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Opinion: Between the lines

Proper, more powerful paragraphing

I'm a big believer in short paragraphs. Especially for copy that will be read on-screen or under time pressure. Long paragraphs are difficult for most readers, who are busy, important and like to see a subject divided into segments for quick scanning and navigation. The length issue also becomes more pressing as screen displays narrow, thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices.
With a degree of pomposity, the University of Huddersfield, UK, tells us that, "[i]t must be remembered that the purpose of a paragraph is to develop a point or specific theme. With this in mind, a single sentence or two would probably not be sufficient to fulfil this purpose. Development of a point requires discussion and explanation, which suggests that a minimum of five or six sentences is advisable."

Codswallop!

And if you don't believe me, believe the experts at the Poynter Institute, who assert that ""stories with shorter paragraphs get more than twice as many eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs" and that "the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages [it]..."

This is why short paragraphs (1-3 sentences or less) are used in news stories where the emphasis is on reporting information without discussion, and in technical writing where the emphasis is on presenting facts without analysis.

Written dialogue also consists of short paragraphs, with a new paragraph for each change of speaker.

So, what to do?

Here are six rules:
  1. Use only one idea per paragraph

    A single paragraph should concern itself with a single focus. If it begins with one focus or major point of discussion, it should not end with another or wander between different ideas. And if you begin to transition into a new idea, press 'Enter'.

  2. Create paragraphs that cohere

    Ensure that the connections between sentences are clear. This smooth, logical flow is called paragraph coherence, and it's easy to achieve if you write each sentence with the previous one in mind; if you pick up a tidbit from one and carry it to the next.

  3. Write paragraphs that connect

    Transitions are sentences or short phrases that "transition" a paragraph into the next. Some examples are: in addition, again, moreover, further, first, second, however, although, accordingly, consequently, in the meantime, on the other hand, and so on.

  4. Introduce some small variety

    If paragraphs and sentences share a consistent length, even a short one, the result can become a monotone; a flat landscape. Easy to traverse, but boring. So, although the rule is 'Keep it short', try to create content that has contours and variety.

  5. Allow visual breathing room

    Use paragraphing to give your readers a pause. Breaks in paragraphs - ie white space - give your readers important visual breathing room, give your content slightly more drama and gravity and, critically, make your writing more readable.

  6. Be brave: in one sentence

    The old fogies teach that we should never write a one-sentence paragraph. Nonsense! If you can say what you want to say in a single sentence that lacks a direct connection with any other sentence, just do it. Your readers will thank you.
And on that note, thank you for your kind attention. Goodbye, and good luck.

Duplicate paragraph removed at 2.20pm on 24 March 2011.
    
 

About Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman is a freelance web and print copywriter, editor and trainer who works for diverse clients, large and small, in South Africa and overseas. She writes regularly for Bizcommunity, tweets prolifically (@tiffanymarkman), reads voraciously (bookreviewsbytiffany.blogspot.com) and is known as a grammar, plain language and SEO nazi. Give Tiffany a shout on cell +27 (0)82 492 1715 or go to www.tiffanymarkman.co.za.
James Hurford
Short paragraphs, short sentences, short words.-
It pays to write short sentences and short paragraphs, and to avoid difficult words.
Posted on 24 Mar 2011 14:38
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