing on the Wall for the Paragraph?." The Guardian, May 22, 2015)
     
  • One-Sentence Paragraphs
    "Occasionally, a one-sentence paragraph is acceptable if it is used as a transition between longer paragraphs or as a one-sentence introduction or conclusion in correspondence."
    (Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Handbook, 10th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)
     
  • Paragraph Length and Tone
    "How long is a paragraph?

    "As short as that.

    "Shorter.

    "Or as long as it needs to be to cover a subject. . . .

    "But there is a complication. Writing that aims to be inviting, like the writing in newspapers, popular magazines and books, uses shorter paragraphs than more ambitious and 'profound' writing. New paragraphs are begun before a topic is exhausted.

    "Anytime.

    "For no reason at all.

    "Because each new paragraph lightens the tone, encourages readers, offers a foothold down the page.

    "When paragraphs are short, writing does seem easier. Less happily, it also seems disjointed and superficial—as though the writer can't concentrate on a subject.

    "Thus paragraphing, like so much else, is a matter of tone. You want to have a proper paragraph length for your subject, your audience, and your degree of seriousness (or frivolity)."
    (Bill Stott, Write to the Point. Anchor Press, 1984)