Today’s readers spend so much time looking at screens, a dense wall of text with little or no white space sends them running. Online and digital devices mean short paragraphs are the new standard. So how long is a paragraph?
News story, blog post, e-book – it doesn’t matter. Attention spans are short, font sizes are small, white space is essential. Too many sentences in one solid block can be difficult to read.
The paragraph, a stalwart of structure, gathers a group of sentences on a common theme, topic or argument. A good paragraph should contain as many sentences as necessary to advance one idea. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, ten sentences in a paragraph was common. Look back over old textbooks and early novels, paragraphs might fill a whole page. The sentences within paragraphs might contain multiple clauses and sub-clauses, making paragraphs even more dense and challenging. Literary and academic authors often wrapped whole debates in one paragraph – back when print was king. When paper was expensive and manual typesetting was time-consuming and highly skilled.
Online changed all that.
Ten sentences fell to five. Now three or four sentences is a common count. And the sentences themselves are getting shorter. The stacking of clauses is no longer fashionable. The use of rhetoric is limited to political speeches and drama.
One hundred to two hundred fifty words now looks like a solid wall of text. If a paragraph runs to even a third of a page, it begins to look odd next to a typical online news story or blog post.
The short paragraph has punch. It is dynamic. It holds the attention.
One sentence can be a complete paragraph, various dictionaries say so.
Which means that in modern English, at least, there is no hard and fast rule. There never was. To a large extent, Thackeray, Dafoe, even Dickens wrote long sentences and long paragraphs because that was the style of the day. Dickens is quite economical and bullish with his sentences and paragraphs in comparison with his contemporaries.
The differences between formal and informal writing are breaking down. The shorter paragraphs in newspapers are being adopted by magazines. Business writing is being reshaped by the driving force of the PowerPoint slide deck, all headings and bullet-lists.
Fiction is under compression as publishers demand ‘page-turners’, and the fast-cutting style of movies and TV seeps into the written word.
Academic papers want more immediacy, impact and memorable, pithy, block-quotable conclusions.
We live in the age of social media and the hundred and forty character sound-bite.
Nobody writes long-hand or on a manual type-writer any longer. More and more writing and editing is done on devices without proper keyboards and graded by software tools that include ‘readability’ scores. Dense text is downgraded. Word-count is king.
All this is leaking back into the printed word; and the printed word is often just one of many media formats, frequently the last format of a text produced.
Noboy wants to redo their layout for old media.
There are more line breaks on the digital page than a paperback or hardback, making text easier to read on any screen or device. ‘Reflow’ at different sizes and resolutions is now the Holy Grail.
So a paragraph in an ebook becomes six to eight lines of text, or less. One or two-sentence paragraphs are the new normal for web pages, blog posts and online news. And headings. Lots more headings.
How long is a paragraph? Shorter than even a few years ago. That’s not to say that long form is dead, it’s making a ‘comeback’ – if you believe it ever went away. But long form these days means word count. Today’s long form is equally delivered on screens and devices. That means more short paragraphs consisting of fewer, shorter sentences.