When To Start a New Paragraph
Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read.
This quote comes via one of my favorite blogs, AdviceToWriters.com. It’s not a normal blog. Instead of his own articles, the creator, Jon Winokur, simply publishes daily quotations on writing by writers. They are normally thought-provoking and often inspiring. I share them almost everyday on the WriteAtHome Facebook page, but you should think about subscribing directly.
This quote by William Zinsser, author of my favorite book on writing — On Writing Well — resonates with every writing teacher. It also seemed serendipitous, since it relates to a post I did recently on the required length of paragraphs.
Most of us were taught that a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence that contains the main idea, followed by some number of body sentences, and ending with a concluding sentence that brings closure to the paragraph. This kind of instruction is typical in elementary school. It’s often much later that we figure out that, well, nobody really writes that way.
Seriously. No professional writers consciously think about a topic sentence and a concluding sentence. None. And they certainly don’t feel constrained by some sort of paragraph formula.
I’m not suggesting we abandon teaching the formal structure of paragraphs to young writers, mind you. In fact, we do exactly that in our early middle school classes at WriteAtHome. Youngsters crave structure and prefer strictly-enforced rules. Writing seems too vast and intimidating otherwise. But rigid paragraph structure is just training wheels. Eventually, you take them off and allow the writers some room to roam.
Some of you moms and teachers are freaking out right now. Sorry — I hate to dishevel your tidy world of writing rules again. It’s just that writing that always conforms to almost any pattern ends up bland, predictable, and monotonous. When you are just getting student writers to feel confident putting words down, we can tolerate bland, predictable, and monotonous, but there’s no reason to stay there indefinitely, right? Once they get the hang of it, pull out your wrench and take those training wheels off. They might run into the curb of chaos or crash into incomprehensibility a couple times, but they will eventually get the hang of it, and then they can really learn to ride…er…write.
So, if we don’t insist on the old topic-sentence paragraph form, how do kids know when to start a new paragraph?
Good question. First, don’t worry too much. It’s not a hard science. Generally, a paragraph should center on a single idea. When there is a shift to a new idea, it’s time for a new paragraph. Of course, this gets tricky in practice. Sometimes ideas merge into one another. Sometimes there are just aspects to a complex idea that should be separated into their own paragraphs. Often it’s hard to tell when one idea is definitively completed and a new one has begun. What then?
Good news: there’s no clear right or wrong to it. In these nuanced situations, go with your instincts. If it feels like it’s time to start a new paragraph, start a new paragraph.
But, like the quote suggests: it’s better to err on the side of shorter paragraphs than long. I’ve never heard a writing teacher complain because a student breaks his work up into too many little paragraphs. It’s almost always the other way around. Students tend to just ramble on and on, page after page, without pausing to indent.
Above all, paragraphs are a kindness to the reader. They make reading less eye-wearying, less mentally taxing. Give your reader (especially your dutiful teacher) a break every now and then. It’s as easy as Enter/Tab.
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